I have to admit that, before I saw The Amazing Spider-Man on Tuesday, all I knew about the character was that he could climb walls, shoot webs, and that Tobey Maguire played him in three films, two of which were fun and one of which wasn’t. However, my boyfriend is a Spider-Man fanatic so, on Monday night, I asked him to tell me everything that he knew about the character and everything that I should know before I even tried to write a review of this latest film.
“Everything?” he asked.
“Everything,” I replied, “I mean, I know about the spider bite and his uncle and Kirsten Dunst and all that. How much more could there be?”
Well, he told me how much more there was. A few hours later, I threw up my hands in exasperation and jealousy while shouting, “Well, if you love Spider-Man so much, why don’t you take him to the movies!?” Being the wonderful and patient guy that he is, Jeff explained to me the many reasons why he prefers my company to Spider-Man’s. While most of those reasons would probably be considered too TMI for me to go into too much detail about on this site, it was still nice of him to reassure me. The fact of the matter is that Spider-Man has became a cultural icon, a figure that is now known not only to the cute guy who grew up with him but also to people, like me, whose knowledge of costumed super heroes is pretty much limited to what shows up on the movie screen.
Perhaps that’s why Marc Webb’s reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man has been so highly anticipated. Having seen it, I’m happy to say that the film, while uneven, has plenty to please both fans and newcomers alike.
The first part of the film pretty much retells the familiar origin of Spider-Man. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a nerdy high school outcast who lives with his aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen). A scientific genius, Peter is bullied by jocks and spends his time pining for a girl who he can’t work up the courage to talk to. One day, Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider and soon, he has all the powers of a spider. At first, Peter has a selfish reaction to his new powers and he sees little reason why he should use them to protect a society that has rejected him. However, that all changes once Peter’s saint of an uncle is killed by a criminal that Peter earlier refused to help capture.
As many critics have pointed out, this is all familiar to anyone who saw the first Spider-Man film but that familiarity doesn’t detract from the film’s effectiveness. The fact of the matter is that Spider-Man, much like Batman, has become a part of American folklore. These are stories that are meant to be told and retold with each teller bringing his own unique spin to the material.
The film works best during this first half, when Peter is first discovering and learning how to deal with his powers while pursuing a tentative romance with Gwen (played by Emma Stone) under the disapproving eye of her father (Denis Leary), who just happens to be a police detective obsessed with capturing Spider-Man. This is largely because the first half of the film is dominated by Andrew Garfield.
Andrew Garfield has been one of my favorite actors ever since I first noticed him in Never Let Me Go and he brings a wonderfully unpredictable energy to the familiar story of how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. To his credit, Garfield plays Peter as such an awkward teenager that he’s actually somewhat creepy when we first see him. Whereas Tobey Maguire just came across like a shy nice guy, Garfield’s performance establishes Peter as a classic outcast and that gives his heroic transformation an extra poignancy. Unlike a lot of critics, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to praise Garfield’s performance by attacking Maguire’s. Maguire was the perfect Peter Parker for Sam Raimi’s unique brand of pop art. Marc Webb, for the first half of the film, take a far more realistic approach to the material and it’s an approach that’s well-suited to Andrew Garfield’s far more neurotic and internalized approach to the role. If Maguire’s performance owed a lot to Jimmy Stewart, Garfield’s performance reminds one of a young Dennis Hopper. It, of course, also helps that Garfield has a wonderful chemistry with both Martin Sheen and Emma Stone.
Though the audience I was with seemed to disagree, I found the film’s second half to be significantly weaker than the first. The latter part of the film is dominated by a pretty standard super-villian, a one-armed scientist (played by Rhys Ifans) who knew Peter’s parents and whose attempts to regenerate his missing arm leads to him turning into a lizard man who lives in the sewers. Though Ifans is a talented actor and he certainly has the mad scientist look down, his character remains something of a cipher. You’re never quite sure what Ifans is attempting to do or why he’s attempting to do it and, as a result, his final confrontation with Spider-Man is never quite as compelling (or fun) as one would hope. It all feels rather oddly generic.
Complaints aside, I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man and I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel. I’m just hoping that the next film in the franchise has a villain that can match up to Garfield’s interpretation of the lead role.