Longer ago than I care to admit (it can be measured in decades, sadly), I first started reviewing movies on a weekly radio program, originally adopting the strategy of treating each new film as strictly its own entity. Theoretically, a sizable percentage of our listening audience would be coming to these films fairly fresh, with no working knowledge of the director’s wider oeuvre, the history of the production or any of the other odd particulars that can fill the heads of seasoned moviegoers as the lights go dim in the theater. I figured I should do the best I could to be similarly open to whatever was put onscreen before me. I hardly had an exhaustive knowledge myself at the time, but this approach still proved futile in fairly short order. Each new film carried too much history with it, including decades of cinematic influence that bore down on every frame. I had to meet films where I was at, not where I imagined some phantom audience member might be.
I thought of that a lot as The Amazing Spider-Man played out. This so-called reboot arrives a mere decade after director Sam Raimi first brought Marvel’s wily wall-crawler to the screen and five years after Spider-Man 3 ended his creative reign on a sadly sour note. That’s not a turnaround made at entirely unprecedented speed (there were only eight years between Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin and Christopher Nolan’s rescue of DC’s caped crusader), but it does provide a somewhat dismaying snapshot of current Hollywood creativity, centered on fervently maintaining a handful of brands rather than striving for originality. Once, the James Bond franchise was a outlier with its continual recasting and corresponding mild reinvention across several generations. Now it can clearly be viewed as a trailblazer.
That shifting cinematic model makes all the commentary about the questionable necessity of a reconfigured Spider-Man–commentary offered with equal amounts of quizzical chin-scratching by those on both sides of the divide in assessing the quality of the new film–almost entirely immaterial. The movie landscape is dominated by completely recyclable comic book concepts now, and with the summer season likely to finish up with titles based on superhero properties in the top three positions at the box office, the lineup of movie posters outside of the local multiplex is only going to bear more of a resemblance to the array of four-color wonders at a bygone newsstand in years to come. So, entirely putting aside comparisons to what came before it and even considerations of the business demands that spawned it, is The Amazing Spider-Man a good movie, simply on its own merits? Nope.
Working from a script credited to three different writers, director Marc Webb delivers a surprisingly spiritless film. It is back to the beginning for high school student Peter Parker, an awkward science whiz who is mildly persecuted in school, but is more likely to stand up for the bullied than to be the target himself. As played by Andrew Garfield, Peter is moody and somewhat stuck in his own head. It’s his newfound curiosity over the father who abandoned him that sets the origin story in motion, with an irradiated spider delivering a bite and a series of sensational super-powers to go along with the resulting welt. Peter learns how to use his abilities and creates a crime-fighting identity, largely out of guilt (and a desire for revenge) over his accidental complicity in the death of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), shot by a robber Peter failed to stop when he had a clear chance to do so.
Perhaps predictably, given the vast skill he’s demonstrated elsewhere, Garfield is quite good as both Peter and his alter ego, Spider-Man. He taps into a personal passion for the character that heightens the emotions, from the sullen teenage tones to the sudden freedom of great power and the agitated urgency as crises mount. He’s especially good in his scenes with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, the lovely blonde who was Peter’s first girlfriend in the comic books. There’s such a warmth to the two actors’ interplay that I immediately wanted to see them picked up and plopped down in another film in which their time together was the point, instead of merely a sidebar to a lot of CGI spectacle. There should be a Broadway producer who is right this second orchestrating a conference call intended to talk them into taking two-thirds of the principal roles in a revival of The Philadelphia Story.
Spider-Man’s chief adversary in the film is Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist colleague of Peter’s father, whose efforts to spin together the genetics of different animals to regrow his missing arm results in his being transformed into a monstrous lizard creature. The design-work on the Lizard is fairly dull and perfunctory, which is an unfortunate mirror of the action set pieces he romps through. While Webb does well by a couple of sequences, especially one that take’s place in Peter’s high school, he generally has a clumsy approach to the dynamics of the film, especially when he opts for a first-person (web) shooter perspective that may be well-suited for video games but comes across as visual mush when transferred to the movie screen. The director shows no deftness, charging headlong through the story in a manner that paradoxically slows the film down. There’s nothing to invest in, no dilemma or ongoing relationship to really grab a hold of. It’s about as gripping as watching a checklist get filled out.
My appreciation for what Raimi achieved with Spider-Man is part of the digital record, but I’m not playing favorites when I register pronounced dissatisfaction with Webb’s new take on the character and his world. If the filmmakers can start over, then so can I. However, it doesn’t take comparisons to spot the troubled tangles Webb and his collaborators spun.