Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
It’s too soon.
That’s the big problem with Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s been only 10 years since we last saw Peter Parker get bit by a spider and develop super-powers, and watch Uncle Ben die, and wrestle with issues of power and responsibility as he fights bad guys and gives up those he loves to protect them from those who hate. Just 10 years. And they pretty much got it right the first time. So what’s the point of “The Amazing Spider-Man”?
Sixteen years separated Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” and during that time major innovations occurred in filmmaking and CGI and politics and superhero storytelling. We went from a Cold War world to a post-9/11 world. We went from mail to email, from daily newspapers to aggregate sites. We went from a world of DC moviemaking (“Batman”) to Marvel moviemaking (“X-Men”; “Spider-Man”). But from 2002 to 2012? What’s really happened? Obama. iStuff. Our phones got smarter as we got dumber. Otherwise?
Should we reboot the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy now? Harry Potter? Shrek? The Dark Knight? How infantile are we becoming?
Tell us that story again, Daddy.
At least director Marc Webb (thwip) and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do their best to tell the story in a new way. They give us Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), not Mary Jane Watson; Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), not J. Jonah Jameson; the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), not the Green Goblin. They don’t graduate Peter from high school. They never have Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) utter the famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, he tells Peter, “Not choice, responsibility.” Hey, maybe they’re trying to prevent another disaster like “Spider-Man 3,” whose great lesson was, “We always have a choice.” And maybe that’s why they show us the cash-register thief (AKA, the Burglar) actually killing Uncle Ben, so no future director can give us retcon bullshit that undoes Spider-Man’s entire raison d’etre. Yeah, I’m still pissed off about it.
They make Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) sexy and cool. That’s new. Instead of a wide-eyed, sweet geek, which is what Tobey Maguire gave us, he’s practically James Dean here. He’s troubled, and slouchy, and conflicted, and his hair goes every which way. He wears a hoodie and rides a skateboard and when he first develops super-powers, and is being chased by punks, he bounces off the walls and over metal railings like Sebastian Foucan on steroids. He’s Peter Parkour. He should be in a Mountain Dew commercial.
This Peter Parker stands up to bullies like Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) before he even gets super powers. A good touch. I always thought it wrong that Peter never fought back until he had the overwhelming power to do so. If he can’t stand up to people whose strength is greater than his own as Peter Parker, how does he develop the courage to do so as Spider-Man?
Do they, in fact, make Peter too exemplary? Smart and sexy and courageous? There’s a scene halfway through where two science nerds debate the propensities of Spider-Man’s web, and Peter follows behind them with a kind of smirk on his face. He’s not them, he’s apart from them. But didn’t he used to be them? They’ve skipped the Steve Ditko version of Peter and gone straight to Johnny Romita. First, Clark Kent went model handsome in “Smallville”; now Peter here. We’re losing our secret-identity nerds, kids. Everyone’s cool now.
At the same time, Peter’s kind of a little shit, isn’t he? He steals into an Oscorp internship tour by taking the badge of Rodrigo Guevara (Milton Gonzalez), who probably worked hard all of this life to make it there. Adios, amigo. Then Peter plagarizes the cross-genetics work of his own father, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), in order to impress his father’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors of Oscorp. The formula is supposed to solve problems with the decay-rate algorithm, or whatever, and Dr. Connors thinks it works, but it doesn’t. The experimental mouse turn into a half-lizard and Dr. Connors turns into the Lizard. In this manner, the villain creates the hero (Peter gets bit at Oscorp) and the hero creates the villain (decay rate algorithm). Shades of Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
The Uncanny Valley
OK, something else happened in the last 10 years that affected this version of Spider-Man. “The Dark Knight” happened. It broke box-office records, grossed $533 million in the U.S., and became the first superhero movie to pass $1 billion worldwide. Ever since, studios have tried to duplicate its formula. Specifically, they’ve looked to “Batman Begins” to see how Chris Nolan set up “The Dark Knight.”
“The Amazing Spider-Man” does the same. It:
- goes dark, gritty, and realistic;
- keeps the costume off the hero for the first half of the movie;
- merely suggests the hero’s true nemesis (the Joker, the Green Goblin) at the end, to set up the sequel.
You could even say the spray-painted red spider on the alley wall is the low-rent, underground version of the bat signal at the end of “Batman Begins.”
Let’s look at the realism first. In terms of web-slinging through Manhattan, the first trilogy took its cue from the comic book and assumed there was always something above Spidey for his webbing to latch onto. That’s not the case. Like anything else in Manhattan, you have to work the angles and the sides of buildings. It’s not an amusement park ride, kids. Trucks get in the way. Spiders get squashed.
The costume is kind of real, too, in that it’s less cool. The Maguire version of Spider-Man was proportionately perfect, the suit impeccable. He was my Spidey brought to life. This one’s a bit tall and gangly ... and slouchy. Slouch is only cool in a jacket, preferably with the collar up, not in a skin-tight unitard. At times, I was even reminded of the 1970s TV-version of Spider-Man. That’s not good. And what’s with the sparkle? It’s Spidey does Vegas. It’s Peter and the technicolor spidersuit.
Realism only goes so far in superhero movies anyway. In fact, I wonder if superhero movies don’t suffer their own version of “the Uncanny Valley,” that theory from robotics and 3-D animation stating that the closer the product comes to seeming realistic, the less realistic, or at least more uncomfortable, it becomes.
Shouldn’t, for example, what happens to Dr. Connors freak out Peter? Just a little? Dr. Connors’ DNA is crossed with a lizard’s and he turns into a giant lizard. Peter’s DNA is crossed with a spider’s, so shouldn’t he, I don’t know, worry about turning into a giant spider? Shouldn’t he look in the mirror every two seconds for any evidence of bug eyes and extra limbs? I know I would.
And, really, in the long history of Oscorp, has no one else been bitten by these experimental spiders? And how do the guys chasing Peter Parkour keep up? Peter’s climbing walls, they’re climbing stairs, yet they meet him on the roof. Really?
And no one at Midtown High knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man? Did you see him dunk? Did you see him keep the ball from Flash Thompson? Like he had superglue on his hands? Like it was stuck there? With, like, spider stuff?
Becoming rather than being
At least they don’t rush the origin. Becoming is so much more interesting than being. When I was young, twentyish, I read Philip Norman’s book, “Shout: The Beatles in their Generation,” but the portion I read over and over was the part of the story from the launchpad (January 1963 and “Please Please Me”) to the burst of world-wide fame (February 1964 and “The Ed Sullivan Show”). That’s the sweet spot of becoming, the cresting of the wave, and it was fascinating to me. Still is. And that’s what Webb and company try to give us here.
In Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” after the spider-bite, Peter develops a fever, goes to sleep, and wakes up superstrong, and, it’s implied, with bigger testicles. That’s about it. In Amazing Fantasy #15, he just gets strong: “I crushed this steel pipe as though it were paper!” Here, every sense becomes super-attuned and he doesn’t know his own strength. He keeps yanking knobs off doors and breaking glass and mirrors. He stays Peter for a long, long time. Even after Uncle Ben dies, he has no idea what he’s doing. He needs Capt. Stacey’s dinner-table speech about heroism to finally see himself as a hero and act accordingly.
My favorite scene in the movie may be the first post-bite scene, when he falls asleep on the subway and some lout, for a gag, balances a beer can on his head. Then a drop of condensation trickles down the can and plops onto his forehead and he wakes with a start and jumps onto the ceiling of the subway car. Everyone stares in amazement for a second, or two, until, like Wile E. Coyote, he realizes that what he’s doing is impossible and falls back to earth. Oddly, even after this bizarre demonstration of power, they keep messing with him. The lout’s girl (Tia Texada) complains about the beer spilled on her blouse, and Peter, a clumsy gentleman, tries to help, and of course his hand, now as sticky as a spider’s, gets stuck. Eventually off comes the blouse, making louts of us all. What I particularly liked was how, throughout, Peter keeps apologizing. As the blouse is ripped off, as he takes down the lout and his loutish friends without trying, he keeps saying, “I’m sorry ... I’m really sorry!” That’s a good bit.
The distracted protagonist
I keep wondering how much I would’ve liked Webb’s version if Raimi’s trilogy had never existed. I’m sure I would’ve been impressed. But “The Amazing Spider-Man” doesn’t quite work not only because it’s too soon but because it’s a distracted movie and its hero is a distracted protagonist. What does the guy want and how does he get it? That’s the point of most of our stories. Not here. As the movie begins, Peter wants to find out about his parents. He never does. Then he wants to bring Uncle Ben’s killer to justice. He never does that, either. Then he wants a girl, particulary Gwen Stacey, and he gets her. But she has to do most of the heavy lifting. Plus he promises a dying Capt. Stacey to stay away from her. Which, it’s implied, he won’t do.
Of course it’s not his fault. The filmmakers are waiting to resolve these issues in the sequels. That’s the kind of movie culture we live in now. We’re back to the cliffhangers of movie serials. Instead of next week, it’s two or three years from now. Stay tuned. Don’t miss the next thrilling chapter, “My Dad worked for the CIA!” Summer 2015.
Including Peter’s parents was perhaps the biggest way Webb differentiated his movie from Raimi’s, but it's a mistake. Because nobody gives a shit. Parents in superhero stories are there to get out of the way and/or die. Think Thomas Wayne, Jor-El, Uncle Ben. Do we care who Reed Richards’ parents were? Ben Grimm’s? Bruce Banner’s? Ang Lee cared about Banner’s father and look where that got us. Stay away from the parents!
They’re not going to. Halfway through the credits, in perhaps the lamest teaser ever, we watch Curt Connors in prison talking with a shadowy, malevolent figure, most likely Norman Osborne, who will become The Green Goblin. “Did you tell the boy the truth about his father?” the shadowy figure asks. Ah, the truth. About his father. I’m on tenterhooks.
Dr. Connors, who regained his humanity by saving Peter’s life, responds with the movie’s final line. It’s an ironic line, given that this is a reboot of a 10-year-old product. He says this:
You should leave him alone!
Try telling that to Columbia Pictures.