It’s “Amazing,” so I’m reviewing it. Turns out it’s amazingly good — despite coming into the theater a skeptic, I left a convert. I never thought I’d say it, but this is overall a stronger Spider-Man origin movie than the first of the Raimi trilogy. It’s not without its flaws, but I recommend it with no hesitation to anyone who loves the character — the people who made this movie clearly get who he is and what he’s about.
The Amazing Spider-Man had a lot working against it. The Raimi trilogy was bigger in budget, actors, and arguably director. The first two films were widely liked and the third, while often vilified, certainly gave rise to an awful lot of popular image macros. Everyone thought it was too soon for a reboot, which, really, it probably was. And Marc Webb, despite his eerily convenient name, was known almost exclusively for (500) Days of Summer, a Zooey Deschanel’s eyes-vehicle of all things. The notion that he could make a better Spider-Man film than Sam Raimi, cult icon and self-avowed Spidey fan, seemed totally absurd. So while stranger things have happened in cinematic history, you might be able to imagine how grudgingly it was I realized halfway through the film that pretty much everything about this was superior to its predecessor.
Early concerns that the movie would make Peter an “emo” character, or generally be excessively dark turned out to be unfounded. Andrew Garfield makes a surprisingly convincing teenage Peter, and I say that both in reference to the difficulty of forgetting his real age and his apparent grasp of the character. He’s more well-rounded than Maguire’s Peter was, catching the fundamental awkwardness but at the same time instilling him with the piercing and daring intellect that he ought to have. Much has been made of his skateboard and glasses, the implication being that this character isn’t enough of a geek or loser, but I think such claims are fundamentally misguided — Ditko’s skinny, pathetic looking Peter, important though it may have been, was really a short-lived version of him and is hardly the incarnation most readily associated with Spider-Man. Allowing him to appear a bit more grown up and slightly less clueless doesn’t hurt the movie in any way, and it’s vastly preferable to the opposite take that ended up characterizing Maguire’s Peter after the first movie — that he never really grew out of being a clueless dork at all.
Webb and his cast nailed the supporting characters as well. Emma Stone makes a terrific Gwen; she’s smart, and she’s lovely but doesn’t look like a super model. That she falls for Peter is totally believable, and she handles the process well. Her character here is similar to the way she was portrayed in the Spectacular TV series in that she’s a bright science student like Peter, but the movie retains a degree of the unfamiliarity around their meeting similar to the comics. Uncle Ben and Aunt May are given their proper importance despite concerns that Peter’s parents would be given undue focus over them. Ben’s death is a slightly altered version of the classic story but is essentially the same and feels very powerful, although I would have preferred that the power and responsibility line were kept in there even if it has become played out. There’s a reason, after all, that it’s so famous Miller Lite started using it for their “drink responsibly” disclaimers. It’s also a bit disappointing that the movie lacked Jonah, but it was probably best for them to leave more space for the essential characters. The solution was to have Denis Leary as Captain Stacy initially cover the role of vilifying Spidey to the public, a divergence from his comic portrayal that I feel was totally justified. Meanwhile there is plenty of time to get J.K. Simmons on board as Jonah for the sequel. (Come on! If there’s one thing that needs to be kept from the Raimi films, we know what it is…)
The Lizard, on the other hand, is one of the movie’s weaker character links. Rhys Ifans does a fine job, but he just doesn’t have a particularly interesting role to play in the first place. His transformation and characterization once he changes are quite similar to his original comic incarnation, which is nice as yet another demonstration that the crew did their homework, but the Lizard has never been one of the more compelling Spidey villains. But that’s not necessarily a slight on the movie for choosing him, either. Because Connors and his alter ego required little setup and explanation, it freed the movie up to focus on what it did best, which was developing Peter and his supporting cast. This worked especially well given that in this version of the story, Connors’s transformation is directly linked to the same research that turns Peter into Spidey, which lends a nice sense of coherence to the whole thing.
In fact, I find myself surprisingly pleased with the alterations made to the origin story. Initially, I really didn’t want to see the origin story again, and to an extent I still feel the movie could have been better if they’d skipped it, but the approach taken here was definitely successful. Like J. Michael Straczynski’s controversial contribution of a mystic background to Peter’s transformation, The Amazing Spider-Man tries to make the whole thing seem a little less like some kind of ridiculous happenstance. In doing so it avoids the pitfalls of stretching belief when multiple costumed and mutated weirdos all start popping up at once. But this alternate take really ought to be much less controversial than JMS’s, because all it does is link Peter’s family history to semi-believable scientific research into mixing human and animal DNA, so that there’s a reason why he’s snooping around when he gets bitten by a “super-spider.” And yes, he does get his powers by being bitten still, despite the misleading teaser that suggested otherwise for a while.
The Amazing Spider-Man has some important things to remind us of. No, not that responsibility comes with power — we all know that already, though perhaps a few folks in positions of creative power within the comic industry could… well, you know. The point this movie makes is that at his core, Spider-Man is not his age or his appearance, not the nature of his web shooters or what combination of chance and design led to his powers. This is a story about a young man devoting himself to his principles, no matter the cost, and the way that it affects the people he loves. It’s about the proper use and abuse of power, and it pulls that off while managing to be hilarious, touching and exciting in equal measure. It’s a startling and commendable achievement from a cast and crew who didn’t get into this because they were already Spider-Man fans, but proved that anyone can grasp what makes him great.
Oh, sure, the execution may not be perfect. There are too many scenes where Peter’s powers become obvious when he’s outside of the suit, and the fact that nobody catches on breaks the immersion a bit; there are also too many scenes where he takes his mask off, just like in the Raimi trilogy, but that’s something we’re just going to have to live with if we want big budget Spidey films. None of that stuff is really the point. The point is that fifty years ago, Spidey took off because something about him resonated with people on an emotional level that super heroes didn’t normally reach. It’s encouraging to see that the impact of his story hasn’t dulled one bit after all that time.
Pros: Peter and his supporting cast are portrayed amazingly well, and the film really gets what’s essential to the story and treats it very respectfully. It’s well-rounded between action, drama, and comedy, which is exactly how Spidey’s supposed to be. When it’s serious it is very powerful, and when it’s lighthearted it’s extremely amusing.
Cons: They probably still could have skipped the origin itself, but this is only a minor complaint because it was done very well even if it was unnecessary. The Lizard is not a strong villain, but again this barely matters because he was the least important part of what the film was trying to accomplish.