Andrew Garfield > Tobey Maguire.

People are calling this the Spiderman movie that no one wants. Well, I wanted it. One of my very first blog articles was about this project, which I felt had already scored points for casting Garfield and taking a chance on Marc Webb (director of (500) Days of Summer). The gamble has paid off, by the way. There are people lining up to shit on this movie and it isn’t always clear what the reasoning is beyond misplaced loyalty in Raimi’s trilogy or a seemingly viral assumption that this was just a naked cash-grab. Instead, The Amazing Spiderman is a movie where it’s obvious that a lot of care was taken both in servicing the established mythos of the character and differentiating itself from the previous cinematic incarnation. It’s not without its rough spots, and I’ll get to those, but all in all this is light years ahead of what came before and stands tall alongside the other good-not-great Marvel origin output. In fact, sometimes it feels like one of their movies which is not a bad thing by any stretch.

The Amazing Spiderman is the best Spiderman movie yet made and is just one of the great comic book superhero movies period. It manages this by focusing much of its attention on the human drama, including the elusive believable superhero romance. Mostly it’s a coming of age story, with Peter Parker struggling to figure out how to be responsible. The words “with great power comes great responsibility” are never uttered, but in no other Spiderman movie to date are they more a part of every fiber of story, character, and action than here.

Martin Sheen and Sally Field bring some of that effortless veteran actor stuff to Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

There’s a lot of complaining that having Peter be a brooding skateboarder with abandonment issues misses the point of the character somehow. I don’t really think it does. I think it kind of updates the narrative of how and why Peter Parker becomes Spiderman. Whether it’s true to the original version is immaterial when there are like 1700 different interpretations of the character, many of which have permutations of the basic formula. This is true of all popular, dynastic comic book heroes so complaining about it is just sour grapes. What really matters is this: does the story serve the version of the character we see? In this case, the answer is yes. We understand who this Peter Parker is and how his experiences shape him. We get to see more of a human underneath the spectacular powers. The Spiderman of this movie is a consummate rookie who makes mistakes, gets really banged up, and takes his time figuring out what is important and what is just ego. It is a Peter Parker/Spiderman with attitude, but Garfield brings an awkward, affable likability to him that offsets his flaws and creates a well-rounded character. Some people are saying that Garfield’s Parker is a “hunk” but it’s clear in the film that he doesn’t socialize too well and that, these days, is more damning than wearing glasses or being into science. I mean, this is 2012. People look better as teenagers than they did in the 80’s and those who were teens in the 80’s need to remember that when they watch movies about teenagers now.

Marc Webb’s grasp on who Peter is and how he interacts with family, schoolmates, and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is a note struck early in the film which sings all the way through. Webb seems utterly confident with this part of the film, and it is the stuff that seems least interfered with (there were reshoots and, allegedly, some chop-happy editing). The more action-heavy and ridiculous final third of the film benefits from the goodwill and sense of character built up in the early scenes. Stand-outs include Peter’s discovery of his powers, an extended bit that really captures what it would be like to wake up one day with mutant spider shit going on. The subway car fight is clunky but it shows off the style of Peter’s movement, the way he reacts, how quickly he moves, etc. That is ultimately what sold me on the superhero side of the movie. And it kept paying dividends throughout.

This Spiderman looks and moves in a way I can only call correct.

A lot of people are saying the action is the weak point of the movie. I’d say the obligatory New Yorker/America cheeseball stuff is the weak point, but to each their own. I definitely don’t agree about the action. The action is excellent and though he fights the Lizard several times, every fight feels fresh and showcases more of the “holy shit they got this right” in terms of how Spiderman moves and fights. Even his static poses more closely resemble what we remember from the comics than anything in Raimi’s trilogy. There’s also that much more of the work is practical, giving us a way better sense of Spiderman as a sort of super-gymnast (capitalizing on Garfield’s gymnast training) which is exactly what I wanted. I don’t understand how you could not want that but I understand if this preference fulfillment makes me softer on the movie’s action than I maybe should be. I did feel like there were dodgy moves, like Peter’s first weird shift-grab-basketball in the gym scene, but I honestly believe there wasn’t a false note in any of the big action sequences or fights.

The cheeseball stuff could really have been left out. The crane operators sequence is helped by a truly bombastic score that would have been right at home in a fantasy epic. The swell of music is hard to ignore, and there are individual pieces of the sequence that work until to pause on the whole of it and the reasons it’s in the movie in the first place. I will give Raimi this: the train sequence in Spiderman 2 is the best, though most bonkers, way to handle this kind of shit. While I’m on the subject of mistakes and flaws, there are a few missed opportunities and sloppy moments. Spiderman leaving the rest of the cars hanging from the bridge after saving the kid comes to mind. The way to salvage that would have been a quick scene of Peter watching rescue workers haul up whoever’s in those cars and being like “oh darn I forgot the other cars!” and it would have been completely consistent with the film’s sense of humor and the “Spiderman Year One” tone of his superheroics.

The reasons for Gwen and Peter’s mutual attraction are always clear and real. 

Swinging (see what I did there?) away from the action and clunky bits once more, I want to spend some time on the romance. One of the positive things people are saying about this movie is that Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield really make this stuff work. There are some outliers saying it’s a bit unbelievable that they’re just suddenly omgiminlove but that’s not really what happens. They have an attraction right from the beginning, with Gwen making the first move when she sees Peter standing up to Flash. Then there’s the science thing: they’re both science nerds and drawn to each other’s intelligence. There’s also when Gwen discovers Peter is a vigilante: instant daddy issue explosion because her dad is a police captain. Speaking of which, Dennis Leary just isn’t in the movie enough as Captain Stacy… he’s pretty awesome when he’s around though. Anyways, back to Gwen and Pete. That circumstances add a “forbidden romance” dimension to their deal kinda spices things up. I mean, they’re teenagers. It makes teenager sort of sense and they have a teenager sort of approach to it all. A potentially ideal way to describes why this part of the movie works is to say that it could easily be from some teenager romcom or indie coming of age story and work perfectly.

See, it’s the relationships that make this movie go. Being without a dad, Peter sort of collects father figures (I know what that’s like). First is Uncle Ben and he really gets the most play until he dies (spoilerz1!!). But then there’s Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans) who immediately sees Peter’s potential and takes him as a bit of a protege. Then there’s Captain Stacy who is disapproving until he isn’t, but who calls Peter out on shit and ultimately cements the story’s theme of responsibility. Of course, this is meant to be a franchise starter so there’s plenty of room for Peter’s daddy issues to be explored in the future. They aren’t really resolved by the end of the movie and that’s fine, that’s how life is. Besides the superhero stuff, everything the movie does with “reality” feels right so it makes sense that nothing much is wrapped up in any kind of nice little bow. Even Peter’s relationship with Gwen, though ending on a hopeful note, is severely strained.

Mad scientist time!

Speaking of Curt Connors. One of the missteps is relying on a sort of lazy version of the whole Jekyll and Hyde thing. We get that this is the narrative for Connors/The Lizard so they only need to establish that Connors is conflicted about the urges he has as the Lizard. We don’t need Gollum voice over. We also don’t really need the big green smoke of Lizard plan, which feels  lifted from X-Men. I’m actually not that bothered with his eeeevvvvil plan compared to some. It’s established throughout the movie that Connors has a bit of megalomania, a side effect of his ultimately selfish desire to have two arms again. The movie takes the time to give us the information that Connors wants to help E’RYBODY with his gene splicing. It makes total sense for the character to have that compulsion once he’s all Lizarded out but there is a certain amount of fatigue with this kind of villain plot. Can’t he just be on a murderous rampage he can’t control and just needs stopping? Does it have to rely on magic green shit, magic blue shit, and the science genius of teenagers? Fuck it, though, it’s still a movie where a guy gets bit by a spider and develops superpowers.

Speaking of the Lizard. Man, has the design for him ever taken a lot of shit. It’s still taking a lot of shit. I don’t really get it at all. I thought the design was fine. I didn’t need a snout to be happy. He basically looks like you’d expect a lizardman to look. That’s enough for me. He isn’t always super well animated, but it’s not the end of the world.

I have to admit that I like the potential for Spidey’s roster of villains to be mostly genetically-mutated freaks largely derived from gene splicing experiments. His rogue’s gallery always had other animal-based characters, most of whom used technology or whatever to be all bad. If I were making The Amazing Spiderman 2 I would have a significant chunk of the movie be Spiderman trying to damage control a host of freaky fuckers Oscorp accidentally unleashes on the city. Great way to have The Vulture, The Rhino, Scorpion, etc show up without having to retcon Spidey’s backstory to suit the addition (eh, Raimi? Eh?). Then ramp up the focus on Oscorp itself with Norman and possibly Harry Osborn. Normie may already have been teased in this movie so maybe that’s where they intend to go with it anyway. One hopes but one is getting away from oneself. Back to the movie.

The Lizard could have been scarier, sure, but I don’t know if it would have fit the movie any better.

So finally let’s deal a bit more directly with the biggest change to the Spiderman mythology in this movie. Peter Parker’s dad is an Oscorp scientist working on gene splicing. In an earlier version of the movie, it seemed like Peter himself would be some kind of experiment which would explain (possibly) why he doesn’t get too freaky when he’s bitten by the spider. Like his DNA was more compatible with the splicing shit or something, I guess. They dropped this and I dunno if it matters at all. If they have the balls to keep Parker’s mutations in development, we might see some of the truly freaky The Fly-type stuff that happens to him later on. Anyways the reason this is a shift is because it puts Peter’s emotional focus in a very different place. He’s no longer some dork who gets randomly bitten and happens to have a noble uncle to guide him to herodom. Instead, his experiences are directly linked to a search for answers. This is what they teach screenwriters in those books and/or classes: to put the protagonist in the driver’s seat as much as possible. So basically, Peter’s journey becomes one of consequent events as opposed to incidental ones. That’s not necessarily an improvement, but it is not a betrayal either and it isn’t a change for the sake of change. It informs the whole plot in clear, straightforward ways, and brings a focus to who Peter is and why he does what he does that, yes, could have been accomplished other ways. But this version of the story is strong and holds up. Therefore, it isn’t any less valid than any other unless you think it’s more than just subjective bias to favor one version of the character over the other upteen.

All in all, The Amazing Spiderman is not a perfect movie. It has flaws, some of which are the result of rash edits or dumb directing/writing. But it also has legs. Big thick meaty ones that more than carry its weight. This is what you want out of a superhero movie. A good story, a good protagonist, a good villain, and some spectacle and moralizing thrown in for kicks. More than being about right and wrong, good and evil, The Amazing Spiderman is about taking responsibility. Like Uncle Ben says of Peter’s father’s perspective: if you can do good, you have a moral obligation to do good. This is asound theme both for Spiderman and for the kids this movie was made for. It also doesn’t reduce the sentiment to a catchy phrase, but recycles the wording to get at the true meaning. That means Spiderman’s core narrative as a cultural icon remains intact even if they changed some of the details.  The movie respects you, in other words. And it amply earns your respect in turn.

And really, fixating on the mythology details of such varied and reincarnated source material is just some stupid self-absorbed fanboy crap anyway. I’m sorry, I know that isn’t nice. But it’s the truth. Your comics still exist. Your Raimi trilogy, if that’s the side your bread is buttered on, also still exists. This movie doesn’t erase what came before, it simply adds to the mix. There is room for this new take on Spiderman, in other words. What would have made that untrue is not actually an issue: this is a movie where care was shown, where they clearly tried to make a good movie. Where the dumb shit isn’t really any more dumb than the dumb shit in Nolan’s Batman movies, and look at all the love they get. But in the end, haters gonna hate. Meanwhile I’ll be enjoying the best live-action version of Spiderman.

Because angst.

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