The Amazing Spider-Man provides a real learning experience, at least to me, on why some action films succeed and others fail. A handful of totally valid complaints can be charged against this reboot of a franchise that only booted ten years ago. Most quarrels hone in on its mere existence. How many times can studios get away with repackaging the same story just to reel in an easy profit? Consider if Marvel recast The Hulk for the fourth time in a decade; this argument is not without merit.
Well if I am just another sheep fulfilling some corporate scheme, this time, I am rather enjoying my subjection. Question the film’s purpose all you wish; The Amazing Spider-Man soars much higher than it has any right to with its sterling commitment to character. Character, character, character — if art’s purpose is to explore humanity, then, in film, priority should be placed on developing the human surrogates. The connections between viewer and character make or break action films preoccupied with flaunting their special effects. My admiration for Men in Black 3 and distaste for The Avengers reflects this truth.
Andrew Garfield’s embodiment of a more inquisitive, wide-eyed Peter Parker rises to such distinction. Emma Stone as love interest Gwen Stacy does, as well. They make a cute couple, at the very least. Director Mark Webb assembled the quirky romance of (500) Days of Summer, so the interplay between the two sparks in ways Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst did not. There is no epic “MTV Best Kiss Award” moment, but many small, real little moments: After Gwen acknowledges him for the first time, Parker’s lips twitch as he imagines kissing her. That ultimate kiss itself is a hilarious mix of revulsion and seduction. In a movie without any standout supporting characters — with the exception of Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy, Gwen’s policeman father, who plays a surprisingly crucial role in the plot, steeped in Leary sleaze — the couple actually steals the show.
Of course, the romance is just a subplot to the origin story. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man covered much of the same ground, but it would be tedious to point to which scenes were better or worse. Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves (Harry Potter) breeze through much of the exposition, adopting an alacrity that does not slow down to underline this transformation or that discovery. In fact, Parker’s super-fast and ultra-adhesive fingers rip apart his keyboard, parodying that “Google for answers” cliché that has emerged in recent years (Though Parker uses Bing for some horrid, inexplicable reason. Sony owns Columbia Pictures, so Microsoft either wrote a fat check or held a marketing executive hostage).
The answers Parker seeks revolve around the abrupt fleeing and subsequent death of his parents when he was a young boy. Living with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, who was always the Ben I imagined, with all respect to the late Cliff Robertson), Parker finds the mysterious briefcase his father left behind the last night he ever saw him, which includes an immaculate “decay rate algorithm.” Learning that his pop’s old partner was Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), Parker treks over to the imposing Oscorp tower in the heart of Midtown to befriend and assist this lost family friend (The mutated spider bites him at this point, too). Connors lost his right arm years before and researches “cross-species genetics” to make reptilian limb regeneration a human reality. It goes without saying that playing god turns you into an angry, rampaging Godzilla.
The script throws at us a love story, a science-fiction thriller and a hardboiled mystery, though the central arc starts, grows and tapers as a coming-of-age tale. Characters ascend and fall according to their commitment to altruism. The hotheaded seek vengeance, while the wise hope for forgiveness. The separate narratives have little problem coexisting for they each quietly impart these themes. Peter Parker is still a kid — he buys milk when roaming the streets at night and plays Breakout on his smartphone from his spider web ambush. But he matures along the implicit yet unspoken “With great power comes great responsibility” adage so pertinent to the character, sacrificing personal happiness and well being for others. In the movie’s most powerful scene, Spider-Man rescues a little boy from a burning car, giving him his mask and telling him, “It will make you strong.” Spider-Man’s presence raises the weak around him, even when you realize through his repentance that Parker is only saving himself.
Mark Webb and cinematographer John Schwartzman capture these perilous episodes with the right colors and pacing, brightening the palette and speeding up camera movement for the acrobatic action scenes and softening the focus and tone when goofing in high school. They bathe his Manhattan web-slinging (now achieved through mechanical ‘biocable’ shooters Parker builds himself, consistent with the comics) in a neon, Times Square glow, the city surrounding and literally superimposed upon him — the tourist’s vision of New York City, at least. As Spidey brachiates throughout the city, Schwartzmann and the CGI team retain a startling level of fluidity as they track him plummeting and careening back up, not blurring the surrounding skyscrapers in a roller coaster effect. They screw with shutter speed in ways I have not seen before.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man gave us Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin and Spider-Man 2, perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made, hosted an unforgettable turn from Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus. This incarnation of The Lizard does not stand in their league. Rhys Ifans is a gifted character actor, so the blame does not rest on his shoulders but rather the screenplay’s, which studies his character at arm’s length, no pun intended. The Amazing Spider-Man can certainly compete with its predecessors, but its leaner approach fortunately precludes humdrum Venn diagrams. This film nurtures a joyous spirit that also pulsated through the mid-term Harry Potter entries, like the imperfect but captivating Goblet of Fire. The characters are more like you than not, for all their superpowers and magical abilities. They channel that nascent desire for more, not in material wealth but in strength and integrity. And through every deed and moment of sacrifice, they teach us why we can’t have it.