The Amazing Spider-Man, Marc Webb’s slightly updated take on the origin of our favorite web-slinging superhero, hits theaters this week and it’s about as good as a complete retread of a ten year old movie can possibly be. The movie sports a darker color palette, improved CGI, bloodier action sequences, and a cast that is generally superior to Raimi’s crew (though no one in this movie rivals Willem Dafoe’s scenery chewing performance as the Green Goblin). And yet, as I watched The Amazing Spider-Man, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story was completely obligatory and listless. It’s like everyone involved was really excited about the idea of a sequel—about eventually doing for Spider-Man what Christopher Nolan did for Batman with The Dark Knight—but they were all told to trudge through a perfunctory reboot before they could have any fun.
If you’ve seen Spider-Man (2002), then you’ve seen this movie: just include a neglected subplot involving Peter Parker’s missing parents, trade red-headed Mary Jane in for golden-haired Gwen Stacy, and replace the mad scientist Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin with the mad scientist Curtis Connors/The Lizard. Like with Raimi’s Spider-Man, this film introduces us to Peter Parker, a nerdy, downtrodden high school student who inherits superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider at Oscorp Labs. Parker plays around with his newfound powers for half an hour before his virtuous Uncle Ben is gunned down by a lowlife criminal, and the boy decides to use his abilities for good. Parker throws together a costume and starts fighting low level criminals until the requisite super villain of the film transforms himself into a monster and crosses paths with the webslinger. The two duke it for another forty minutes or so, and we arrive at an ending and a set up for a (better) sequel.
Still, The Amazing Spider-Man is better than a Spider-Man 4 directed Rami and starring Toby Maguire would have been. The Amazing Spider-Man represents an injection of fresh blood, and more importantly in this era of franchises and endless sequels, it lays the foundation for some potentially great things to come. Particularly, the decision to cast Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man instead of bringing of Tobey Maguire back opens the door to a wide range of possibilities.
Probably the one thing that makes Spider-Man’s alter ego superior to that of all other superheroes is that, when you read the comic books from Stan Lee’s original run through the decades, an actual arc appears. Peter Parker starts off as an awkward teenager; he goes off to NYU where he achieves a level of self confidence and becomes popular; then he obtains a full-time job and marries the love of his life. I’m sure some of those details have been retconned since my comic book collecting days in the ‘90s, but the point is that unlike Bruce Wayne, who has seemingly remained in stasis for the past century as a thirty-something playboy, Parker actually matures and changes over time like an actual human being.
In Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire absolutely nailed Stan Lee’s initial incarnation of the character. He was quiet, awkward, and intelligent. Then, for whatever reason, Raimi and Maguire never bothered to develop Peter Parker any further. In Spider-Man 2, Raimi depicted Parker as a tormented dork. In Spider-Man 3, Raimi’s and Maguire’s idea of making Parker confident and cool was to give him an emo haircut and have him act like Ron Burgundy. Given another movie, I’m highly skeptical that team would have broken new ground with the character.
Garfield doesn’t particularly excel at playing up the dorky aspects of Parker—he plays him more like a constantly befuddled hipster here—but I think we’ll eventually get the adult Peter Parker that us comic book nerds have been waiting for the past decade to see as long as he remains the lead. Marc Webb and Garfield, meanwhile, have developed the character more in two and a half hours than the last team was able to do over the course of three feature length films. Here, in between knock down drag out fights with a giant man-eating reptile, Parker believably transitions from a shy, social outcast to a popular kid with no compunction against chasing after the girl of his dreams. Gwen, of course, reciprocates. By Spider-Man 3, Maguire’s Parker was still crying into his pillow every night over Mary Jane.
Putting aside, however, what might happen with this freshly rebooted franchise now that the obligatory origin story is out of the way: how is The Amazing Spider-Man as a standalone film? Well, it is a good movie in its own right, but with the level of talent on display here, it should have been a hell of a lot better. It lacks the sheer exuberance and campy fun that made Raimi’s first two Spiderman entries entertaining, but the self-pitying angst that made parts of Spider-Man 2 and all of Spider-Man 3 such a chore thankfully is also not present.
Like any half decent comic book movie, The Amazing Spider-Man boasts fluid action, strong acting performances, and plenty of visual spectacle, but it is still pretty far from amazing. And yet, Marc Webb and his assembled crew have set the stage for something potentially remarkable here. Hell, now that they’re taking us into a rebooted Spider-Man universe in which Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin is still alive, we might finally get a proper “Death of Gwen Stacey” story. It’s just a damn shame that this creative team chose to merely go through the motions with another origin tale instead of making the film they clearly wanted to make right from the start.