It's been just over a decade since Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" first debuted in theaters. The 2002 hit, starring Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe, defined the character of the classic web swinger for a new generation as well as helped cement Marvel's theatrical cred. This year's reboot completely ignores the Raimi trilogy, choosing instead to reimagine the character from scratch. While there are some interesting ideas explored, the latest film, "The Amazing Spider-Man," ultimately treads over familiar ground, failing to deliver the "untold story" that was promised in the trailers.
Director Marc Webb goes into "The Amazing Spider-Man" assuming that the audience knows nothing of the character. As a result, rather than jump right into the narrative for the new adventure, we're treated to a rehash of the origin story.
This time around, Peter Parker's father is shown as a researcher for Oscorp, who created genetically altered spiders in order to generate a super-strong silk cable. Spooked by a break-in at their house, the elder Parker leaves Peter (Andrew Garfield) with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) before heading off into the night. That was the last time Peter ever saw his parents, and the uncertainty surrounding their disappearance and later death still haunts him.
Wanting to learn more about his parents, Peter sneaks into Oscorp, where he is bitten by one of his father's spiders. Worried by the resulting transformation, Peter meets with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), providing Connors with the missing equation necessary to stabilize the doctor's regenerative serum. All of this plays out in the first third of the movie, setting up the later conflict between Spider-Man and the transformed Connors, as the Lizard.
From a technical perspective, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a treat. The set design is creatively staged, with locations that easily stand out. Camera work is solid, with seamless transitions between CGI characters and live action actors. The Lizard character is exceptionally rendered, showing an expressiveness that makes it easy to forget what you're seeing on-screen is merely the creation of a digital artist.
While the final confrontation atop the Oscorp tower may hold the bulk of the action, it is the individual shots of the Lizard and Spider-Man in the sewers that really define the characters. For the Lizard, it is the makeshift lab and the videotaped manifesto showing his perverted desire to "save" humanity by mutating them all; for Spider-Man, the defining shot is when he shoots a web down the tunnels and then plucks each strand to search for his prey.
One area in which the cinematography does disappoint is the relative lack of first-person shots as seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man" trailer. The audience is also left to assume much of Spider-Man's physicality. Aside from an early fight with a group of thugs, the action sequences have a distinct lack of parkour. For a hero who is supposed to be incredibly agile, you'd expect more complexity in the choreography. As a result, there is little need to spring for either 3-D or IMAX. Aside from small details, such as the Lizard's skin texture, there is little benefit to the larger format print.
Character-wise, the standouts in the film aren't the leads, but rather the secondary characters. Denis Leary may look like the spitting image of J. Jonah Jameson, but he plays Captain George Stacy. Leary shows us a man who is deeply devoted to both his city and his family. He may believe in law and order, but ultimately, he'll do whatever it takes to protect his daughter's life.
Also notable is Sally Field's take on Aunt May. A younger, more direct version of the character than we saw in the comics and the Raimi movies, Field brings both humor and gravitas to the role. Like Captain Stacy, Aunt May cares deeply for her family, and it's obvious that she puts the needs of others above her own. Whereas Raimi's version of Aunt May was caring, but weak, we wouldn't be surprised if Field's interpretation of Aunt May stood up to whatever villainous creature came her way.
Finally, there is Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. As Peter Parker's first love, Stone's vision of Stacy is one who appears to admire Peter's intelligence more than Spider-Man's powers. Having grown up in a cop family, Stacy doesn't really care that Spider-Man is saving others. She's more worried by the fact that she never knows if her father or the man she loves will make it home at the end of the day.
Andrew Garfield's take on Spider-Man is one that may be destined to split fans due to the nature of what drives the character. In the 2002 "Spider-Man," Peter was driven to do what he did by a sense of justice and a need to help others. In the 2012 reboot, Peter's motivating factor doesn't appear to be justice, but rather vengeance. Yes, he's using his powers to capture criminals, but the motivation is a purely selfish one.
Aside from the vengeance aspect, Garfield's interpretation of Peter is oddly self-assured. Flash bullies him, yet Peter still stands up to Flash in school, on his own and on behalf of others. He impersonates someone else to sneak into Oscorp and has no issues breaking into a high-security lab. Had this been an experienced Spider-Man looking for answers about his parents, all this might make sense, but here, it's Peter Parker, before he's even bitten. This is a character that is supposed to be somewhat insecure and weak at the start, before grows into a hero. Rather than showing us that emotional growth, Garfield only gives us the physical transformation.
Ultimately, the different take on Peter Parker could be forgiven if there were an appropriate payoff to go with it, but the film never delivers on the promise to reveal an "untold story." What we get is a rehash of Spider-Man's well-known origin story; Peter Parker's quest to get the girl; and a villain who both acts as a mentor to Peter and, with a split personality, becomes his primary foe.
When you look at it on those terms, "The Amazing Spider-Man" doesn't feel like it's doing something new. It just feels like it's trying to redo the original film, but Ifans' Lizard can't quite hold a candle to Dafoe's Green Goblin. The Lizard may look much more realistic, but Dafoe's portrayal of a man literally coming face-to-face with his inner demons was a more powerful performance.
If the Raimi trilogy of "Spider-Man" films had never been made, "The Amazing Spider-Man" would be an impressive take on the character. As it is, the new film simply doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from what has come before. It's an enjoyable action film, but it doesn't quite reach the pinnacle of the original.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D.
Editor's Note: You've read our review of the film. Now see how the game stacks up in our official review of The Amazing Spider-Man video game.
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