Spidey Reboot Sparks, Fails To Smolder

The credits rolled, the lights in the theater came up, and a moviegoer seated behind me instantly started discussing what she had just seen. Her reaction? Stamping “The Amazing Spider-Man” as “obsolete.” Is this a valid criticism of any film? Is it fair to criticize a film for traversing familiar ground? Unfortunately, this is the reality in which “The Amazing Spider-Man” exists. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films happened, and they’re still relatively fresh in our memories. But Sam Raimi isn’t the only name that audiences will invoke in reaction to this particular release. Since the phenomenon that was “Spider-Man” in 2002, several directors (Christopher Nolan, in particular) have upped the ante in the superhero genre. Intensely. “Good” simply isn’t “good enough” anymore. We want transcendence.

The rest of the audience’s reaction ranged from applause to hushed chattering. I was in the “applause” camp, but it wasn’t the wild applause you might expect from an audience for a comic book film. It was decidedly polite applause, because “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a “golf clap” kind of movie. It’s wildly competent. Incredibly satisfactory. All fine and good. The kindling is in place, but it never ignites.

On paper, it might be the best Spider-Man film to date. The performances are worthy. Andrew Garfield brings a wistful petulance to the role of Peter Parker, and snarky charm to his alter-ego. Emma Stone plays Peter’s main squeeze, Gwen Stacy, with all of the confidence and dedication that the character deserves. The relationship between Peter and Gwen is the gasoline that fuels the story, and Rhys Ifans is game as the doctor, Curt Connors, whose shadowy scientific aspirations get in their way. His transformation into The Lizard is pretty spectacular, and the way in which his character parallels Peter propels much of the narrative.

It’s fitting that a reboot of such a beloved franchise would feature limb regeneration (and the questionable ethics behind it) as a plot point. Instead of magical spider-bites, the writers tie the mutations of Parker and Connors to the pseudo-science of cross-species genetics. Grounding the film in a world resembling reality meshes well with Webb’s naturalistic approach. The film isn’t nearly as stylized as Raimi’s world, and very little of the humor and story beats are as telegraphed or choreographed. The story is allowed to unfold as naturally as possible.

Disappointingly, a few of the most important plot machinations are lifted almost verbatim from Raimi’s films (or more practically, the comics) and it’s distracting when it happens. The characters that suffer the most for this are Peter’s Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). They offer typically “Field” and “Sheen” performances, but the characters are underdrawn, perhaps out of fear of comparison.

Aunt May imparts few words of wisdom and is most often reduced to reacting to Peter’s constant cuts and bruises. Additionally, the backstory of the disappearance of Peter’s parents (including a banal mid-credits stinger) is handled poorly. It bears a strange resemblance to the throughline of the “Harry Potter” series, but features no payoff to speak of. You’ll have to wait for the sequel. Conversely, Denis Leary gets the juiciest supporting role, and he spins gold in his all-too-brief screen time. His rapport with Peter is funny, uncomfortable, and at times, heartrending.

The special effects are entirely seamless, and the action scenes border on rousing. The 3D is outstanding (some of the film was shot in 3D) and highlights the webslinging scenes to a degree that hasn’t been seen before in any superhero film. But while these scenes succeed on their own, they are often at the center of pacing issues. Webb often jumps from scene to scene without interlude, and it’s disorienting. There’s no rhythm established and no act structure to speak of. It’s a sprint of a film, without an occasional ebb and flow to allow its characters to breathe.

Peter Parker is a kid that time forgot, as evidenced by the “Rear Window” poster in his bedroom and his untapped skateboarding skills. He’s no longer a prototypical nerd, but distinctly old-fashioned and his flaws and strengths (and distaste for trends) are all on display. Director Marc Webb shows off a significant tactfulness with the material, but tactfulness is a problem in the superhero genre, especially in 2012. Peter Parker is anything but tactful. The filmmakers would have been wise to take a cue from their protagonist.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” plays things agonizingly safe, and while the film isn’t without a heartbeat, its failure to take any chances keeps it from flight. Avoiding mistakes is an admirable goal (and the film makes very few), but not at the expense of being fresh. It’s a nice twist on the source material, but it’s merely a twist. The film is not “obsolete” – proficient entertainment never is – but you might not be able to shake the feeling of déjà vu. As moviegoers, we sometimes feel the need to appraise movies as either “awful” or “incredible.” But middle ground? Middle ground isn’t so exciting. Therein lies “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Respectable summer entertainment.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Marc Webb
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence)