Thursday, July 12, 2012

Movie Review: "The Amazing Spider-Man"

I really don't envy anyone tasked to reboot the Spider-Man franchise since the last film was in theaters only five friggin' years ago.  The Sam Raimi trilogy wasn't perfect but it got just enough right to prevent new director Marc Webb from including certain beats in Spidey's iconic origin for fear of being labeled derivative.  Ultimately, all this really does is weaken the original spirit of the character.

Before we start swinging down Disappointment Avenue, here's the film's super-slick trailer:


One marginal improvement here is actually in the characterization of Peter Parker.  In the Raimi films, he's often portrayed as a complete nebbish, the sort of shlub that Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory might feel compelled to beat up.  That's not to say that Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker doesn't have his fair share of issues.  He can't string a coherent sentence together in the presence of his secret crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and he routinely gets slapped around by prototypical bully Flash Thompson.  But he's also reasonably hip and good-hearted; certainly not the hopeless sad-sack that we've come to see in previous entries.  

Of course the big conceit that screenwriting posse James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves will hold up as their standard for "originality" is the story of Peter Parker's purloined parents (man, try saying that five times real quick).  Here we get a mysterious (and ultimately pointless) preamble featuring Campbell Scott as Richard Parker packing up his wife and young son in the middle of the night after his home office has been ransacked, presumably for his secret research material.  We then witness Peter's parents handing him off to Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) for safekeeping.

But then precious little else is done with this.  In fact, all this revelation seems to do is give Peter a dubious link to Oscorp and his father's former partner Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans).  Anyone familiar with comic book lore knows that this entire angle is merely the symptom of screenwriters who are trying to cram in as much Spidey-mythos in as little screen time as possible.

The MacGuffin headquarters building. 

Tying Peter to Oscorp accomplishes a slew of script conveniences.  First off, it gets him closer to his  chronologically-appropriate love interest Gwen Stacy, who is inexplicably shown herding interns there.  Next it develops a relationship between Peter and the inevitable villain.  And in a final (and not insignificant) liberty taken with Spidey's origin: it provides an environment for Peter to receive his power-granting spider-bite.  

Readers out there who were horrified by that minor deviation are in for bigger shocks.  Perhaps the film's biggest transgression is the gloss-over job done on the whole Uncle Ben / "With Great Power" speech and Peter's dalliance as an amateur wrestler.  Again, Raimi did this so well in his first go-round that Marc Webb and company wisely decided to avoid aping it.  Unfortunately this damages the integrity of the character.     

In fact, Peter develops his super-hero persona primarily to hunt down and punish his Uncle's killer.  Although this certainly does wonders for story economy, it completely telegraphs a pivotal component of the character's fabled arc.  The point of Stan Lee's original story is that our hero's initial mercenary         motivations are shamed by his Uncle's sage words and subsequent demise.  When this happens, we know that Peter's been set on the straight and narrow path for life.

"Oh, Ben, look!  I think he's on the marijuana!"  

Despite omitting pertinent lore for the sake of making the story "fresh", there's a huge feeling of déjà vu hanging over the film.  Peter discovers a secret cache of his father's work and gives Doc Connors the missing half of formula which might allow the scientist to re-grow his missing arm.  Just like in Raimi's Spider-Man, the embattled Connors finds himself under pressure to expedite human trials before proper testing is complete.  Just like Norman Osbourne in Raimi's Spider-Man, Connors ends up taking the formula himself.  And just like in Raimi's first two Spider-flicks, Connors is transformed into a super-villain (Lizard-flavored this time) and promptly starts losing his marbles.  

And this is where the film completely falters.  I find it disheartening that super hero movies always insist on cramming a major villain into the first film.  As if the story about a guy being bitten by a radioactive spider and gaining all kinds of incredible powers isn't compelling enough, they try and develop an adversarial figure at the same time.  In my opinion, it's virtually impossible to do this properly, which is why, of every previous iteration, only Spider-Man 2 really soars.

It's frustrating that this one fails overall in spite of getting so many things right.  I've catalogued a few genuine bright spots below:
  • Peter is shown developing his mechanical web shooters.  Another bird killed by the Oscorp stone!         
  • There's no Mary Jane Watson to be seen!  Yet...   
  • Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield are so great together that their on-screen relationship became a real-life alternate ending. 
"Spider-sense...and...various...other.. appendages...tingling..."
  • Dennis Leary's performance is fantastic, even if they did fuck up George Stacy's character.  See rant in "CON" section below...
  • The dialogue is considerably less goofy then in Raimi's films.  Now some might argue that a movie about a guy dressed up in red and blue tights should be goofy, but these people obviously have never read "Kraven's Last Hunt".  There needs to be a balance and the script actually does a pretty decent job with that.  Given his constant tsunami of personal problems, Peter Parker has always been pretty dour and introspective, but this always melts away when he changes into his arachnid alter-ego.  The swingin' Spidey on display here is true to form: mischievous, irreverent and consistently smart-assed.
  • The producers have mercifully solved the whole web slinging / wall-crawling conundrum.  The effects in the Raimi trilogy went from cartoony to decent but they really can't hold a candle to the impressive acrobatics on display in The Amazing Spider-Man.  Indeed, there are several comic book panels come to glorious life here.  
Finally!  No more shades of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends in the new web-swinging scenes.  

And then, to add to the pile of things that suck:
  • Let's face it, the Lizard is a pretty one-dimensional, Jekyll-and-Hyde type character.  In fact, in the comics, he's little more then a destructive brute.  Yet here, he manages to mastermind the sort of ambitious (yet imaginatively braid-dead) mad scientist plot that ends up threatening the entire city.  Been, there, done that, got the "I Tried To Destroy New York" t-shirt.
  • Oddly enough, although the Spidey-in-action special effects are awesome, the Lizard himself kinda looks like the CGI bastard child of the Abomination from Hulk and Cayman from Battle Beyond the Stars.  

  • The fight scenes suffer so badly from Michael Bay-itis that I half-expected Optimus Prime to swoop in and break up the final scrap.
  • There's no Daily Bugle, no Robbie Robertson, no Betty Brant and worse still, no J. Jonah Jameson.  It's not hard to tell why: if Webb hadn't cast J.K. Simmons as Jameson he would have been run out of Hollywood by roving bands of nerds armed with torches and pitchforks.     
  • Partly because the flinty publisher of the Bugle is absent, Captain George Stacy becomes the de facto anti-Spider-Man authority figure.  In the erudite opinion of this humble fan and film critic this is complete and total horse shit.   
  • The Spidey suit.  Seriously, why fuck around with something so iconic?  Oh well, at least it isn't half as retarded-looking as the new Superman uniform.                 
Like Khan Noonian Singh, these Spider-Man scripts are like poor marksman who keep missing the target.  But what the fuck do I know?  The Amazing Spider-Man is raking in some major cheddar right now, which goes to show that the movie-going public have all the memory capacity of a fucking goldfish.  

Maybe when this new Spidey franchise fucks up, it'll get rebooted again in another four or five years.  I can only hope that when this happens ol' web-head will finally get the Batman Begins treatment that he deserves.  

     Tilt: down.

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