The first question around most water coolers about The Amazing Spider-Man seems to be, “Did we need another reboot of the Spider-man story so soon?” and the second (if your water cooler is frequented by movie buffs) is, “Can Marc Webb do a good job directing it when his only claim to fame is indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer?”. (Though there is a notable lack of water coolers around my area of the office) after watching this movie I have happily changed my answers from “No” to “Yes” for both questions. Super-hero movies are becoming like the all-you-can-eat buffet of film-making: the satisfaction of quantity (How many action scenes? How many gadgets?) and thrill of variety (Which villains are going to appear? Which classic moments are going to be included?) is more important than quality (Are these believable characters? How was the dialogue and the performances?). Webb’s approach to this story is a much more personal one: it focuses a lot on the characters as people (like most other non-super-hero movies do). Instead of presuming that we know the major points of the story and that we’re looking for that spider bite that gives him his power, that traumatic event that makes our hero a hero, and that first battle with the classic nemesis, Webb wants to introduce us to this character, Peter Parker, as if we’ve just met him for the first time. After watching this movie, I realized that that’s exactly the kind of movie that this genre needs right now.
I had heard that this movie wasn’t going to deal with the origin of Spider-man (i.e. the radio-active spider bite), so I was surprised when it actually did go over the same story (and at a rather relaxed pace, I might add). Much of the early half of the movie is spent getting to know Peter Parker the teenager. Andrew Garfield (you may know him from The Social Network) is great as the upstanding, somewhat-unpopular, somewhat-reserved young Parker, who gets tongue-tied around the girl he likes, Gwen Stacy. She’s played by the amazing Emma Stone (you may know her from Crazy Stupid Love, The Help, or Easy A) whose flirty exchanges with Garfield play like they could have come from any other well-written teen drama. Their mutual attraction grows and they don’t fall into each other’s arms because he saves her from a bully or a super-villain. They meet-cute in the hallways near their lockers, just like any good teen couple. The other big part of Parker’s normal life are his surrogate parents in his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. In past movies, they served somewhat fixed purposes: Uncle Ben was there to [spoiler alert] be killed and trigger Parker’s commitment to becoming a responsible super-hero; Aunt May was there to be his conscience (and be held hostage by numerous villains). In this movie, we get a lot more of the parenting that they provide to Parker, and for that we need the wonderful performances of Martin Sheen and Sally Field in the roles. They both made the characters fleshed-out and really likeable. The scenes of Aunt May and Peter trying to cope with Uncle Ben’s death were pretty touching (there was definitely some spider-dust in my eye).
While the human drama was very good, it served to nicely balance the flashy super-hero story as well. The gist is that Dr. Curt Connors (played by Rhys Ifans — who I will always remember as Hugh Grant’s roommate from Notting Hill) is a herpetologist (a.k.a. lizard scientist) researching using reptile genes to benefit human healing (i.e. growing back limbs). When he gets a little zealous with his experiments, he administers the genes on himself (since he’s missing an arm) and the rest you can imagine. The villain’s story arc is pretty typical, but I liked again that there were relationships connecting the characters that made the scenes emotionally richer. Parker and Stacy both interned with Connors and knew him pretty well. Connors also had a working history with Parker’s absent father. The relationships serve to keep the humanity in the characters so we don’t just howl for the heroes to beat the villains. We want to save them. Add one more character to the mix: Denis Leary isn’t bad as police Captain Stacy, who at times plays both enemy and ally to Spider-man.
So how was Spider-man as a super-hero in this movie? Was he any more than the mopey teenager in red and blue tights? Well, he was pretty good, actually. If you’ve seen the movie trailer you’ll know that there are moments when he acts kind of cocky and sarcastic (as you’d expect a teenage super-hero would), but he’s also responsible (saving people who might be collaterally damaged from his battles) and actually willing to risk his secret identity when it seems necessary. It always bothered me in super-hero stories that they find it so important to hide their identities (and of course there’s always a villain ready to Google all their friends and families to use as bait once their identities are revealed). In this movie, the issue of identity comes into play a number of times, but I think it’s handled really well. The last point about the humanizing of the super-hero is that this Spider-man is not only fallible, he’s also vulnerable. I like that there are scenes where he actually gets injured and he needs to find a way to fight, or stop the villain, despite his injuries (plus it’s a bit of a running gag how he arrives home to Aunt May with progressively worse bruises and cuts).
Marketing for every super-hero movie always loves to claim that you don’t need to know the background, you don’t need to be a fan of the original to understand their film. While that may be true, I think that most of the time you need those pre-requisites to really engage and enjoy those films. In The Amazing Spider-Man, I think they’ve made a well-balanced action-adventure-drama where you can really enjoy the story and the characters for themselves, and whether you’re a long-time fan or someone who’s never touched a comic book, it’s a fun and enjoyable experience. (Now Hollywood should go back and start rebooting all the other super-hero movies in the same fashion!) (5 out of 5)