Is the new Spidey adventure really that amazing?
Leaving aside the question of whether it’s too soon to reboot a film series that only began a decade ago, Marc Webb’s take on Marvel’s web-slinging superhero is proof that there is always room for another perspective on a character which has stood the test of time. In rewinding to Peter Parker’s high school days, the studio and Webb are clearly hoping to capitalise on the fantasy romance trend popularised by the likes of Twilight and The Hunger Games. It’s an approach that for the most part works rather well. By focussing on and grounding the relationship between Parker and prospective sweetheart Gwen Stacey, he becomes a much more angsty character than seen before; a real teenager shorn of any cartooniness. But this comes at the expense of the story’s comic-book roots, which fail to supply the Amazement suggested by the title.
Writers James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves reach further back in to Spider-Man’s history than previously seen, when a very young Peter Parker is left with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his parents, who mysteriously die in a plane crash shortly after. Years later, now played by Andrew Garfield, he stumbles across his father’s secret scientific work with Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) on cross-species genetics, a topic close to Connor’s heart after the loss of his right arm. Parker tries to assist him but ends up getting bitten by a radioactive spider for his trouble. Meanwhile he’s also getting to grips with dating the girl he fancies at high school, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), whose police captain father (Dennis Leary) takes a very dim view of masked vigilantes, as Parker is about to find out.
Lots to cram in there, and the film suffers a little from the usual problem that blights the first entry in a superhero franchise: the need to blend an origins story with the expected good vs. evil battles. On top of that it also tries to squeeze in a post-Avengers multi-film plot thread about Parker’s parents (remember to hang around for the obligatory mid-credits sequel teaser). Happily it just about pulls it off. The familiar plot points are all here – slightly different from Raimi’s version, of course – yet crucially it does feel like the Spidey we know and love. Garfield is a fine choice as Peter Parker: gangly and nervous, but witty and quick-witted too. Even more crucially, given the film’s emphasis on personal relationships, he and Stone share a strong onscreen chemistry. When they are together this new Spider-Man really clicks.
But therein lies the problem. By putting the romance front and centre, the comic-book thrills and villainous monsters come a distant second. Connors is certainly a sympathetic bad guy as played by Ifans; perhaps too sympathetic, because he fails to generate any sense of threat or danger except when he’s a big CGI lizard. Besides, sticking a giant lizard-man (one of the more B-movie villains in Spidey’s gallery of rogues) in to the story seems at odds with the film’s emphasis on grounded emotional realism. One suspects this was a necessary compromise to avoid using a bad guy already seen in Raimi’s films (though Connors did appear there, played by Dylan Baker, as a set-up for a future sequel that never happened).
The action scenes, while occasionally exciting, aren’t really all that amazing. The two highlights – Stan Lee’s cameo and the crane sequence towards the end – aside, there’s not much we haven’t seen before, and James Horner’s tepid score fails to provide some much-needed oomph. Oddly, the birth of Spider-Man himself is quite perfunctory. Where Tobey Maguire’s version of the character gradually evolved, Garfield more or less decides on a name and costume for the hell of it. He’s also much less dweeby than Maguire’s Spidey; more of an outsider than a loser. Predictably, his wall-climbing antics become a viral YouTube hit, and he skateboards around the city wearing a hoodie. There’s no way Maguire’s Parker could have pulled off the skateboarding dude thing.
There’s certainly room for both interpretations of the character, and there are enough promising elements here to make the inevitable sequel worth waiting for. I suspect today’s teen audiences will much prefer Webb’s slightly darker version, but for me Raimi’s films had more heart and were more fun. Not so much Amazing as Average.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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