Defying the cynical circumstances under which it was made, The Amazing Spider-Man brings a refreshing sense of intimacy to the superhero genre. It’s been 10 years since Sam Raimi first introduced us to Tobey Maguire as the iconic webslinger, eight years since the excellent second installment and five years since the sub-standard third.
After Raimi walked away from the chance to helm the fourth movie, Sony went back to the drawing board, hiring the aptly named Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) to steer the ship. In fairness, this reboot could probably go by the alternative name, 500 Webs of Spider-Man. In contrast to the broad, colourful pizzazz of Raimi’s movies, Webb favours a quirky tone, capitalizing on the strengths of leading man Andrew Garfield to create a haunted, edgier incarnation of Peter Parker.
Parker this time is motivated by a mystery from his past: why did his parents walk out in the middle of the night, leaving him in the hands of Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen)? Even more intriguingly, his transformation this time is connected to his father’s scientific background. Having taken his search to Oscorp Tower, Parker believes the answer to his disappearance may lie in the genetics experiments he undertook with fellow scientist, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).
Inevitably, Parker ends up bitten by a mysterious spider, inaugurating the transformation into the famed super-hero, one who must protect New York when Connors’ own experiments turn him into The Lizard. Meanwhile, running parallel to this is the tender love-story that will provide most of the film’s heart: the burgeoning relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).
It can’t be denied there’s an air of redundancy hanging over proceedings, as all the constituent elements are familiar from Raimi’s efforts (kindly advice from Aunt May and Uncle Ben; Parker as a bullied high school loner; tentative romance; the scientist whose experiments with a serum turn him into the villain). But although it’s familiar, the tweaks in emotional tone are what make the movie enjoyable.
The movie’s best scenes are the personal ones, ones which emphasise the inter-character relationships. Webb draws on his indie sensibility in the wonderful scenes between Peter and Gwen: a stuttering conversation in a high-school corridor captures the awkwardness of young love perfectly, and both Garfield and Stone share the kind of electric chemistry that elevates familiar material.
Elsewhere, the little details are what resonate the most: Spiderman foiling the attempts of a would-be car thief, pretending to cower in fear as the thug produces a knife. Initially, Ifans’ character is also sketched with a degree of sensitivity: Connors is motivated by a personal desire to re-grow his missing arm, a nice change from the comic book heroes who crave power just for the sake of it. It’s just a shame that as The Lizard, the character has no distinctive qualities.
Truly, the film is at its best when putting an emotional or humorous spin on familiar clichés. There are some lovely moments towards the climax: members of the public lining up a series of cranes allowing Spidey to criss-cross New York with greater ease, or the unexpectedly moving finale when Parker realises that his life as a hero risks compromising that of others.
Crucial to the movie’s impact is the casting. Garfield is terrific as the new incarnation of Spidey, spikier, tougher, more poignant. He’ll inevitably draw comparison to Maguire’s interpretation but this is unfair. Both actors are well-suited to their respective movies – Maguire’s effervescent turn was ideal in Raimi’s movies, and Garfield’s anguished loner is perfect for Webb’s. It’s the latest in a long string of brilliant performances from Garfield, following the likes of Boy A, The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, and deserves to catapult him onto the A-list.
The mystery as to what happened to Peter’s Mum and Dad also promises a degree of intrigue atypical to many movies in this genre, although disappointingly, that aspect of the story is pushed to the back as the film proceeds. When this angle is eventually resurrected at the climax, it appears to be a futile attempt to set up the audience for a sequel, although so many of today’s blockbusters fall into the same trap.
Also familiar to many films of this ilk are the frequent CGI battles, which can’t help but feel impersonal when compared to the graceful character moments. Although slick and brilliantly visualised by the effects artists, the aerial tussles and action scenes, particularly the final blow-out, are the least interesting parts of the movie, and one senses this isn’t where Webb’s heart lies as a director.
No, the best bits are when Webb puts a fresh spin (kerching) on familiar threads (boom boom), resulting in a franchise reboot that, if not Amazing, is certainly more than adequate.