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Summary: We all know the story well. It’s practically part of our cultural mythology. Peter Parker is a nerdy teenager raised by his aunt and uncle. When he accidentally gets bitten by a genetically-modified spider, Peter suddenly finds himself with a plethora of super-human powers. After getting blindsided by personal tragedy that he could have prevented, he invents the alter-ego “Spider-Man” and slowly starts to learn that age-old mantra: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In this “retelling,” Peter’s investigations into the mysterious disappearance of his parents and his father’s secret research lead him to Oscorp, where he meets Dr. Curt Connors. Dr. Connors is a decent fellow doing research on limb regeneration, as he lost his own right arm years ago. Unfortunately (and predictably), his self-scientific experimentation doesn’t go as well as Peter’s spidey transformation did, causing him to become “the Lizard” and threaten New York City.
Meanwhile, Peter pursues his lovely and intelligent classmate Gwen Stacy, and the burgeoning Spider-Man pursues a criminal he holds a very personal vendetta against. With both the disgruntled police and the Lizard out to get him, however, Peter finds the “responsibility” part of the equation looming large.
But I Don’t Like Superheroes!
I think it’s necessary for me to provide a little personal background to put my review in context. If you want to just read the review, feel free to skip all this.
First, until this summer, I was never a fan of superhero stories, and in fact, I stubbornly held out against the current trend. I had only seen Iron Man and the middle 45 minutes of Batman Begins some years ago. Then I saw The Avengers (so late that is was probably mere days before it left theaters), and slowly the walls crumbled. Since then, I’ve seen 7 other superhero films, got incredibly hyped-up by the Iron Man 3 trailer, and have pretty much become a Christopher Nolan fan for life. I’m still not saying I’m fan of superheroes…but the recent movies about them have been awesome.
Second, the superhero films I mentioned watching did not include the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. Nope, I have never seen any of them, unless you count watching a few scattered scenes and reviews on YouTube on slow summer days. Nor have I ever read the comics. In fact, I think my only “real” prior exposure to Spider-Man was through some connected animated episodes (the plot had something to do with a bunch of black holes? And not that I’m advocating this, but someone could almost create a drinking game based on the number of time Spidey yells “Mary Jane!”). Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m a complete Spider-Man noob. This does not make my opinion on this movie any less valid than a die-hard Spider-Man fan. It is just a different perspective.
And Now the Review
While the slick suits and death-defying stunts are awesome, the characters are still the most crucial part of any superhero tale, so we’ll start with them. I absolutely loved this version of Peter Parker. Whoever wrote this character really has a feel for what being a (modern-day) teenage nerd is like. He’s not totally out-of-touch with social norms, he’s just a bit socially awkward, and has a habit of getting tongue-tied around pretty girls (at least at first). I also got the sense that he wasn’t rejected outright by the high school population, but is an intelligent introvert living in his own separate little world. And it’s not until he sticks up for a less-fortunate student that he becomes the target of the class bully.
Andrew Garfield is excellent as Peter. Never mind the fact that he’s been out of high school for a decade – he can definitely look and act the part. With his tall frame, he manages to conveys both gangly, teenage Peter and his fluid Spider-Man physicality. Behind the mask, he’s full of sass and wit (and can sometimes be just a bit of a jerk), and without it, he won me over with a flash of his goofy grin.
Before Mary Jane Watson, Peter had a crush on Gwen Stacy. In this incarnation, she’s a brainiac and definitely not a damsel in distress. Emma Stone brings a lot of wit and charm to the role, and she and Garfield have terrific chemistry. For a movie based on comic book characters, their relationship is also pretty realistic. In one of the simultaneously most awkward, funniest and cutest scenes of the movie, Peter stammers his way through asking Gwen out: “We could…ah…, orwecouldosomethingelse.” Lucky for him, she knows exactly what he means, replying, “Yeah, either one!” He skips triumphantly down the hallway as soon as she’s out of sight.
But don’t let me make this out to be a rom-com. There’s plenty of action and web-slinging as well. Typically, I’m a sworn hater of 3D, but I actually wish I had been able to see this movie with those effects. Even without the 3D, the “spidey vision” shots are still stunning. One of the best and most suspenseful action sequences occurs in the middle of the film when Spider-Man saves cars from falling off a bridge. I almost wish there had been more of this sort of thing in the movie, but I wouldn’t have traded the existing character-driven moments for more action.
What I would have traded out in a heartbeat was the bulk of the Lizard/Connor scenes. As much as I really love this movie, I feel that the creators fell off the bandwagon a bit when it came to the villain. Don’t get me wrong, Rhys Ifans is a good actor, and Dr. Connor definitely started out as a sympathetic character. The problem here lies in the writing and the villain development. His switches back and forth from lizard to doctor are choppy, and it’s unclear how much of the opposite entity each contains. There was a missed opportunity here to create a really compelling villain, and this hurts the film as a whole.
Tied to this problem is the issue of the traditional hero vs. villain climactic battle. To me, it fell flat for some reason. I don’t know whether or not it has any roots in the comics, but the Lizard’s evil plot just seems a bit…stupid. I know there are some people who would jump on my back for comparing the ending to that of Batman Begins, but I have to say, Nolan did it better.
Furthermore, the mystery of what really happened to Peter’s parents will apparently be saved for the sequel, and Peter never does catch that particular criminal he’s after for revenge. Another reviewer argued that this is intentional. A boy looks for his father and has to grow into an adult in the process, and as Peter hunts for the crook, he becomes Spider-Man. Although I like this interpretation, I’m still extremely curious to know more about these plot points.
Another issue: while I realize Marc Webb is trying to avoid remaking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man shot-for-shot, the “becoming Spider-Man” montage went by way too fast. A few quick seconds of Peter building the webshooters, a Bing search for Spandex on the Internet, a bit of stitching, and ta-da! He’s completely Spider-Man! It very nearly killed my suspension of disbelief.
While the movie does fall short on some accounts, it really excels with the smaller, character-driven moments. The movie takes time to focus on Peter’s relationship with his aunt and uncle, making them both significant parts of the story even long after Peter becomes Spider-Man. I already mentioned Gwen Stacy’s relationship with Peter, but I also loved the brief scenes of the Stacy family interacting. Gwen’s father, the police chief, provides some dry humor as well as a few touching moments in relation to Gwen. Even the school bully gets a bit of a character development arc.
I’ve heard some complain that The Amazing Spider-Man “rips off” The Dark Knight Trilogy, but it really doesn’t. In the words of Andrew Garfield, it’s “grounded, but not gritty.” Although it ends on a hopeful note, most of the plot is rather dark and tragic, with Peter learning some harsh lessons through the chain of events he unwittingly begins. In spite of this, it’s still an incredibly funny film, from Peter’s mishaps with his new spider-powers to his snarky comments behind the mask. This contrast in tones does make for some odd mood-whiplash at times, but doesn’t really life often swing back and forth from sadness to humor?
That’s basically all I’ve got to say about the newest Spider-Man movie. If you like superhero movies (and even if you don’t), give it a shot. Despite some missteps, it’s wonderfully entertaining and I can’t wait for the sequel in two years.