Marc Webb‘s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the second of this summer’s three massive superhero movies, is now in theaters. And while so far it’s performing behind “Spider-Man 3,” the film’s doing reasonably well (expected to haul in somewhere in the neighborhood of $130 million by Sunday) given the lack of enthusiasm from hardcore fans, and the widespread dislike of the final Sam Raimi film, which in part helped to push things toward a blank slate again. And reviews have been pretty severely divided, with some hailing it as one of best examples of the comic book genre to date, and others loathing every frame of it.
Of course, this is normal for the polarized era we live in; as far as we’re concerned, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Webb’s film does many things terribly, but others rather well, we wanted to dig into the picture a little further, to really dissect the good, the bad and the ugly of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” As such, **major spoilers are ahead** — if you haven’t seen the film yet, best to stick with our spoiler-free review for now. And if you have, read on, and let us know your own thoughts on the film in the comments section.
1. Andrew Garfield & Emma Stone
The one thing we were confident on, even if the script turned out to be a “Spider-Man 3“-style train wreck, was our gut feeling that they’d got the casting right. Way back, when it was first announced that the reboot was coming, we named Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as among our favorites for the film, and were delighted when they got the jobs. And they didn’t disappoint. Some fans have argued that Garfield’s take on Peter Parker — as a little more of a brooding bad boy — is too much of a departure from the comics, but we found it refreshing, and certainly when put up against Tobey Maguire‘s wide-eyed innocent, who felt like he’d walked out of “Pleasantville.” And Stone, while arguably not given enough to do, was a far more compelling female lead than we’re used to seeing in a film like this, bringing her unique brand of goofy humor (the hot chocolate scene with her father being a particular highlight), but always in an organic way. It felt like the characters were actual people, and not just archetypes lifted from the comic — although Stone is spookily identical to the comic-book Stacy. We figured the actors would do good jobs (and a good chunk of that A- CinemaScore has to be down to them, right?), but what couldn’t have been anticipated, beyond the two being two attractive single people, was their real-life hook-up, and the chemistry is palpable in a way that’s all too rare in screen romantic couplings. In the Raimi films, you mostly got the sense that the two romantic leads barely tolerated each other; here, they’re visibly trying to resist the temptation to tear each other’s clothes off, mid-scene.
2. Denis Leary, Martin Sheen & Sally Field
Webb’s smart casting didn’t end with his two leads; the elder generation are well represented, giving new spins to characters who’d featured in earlier films. Coming off the best is Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, bringing the same Catholic gravitas that made President Bartlett the finest-ever screen president, to a more blue-collar kind of character. There’s far more of a sense of Ben as surrogate father than was in the earlier films, and Sheen brings a great sense of humor to the part as well, relishing the opportunity to do more than spout off about responsibility. He’s so good in the part that we hoped he might be spared in the reboot to let him return for later installments; but alas, it isn’t so, but his death is all the more wrenching for it. Sally Field has less to do, but she gets notes to play beyond simply being Peter’s conscience, and hopefully will have more to do in future installments. The most pleasant surprise was Denis Leary, who’s often been fine, but outside his TV appearances on his own show “Rescue Me,” hasn’t always given performances that live up to his stand-up charisma. Here, it’s the kind of part he’s played many times before — Irish cop! — and he does have to get behind some of the dimmer direction in the film (that palatial apartment suggests that Captain Stacy is wildly corrupt…) But he’s also slyly funny, gruffly paternal, and establishes a sweet relationship with his screen daughter Stone that makes his heroic death sting more than it should.
3. Smart reversals in the screenwriting
Reversal is a somewhat technical term that you might not be aware of — it means a flip of expectations, a surprising moment that might end up as one of the film’s best moments. Historically, one of the best examples is “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” — think Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman, or leaving Marion tied up after rediscovering her. There’s not a lot of these moments in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but there’s a couple, and their presence goes to show that however much of a mess the finished film is, some very smart writers worked on the script at some stage (even if it’s impossible to give credit to any one of James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent or Steve Kloves, the three credited writers). The most memorable scenes come near the end. Gwen Stacy hides from The Lizard in a locker, with some kind of MacGuffin he needs. You brace yourself for yet another moment where she becomes the damsel in distress, dragged up a skyscraper by the villain as a hostage, but in fact, The Lizard simply takes what he needs and goes. Not earth-shattering, exactly, but a refreshingly smart decision from a character whose motives and behavior are mostly ridiculous. There’s an even better moment a little later; Peter, having promised a dying Captain Stacy to stay away from his daughter for her own safety, is giving her the cold shoulder, even skipping the funeral. Gwen comes his doorstop, but Peter is shut off — and at that moment, we scribbled furiously in our notes “Why doesn’t he just tell her?” And yet almost on cue, Gwen, walking away, turns around as says to Peter “He made you promise, didn’t he.” It’s a moment that makes us adore the character’s smarts, and a refreshing antidote to the usual kind of contrivances that keep a screen couple apart. More next time, please.
4. The little moments
Along similar lines, when we spoke to Marc Webb recently, he said one of the most important things for him was to be able to add some looseness and improvised character moments to a movie hedged in by technological (newfangled 3D cameras) and mythological constraints (fifty years of elaborately embroidered character back-story). These are arguably the best moments in all of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” We’re thinking specifically of two conversations Peter Parker has in the hallway of his high school – one with Uncle Ben and another with Gwen Stacey. Both moments feature what seem like improvised dialogue and a caught-in-the-moment freshness that much of the movie lacks, thanks largely to uninspired action set pieces and an abundance of unconvincing computer imagery. Another great moment is when Spider-Man, after setting up an elaborate web trap to alert him of the movements of evil super-villain The Lizard, absentmindedly plays a videogame on his smart phone. It’s brilliant shorthand to say, “Hey, he’s a human underneath that mask!” and one of the few moments we can grasp onto as an audience, since most of the movie is awash in loud noises and things crashing to the ground or exploding into glittery bits. Showier, but just as entertaining, is the Stan Lee cameo, a now-traditional moment that might give the elderly comics creator his best moment yet, as a librarian oblivious to the fight playing out behind him. It pretty much got the biggest laugh in the film from our crowd.
5. Emphasis on relationships
As good as some past superhero movies have been, it’s hard to think of one that’s actually placed emphasis on the relationships between people. Bryan Singer‘s “X-Men” movies got some of the way there, and Christopher Nolan‘s Batman pictures had character depth, but mostly focused on internal angst — the way that Bruce Wayne interacted with Rachel Dawes, or Batman with Commissioner Gordon, have never been the film’s strongest moments. But here, the relationship stuff is the best thing in the film, with Webb clearly bringing his “(500) Days Of Summer” strengths onto a bigger canvas. The instant chemistry and awkward, faltering courtship between Gwen and Peter feel authentic, and like “21 Jump Street” earlier in the year, the film resists fitting its high-school characters into archetypes — bully Flash Thompson is as much victim as attacker, and in another nice reversal, shows real compassion to Peter after Ben’s death. And Webb’s feel for the surrogate parent relationship with Peter’s aunt and uncle is good; again, it feels, when not truncated, as though their conflict, and love, comes from reality, rather than because that’s what it says in the comics. So much in the film falls flat, but we’d almost rather see Webb tackle a straight, action-sequence-free version of these characters than take on a sequel where he half-heartedly tries to go through the CGI motions again.
1. Rhys Ifans
Sam Raimi very delicately planted the seeds for the appearance of Curt Connors in his three films, giving the character a brief mention in his first film before being played by Dylan Baker in the second and third. Should Raimi have opted to eventually follow through on that character’s transformation into the Lizard (although it’s worth noting that the aborted “Spider-Man 4” contained no such plans), he would have been building on the brief but effective few moments shared by Baker, a superb actor, and Tobey Maguire, delivering something that, at a minimum, would have achieved a certain level of nuance. In the new film, however, we’re introduced to Curt Connors as a shaggy-haired lab rat who’s less about the intelligence radiated by Baker’s work and more about beat-the-clock efficiency, to the point where this man hires Peter Parker right out of high school. The plot motivations for such a reckless move are certainly there — Peter may be the missing link in Connors’ work with Richard Parker — but there’s no real relationship between these two, compounded by Ifans’ casual, distracted performance. It’s not entirely his fault — he has nothing to play. Connors ostensibly could answer Peter’s questions about his missing parents, but he doesn’t act as if he’s holding back a secret. It all feels very rushed, and Ifans does this motivation-less chess piece of a character no favors by showing absolutely zero intellectual curiosity between growing his arm back, and becoming an apparently schizophrenic dinosaur man. It would have been much more fun if he’d simply reprised his character from “The Five-Year Engagement” with an arm tucked behind his back.
2. Lackluster action scenes
At the very least, you expect a certain amount of zippy energy from a movie called “The Amazing Spider-Man.” You want to be blown away. You want to be amazed. But the action sequences in the film are too often choppy and boring – oftentimes reminding you of similar but far superior sequences from Sam Raimi‘s earlier movies. With both Spider-Man and The Lizard wholly computer-generated, there’s an airlessness to the action, a lack of physical weight or heft (all this despite Webb’s insistence that they look at Spider-Man in this film from the point of physics) – they’re just two cartoon characters ping-ponging around the screen. And often Webb seems incapable of staging action in any kind of dynamic way, and things that looked promising from earlier trailers (like a long, single, unbroken POV shot of Spider-Man careening around New York City’s skyline) were either chopped up or absent entirely. Even more egregiously, Webb stages what is arguably the least interesting fight sequence in the history of the now decade-long franchise – a skirmish between the Lizard and Spider-Man in the halls of a public high school. Good lord. Could you have picked a more drab or uninteresting setting? Probably not. It doesn’t help that the script is embellished with a bunch of plot points that no one can make heads or tails of (so Gwen Stacy loads some kind of anti-virus to combat the Lizard’s death cloud but the cloud doesn’t disable Spider-Man’s powers too?) and a supposedly emotionally rousing climax where the scaffolding workers of New York point their cranes in the direction of Spider-Man, is undone by phony sentiment and (again) questionable physics. Even the final action beat, of Spider-Man swinging through New York, seems to miss the mark. Instead of soaring upwards like at the end of Sam Raimi’s first film, Spider-Man is falling down.
3. Slow pacing.
Even if you whole-heartedly love “The Amazing Spider-Man,” it’s hard to argue that Webb’s film is well paced. While it’s only 2 hours and 16 minutes, which feels reasonable for a blockbuster that has to contend with an origin story (though Raimi managed to tell it with 15 minutes less time), “The Amazing Spider-Man” moves at the speed of molasses, aside from the dynamic third act. That first act in particular seems to move at a crawl, and while we admire Webb for taking his time to set up the characters, he’s constrained because we know he’s walking through the same beats as Raimi’s first film; it might differ in the details, but we know what’s coming. We don’t get Peter in costume as Spider-Man until well into the second act, which, in a film called “The Amazing Spider-Man,” is kind of a problem. We also don’t get Conners’ transformation into the Lizard until around the same time, and he doesn’t seem to have a grander plan until that third act, and because of that, there’s no threat, and no propulsion. We know that he’s meant to be the bad guy, but the stakes never feel high, and that makes those 2 hours and 16 minutes feel closer to three hours.
4. Baffling post-credits scene
So, okay. Let’s pretend “The Amazing Spider-Man” is the first Spidey movie thus far, and we’ve never seen any of this, right? So, with that knowledge, what’s going on in that post-credits sequence? Sony followed in Marvel’s footsteps not only by featuring a post-credits tease that hints at a future film, but also looks like it was shot in an afternoon by an intern. First, Curt Connors is taken to a large prison cell, one that probably couldn’t hold a giant lizard-man with super strength, but we’ll let it slide (although we guess he’s cured now? Or something?). Then a mysterious figure emerges from the shadows, asking if Connors told Peter everything about his father, to which Connors replies in the negative, allowing our mysterious, cloaked-in-darkness intruder a long, evil laugh, before he… teleports away? Is that what‘s going on here? Context clues in the film, as well as a knowledge of “Spider-Man” suggests this would be Norman Osborn, unseen but mentioned in the film as “dying” and needing some sort of transfusion (gee, what’s the worst that can happen?), and presumably destined to reappear as the Green Goblin in the second film. If so, why is this dying man teleporting into a prison cell? Can’t he just say these things from the other side of the bars? The credits clarify that this character is “Man In Shadows” and he’s played by Michael Massee, a deep-voiced, pockmarked character actor who has played memorably scummy villains in “24” and “The Crow,” and who bares a distinct resemblance to, um Willem Dafoe. He’ll presumably be replaced by a bigger name down the line, which makes the whole thing doubly irritating — maybe if we’d seen an unannounced A-lister turn up, it might have given more of a thrill. But as such, it strikes us as the creation of someone who understands that the Marvel post-credits scenes excite fans, but doesn’t have a clue why.
5. It wants to be two different movies, twice.
Noticeably darker than Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series and akin the recent run of grittier superhero films, “The Amazing Spider-Man” sometimes feels at odds with itself. It does have a darker, moodier palate to be sure — you can see it in the marketing and photographs and just in its general mien — but it also wants to be true to who Spider-Man is. But dark and somewhat gritty, and therefore more realistic, chafes up next to Spider-Man the quipster who likes to make corny jokes while fighting crime. It’s not completely incongruous, but imagine Batman in “Batman Begins” making dumb jokes while on his night prowls; it just doesn’t always feel that appropriate. But file under quibbles if you like. Perhaps more noticeable is the two movies within “The Amazing Spider-Man”; one is a fairly traditional superhero movie (that doesn’t reinvent the wheel in the slightest), and the other film (arguably the better part of the movie), is the romance and character struggle between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is scoring well with women and that’s because part of it is romantic, sexy, believable and fun; you’re into and buy their crush-worthy flirtations, and this is where director Marc Webb excels. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is arguably “The Notebook” of super hero movies. However, when you’re making one movie, you want to have some coherence. What we get is, much like our review already stated, a strong teenage love/coming of age story constrained by a mediocre and run-of-the-mill super hero film.
1. The Lizard in general
This is the fourth movie in the “Spider-Man” canon and the third to feature a scientifically minded mentor of Peter Parker’s who suffers a psychological break and a physical transformation that turns him into a villainous monster. Been there, done that. (Another example of how all this “reboot” talk is a lot of hot air.) And while director Webb can talk all he wants about how the movie’s central thematic concern is “finding your missing piece” (with Peter looking for the truth about his parents and the deranged doctor Curt Connors looking to replace his arm), it never quite comes across, especially since Connors seems to be working almost solely at the behest of the never-seen Norman Osborn. His injury seems more like a convenient plot device than an actual quest (and much of this was probably stripped away when Webb and company decided to delete scenes involving Connors’ wife and child, turning him into more of a two-dimensional cartoon dinosaur). His character is a mess –- does he change into the Lizard at a certain point, werewolf-style? Can he control it? Will he eventually get stuck that way forever? Do his scales fall off and drop into his soup or coffee? These questions beg to be answered. His evil scheme is never fully defined either –- he wants to turn everyone in New York into a fearsome lizard-beast. Or something. For what? There’s some half-baked implications about fixing imperfection, but it mainly comes across as something he’s doing because he saw Ian McKellen try THE EXACT SAME PLAN in the first “X-Men” movie. From a visual standpoint, the Lizard is a bore too – his facial features owe a considerable debt to the Killer Croc design from the “Batman: The Animated Series” cartoon, and he only gets to wear his trademark lab coat (a visual benchmark for the character since its inception) in what feels like half a scene. (The fact that we were cheering on the return of a lab coat tells you how low our energy was.) “Some random dinosaur guy” would have been a more appropriate name than “The Lizard.”
2. The compromised storyline hacked to death in post-production
It’s not unusual for films to feature lines of dialogue and sequences in ad campaigns that don’t make the final cut of a film. But “The Amazing Spider-Man” featured a significant chunk of material that viewers had seen in trailers and stills before release. Even without that knowledge, however, it’s not hard to see that “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which emerged from the aborted cocoon that was “Spider-Man 4,” feels like three movies stapled together. What suffers is Marc Webb’s supposedly grounded approach, which falters when we’re pointlessly zipping from location to location, day-to-night. The first third of the film features Peter learning about his parents, trying to figure out what they were hiding, discovering their magic equation and taking it to Connors. The mid-portion seems dedicated to Peter learning about his new powers, completely abandoning anything about his parents and then coping with the passing of Uncle Ben. And then the last third, where both his parents and Uncle Ben are never mentioned (nor any growing pains Peter had from his new powers, or struggles working his new web-slinger), finds Spidey facing off against the Lizard’s sketchy mad-science plan to turn New York into Koopatown. Never mind the fact that characters like the threatening Oscorp higher-up (Irrfan Khan) splits when the Lizard starts rampaging and never shows up again. And never mind the fact that, when Spidey first sees his scaly opposition, he doesn’t bat an eye. It’s very possible there was an excised scene before this where Spidey audibly reacts to Connors becoming such a terrifying creature, and maybe a scene later where Parker tries to reason with his old friend inside the lizard skin, but it’s not be found here, symbolic of the disjointed nature of the film overall.
3. Huge plot holes/suspension of disbelief
While Vulture clued us in a little bit more as to what happened to the Indian guy who worked for Oscorp and wanted to use the Lizard’s serum on a bunch of war vets, we walked out of the screening assuming he was still hanging by some spider-web off the bridge. But that’s not the only dangling thread or unbelievable moment in the movie. What about Spider-Man’s epic, 20-minute hunt for similar-looking criminals that ended not in an arrest but in a tacked-on moment towards the end where the criminal is still on his “to do” list, pinned on his cork board? Or how about Gwen Stacey, a low-level intern, being able to synthesize an anti-venom and load it into some kind of machine that will dispense it across all of New York? (And what happens to people who haven’t been exposed to the Lizard serum who are then sucking down the anti-venom? Couldn’t there be serious health risks or, at the very least, annoyingly loud coughing?) These are just a few of the huge plot holes/gaps in logic that “The Amazing Spider-Man” assaults you with almost every moment it’s on screen. When we brought these up to a friend of ours, they said, “It’s a slippery slope criticizing a comic book movie for a lack of realism.” And it’s not a lack of realism – we’re clearly sitting in a theater about to watch a radioactive spider give a moody teenager enhanced abilities – it’s the clumsiness of the script, the lack of its own internal logic, that is the most grating and (worst of all) actively pulls us out of our enjoyment of the film. It doesn’t help that the movie is coming out so close after “The Avengers” – a movie that reminded us how much fun the “comic” part of comic book movies can be, with an internal logic that was occasionally cartoonish but never far from compelling or believable.
4. The science.
And on a similar note, “If it bends, it’s funny, but if it breaks, it’s not funny,” a great writer/director once wrote. The same theory applies to the suspension of disbelief. And there’s something ungainly about the science in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Yes, it’s a comic book movie, and yes, Peter Parker is the son of scientist Richard Parker, and so he’s inherited much of his intelligence and aptitude. However, we’re to believe that Peter Parker is the only amateur scientist in the world who has figured out how to use Osborn’s biocable technology to create web shooters? Yes, this is the way the origins go down in the comics, but when you’re creating a fairly dark and realistic Spider-Man movie — which ostensibly the movie wants to be most of the time; see how often the story is rooted in character and emotion — it’s much easier to buy that Parker would inherit true and holistic spider-powers instead of creating web-shooters that will carry the weight of a teenage boy swinging all over Manhattan (the fact that Peter jumps right off a building without safety-testing the webshooters and whether they work seems to act counterintuitively with a boy we’re supposed to believe is a super genius). Sure, we’re shown moments of Peter’s intelligence beforehand — Uncle Ben telling us he stopped being able to help with Peter’s homework after the age of ten, and Parker’s affinity for making gadgets around the house — and perhaps this is where, once again, all the clunky editing and dropped sub-plots come in — but, Peter seems to go from smart kid to genius in a few short, unbelievable steps. Also, why is it that the technology in Oscorp seems to be right out of “Prometheus,” but the rest of this world is pretty similar to ours? The science of ‘Spider-Man’ doesn’t seem to always jibe with the rest of the movie.
5. It never quite justifies its existence
The whole “reboot” angle to “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a cynical corporate ploy. This is less a reboot than a faithful remake of the first “Spider-Man,” with slight alterations to characters and plot and, for the most part, it’s almost exactly the same. It ends the same, Uncle Ben dies in a scene almost shot-for-shot like the original, there’s even a similar music cue for the first time Peter Parker climbs a wall. But more than specifics, it just kind of feels like a watered-down version of Raimi’s film. If the most successful reboots in recent memory – “Star Trek,” “Casino Royale,” and “Batman Begins” – have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t be too precious with the pre-existing mythology. People will respond, loudly, to huge shifts or alterations as long as they’re pulled off with style and panache, and it would have been really fascinating to see a version of Spider-Man where, say, Uncle Ben didn’t die but something else spurred on Peter Parker’s commitment to masked vigilantism. (Hey, if “Star Trek” can blow up the planet Vulcan, Spider-Man could get away with this.) You hunger for deviation from the norm watching “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but everything seems so similar – there’s a heroic moment on a bridge, an example of New Yorkers teaming together to save our hero, and even major character changes like having Gwen Stacey be the center of attention instead of Mary Jane (or having The Lizard beat up on our hero instead of Green Goblin) seem arbitrary and underdeveloped. The biggest difference we can tell is that Gwen is blonde while Mary Jane was a redhead. Besides that, they’re kind of the same. Which is something you could say about a lot of “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
–Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor and RP