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As much as I strive to be impartial (or at least not so biased that my opinions are worth nothing), I admit that in my eyes The Amazing Spider-Man had a strike against it going in. This is a film made out of contractual obligation, rushed into production by Sony so that they could retain the movie rights to Spider-Man rather than let them revert back to Marvel, who are now owned by Disney and are unlikely to lend anything out again.
This is not the kind of environment that is generally conducive to good filmmaking, even by comparison to other blockbusters, but there's always a chance, and The Amazing Spider-Man holds together much better than I was led to expect. Rebooting the franchise after the insanity (for better or worse) of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, this new take on the character is a little more grounded and a little more sensible, but not so much that it misses out on the character's appeal. It is perhaps too soon for a reboot, but taken on its own terms it's a solid superhero spectacle.
Andrew Garfield assumes the role of Peter Parker, a mild-mannered and geeky high schooler living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) after his parents disappeared and died when he was very little. Peter is curious as to what his parents discovered that made them leave home in a hurry, and his search leads him to Oscorp, a major, vaguely defined corporation doing all sorts of odd genetic research involving interspecies gene splicing. Straying into the lab, Peter is bitten by a genetically modified spider and starts getting hit with some odd powers. His Uncle Ben falls prey to a mugger he could have stopped, and so he decides to do something with the abilities he's been given, first out of a desire for revenge, but later developing a true sense of justice. In the meantime Peter has been awkwardly romancing the brainy Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and working alongside Dr. Curt Connor (Rhys Ifans), an old associate of his parents. Connor, who is missing an arm, has been looking at the reptilian phenomena of regeneration, and when a serum shows promising results in lab animals, tests it on himself- however, it inevitably goes a little haywire, and Curt not only gets his arm back, he now has scales, a tail, cold blood, etc. This does not have a positive effect on his mental state, and soon he's thinking that all mankind needs to be forcibly improved. It's up to a certain wall-crawling vigilante to stop him turning the entire city into lizard people.
I told you this was more grounded, didn't I? Well, the plot may not be, but the style is certainly more subdued- the acting is more realistic, the cinematography a little rougher and less colorful, Bruce Campbell isn't appearing out of nowhere, etc. It's not a major stylistic change from the Raimi films, but it's just different enough that it feels like a proper fresh start. There's something to be said for a more naturalistic approach to fantastic material, and while claims that this is somehow a "dark" take on the material are pushing it, it's subdued enough that we can believe in its world.
The acting and characterization are major assets in the film's favor. Garfield's Parker is moody and convincingly awkward, and he and real-life girlfriend Stone have great chemistry on screen (which isn't always true of off-screen couples.) Denis Leary has some great scenes as Gwen's dad, a police captain, and Ifans makes the most of his character's drop into insanity. Sheen and Field make a nice take on Peter's surrogate parents.
The pacing is a problem, though. The problem with a reboot is that we have to go through the character's origin all over again, and though there are some good twists on the story, it's hard to avoid a sense of deja vu, and a stronger sense that if we're getting this the second time around maybe it could be done a little more economically. At the same time some elements of the plot feel underdeveloped- most specifically, Connors is driven insane by the serum so quickly that he rather abruptly switches from being concerned about Oscorp testing the regeneration serum on unwitting veteran amputees to declaring that all humanity should be turned into reptiles. It's reminiscent of the lead character's degenration in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly, but condensed too much to register as well. This picture was apparently the victim of some heavy last-minute editing, and it shows in how it's put together- some subplots are condensed too far or cut altogether while others feel bloated. On the other hand, the action is quite well directed- I don't want to jinx it, but we may be coming out of the "everyone shakes the camera around for no reason" phase of action movies back into something which relies on spatial clarity.
Others are more enthusiastic about this reboot than I am, but I have to admit it's been done about as well as it could be under some very trying circumstances. I enjoyed Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, but they too started out a little raw and uncertain. This is not really a great film, but it entertains while assembling some elements for potential future greatness. I do hope Gwen Stacy stays out of trouble this time around, though.
Based on the characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Story by James Vanderbilt
Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves
Directed by Mark Webb