The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Noses were put out of joint when it was announced in 2010 that the Spider-Man film franchise would be rebooted by Sony/Columbia and Marvel Studios (Marvel having sold the film rights before they realised hanging on to them and teaming up their superheroes, as in The Avengers, would make them a tonne of cash in the long run) rather then have Sam Raimi return to direct a fourth instalment of his hugely successful but increasingly critically panned take on the comic book character. When the director was announced as British-born Marc Webb, responsible for (500) Days Of Summer, and that there would be alterations to the origin story including a surprising story arc involving Peter Parker/Spider-Man's parents, eyebrows quivered further.

In fact, there is nothing surprising about any of Sony and Marvel's decisions. New directors can often reinvigorate a franchise - look at the success of Matthew Vaughan with X-Men First Class. Sony/Marvel's decision is also entirely in keeping with the treatment of a character like Spider-Man, who has been rebooted in his own comics endless times - and often with a far shorter delay than the five-year gap between the release of Spider-Man 3 and the start of this new franchise.

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As it is, this film doesn't stray too far from what are now commonly accepted beats in the Spider-Man canon. The plan was for Peter Parker to be returned to his high school teenage years, in a contemporary New York City, and that's exactly what we get. He begins and ends the film as high school student (no job at the Daily Bugle), whereas Raimi took Peter out of that setting quite quickly. A grittier, less campy approach to the material was also promised, along with a new cast. British actor Andrew Garfield is now Peter, not as nerdy or introverted as Tobey Maguire's take on the character, here he is a pretty recognisable skateboarding kid who just happens to be good at science and outnumbered by the jocks in his school.

The film doesn't even introduce us to Garfield straight away. In the biggest shift away from the Raimi films, Webb's film opens with a intro sequence showing a much younger Peter and his parents. Abandoned by his scientist father Richard, who flees in mysterious circumstances, Peter is left in the care of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). As we flash forward to see Garfield in the role, it becomes clear years have passed, and Peter's temporary stay with his Aunt and Uncle has become permanent. It is the search for answers to his parents' mysterious behaviour that drives Peter towards the fateful encounter with the spider bite that will mutate him into Spider-Man, as the genetically altered spiders that will be doing the biting are in the care of Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), whom Peter discovers was his father's old partner.

Before long, Peter's scientific genius is being used to help Dr Connors perfect his research into genetic treatments for amputees - using reptilian DNA to encourage regrowth of cells. Connors, who lost his right arm years ago, can't resist testing his creation on himself. Cue another transformation. But while Peter's spider bite has given him superhuman reflexes and strength (a few enjoyable scenes show how his powers initially overwhelm him) Connors transforms into the rampaging, egomaniacal Lizard. It's up to Peter and his new girlfriend, the spunky Gwen Stacy (a key character in the comic book series, but only introduced by Raimi in the third Spider-Man film) to stop him.

So there are a few tweaks here and there, but eventually this gets Peter to the same place Raimi took him - finding his way to Spider-Man, through both losing his beloved uncle and battling a new villain. A far bigger change is in the tone - this is clearly a Spider-Man film made in the wake of the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and a gritter, darker colour pallette and less sugary script are in play. A lot of the decisive action here takes place at night, as if signalling a new shadowy, noir-ish approach. Of course, the film resorts to comic book science technobabble, convenient coincidences and super weapons when it needs to, but this is about as 'realistic' a take on Spider-Man as we are going to get. It's a refreshing shift, though some of the humour seems to have been lost along with this change. The script that really needed more laughs and zinger one-liners.

As Spider-Man, Garfield must have felt like he was on an impossible mission following Tobey Maguire. But he brings natural charm and clear enthusiasm (he is a long time Spider-Man comic fan) to the role. He and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy work a treat together, though Stone has long since proved herself adept at any role. Garfield is also is physically different to Maguire, more scrawny but convincingly conveying agility - there is no visible muscling up when his powers turn themselves on. If there is a problem with the casting of Garfield, it is more to do with the fact that he is naturally good looking and not particularly vulnerable, geeky, or isolated when we first see him as Peter - there is slightly less reason to cheer when his powers bless him with the abilities to finally humiliate the jocks and get the girl.

Shot in 3D, the film also boasts action scenes that are quite visually exciting without being confusing (the use of Spidey POV shots also marks a notable difference from the Raimi film and works quite well at getting the old vertigo going). But as with many other origin story comic book films, something seems lacking in the villain department. Ifans simply isn't given the material necessary to make Curt Connors/The Lizard a compelling villain. It's not the CGI that is the problem - the Lizard character on screen has a weighty enough presence to nicely offset the skinny Spider-Man. But despite the heavy emotional baggage, once his transformation hits, he simply goes insane and the plot has him pursue a predictable megalomaniacal super-weapon plan. Connor's links with Peter's parents and their mysterious fate are also left largely unexplored despite being teased in the trailers as being one of the key new elements to this film. It would have been nice to see a greater emotional connection developed between Connors and Peter - after all, this is the man who knew Peter's father - but Peter seems oddly incurious about the whole thing. The film's script misses other beats too, such as Peter's search for his father's killer - this thread is dropped and never revisited again. Possibly all of this will be taken care of in a sequel.

With a fine, enthusiastic cast, a chance to take a slightly different approach to the material, and millions of dollars at his disposal, Webb had everything going for him yet was at the same time being set up for a fall by many critics and fans. His Spider-Man film is a competent effort that ensures the franchise - and his reputation - are safe. It's just a shame it doesn't soar.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2012
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Peter Parker tries to get to the bottom of his parents' disappearance.
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Read more The Amazing Spider-Man reviews:

Stephen Carty ****

Director: Marc Webb

Writer: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka, Max Charles, C. Thomas Howell, Jake Keiffer, Kari Coleman, Michael Barra

Year: 2012

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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