A familiar origin story tries to balance the real and the amazing, frequently soaring thanks to a wonderful young cast. Yet it difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve been here before.
Despite appearing in comic books for over fifty years, the evolution of Spider-man on screen has been a slow one. After a long and complicated development, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (2002) and it’s sequel not only brought a new generation of fans to the friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler, but pleased fans with its mostly respectful treatment of the character. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and with Raimi’s third Spider-film, conflicting interests and a horribly misjudged sense of zeitgeist resulted in an emo musical. With a jazzy song still in their hearts, Sony have rebirthed Spider-man into a darker world, and the fit isn’t an easy one.
The origin of Spider-man is a recognisable part of modern myth. The Amazing Spider-man adds additional layers by seeking in part to answer a question we never realised we had: who exactly were Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) parents? Left with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) as a young boy, Peter has inherited his scientist father’s intellect. It is this natural curiosity that leads him to Oscorp Industries and Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), a former colleague of Peter’s dad. Connors seeks to regenerate his lost arm, and experiments with splicing the genes of reptiles. It is here that Peter is bitten by a modified spider, imbuing him with superhuman strength and spider-like abilities. When tragedy strikes, and his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) grows, Peter must decide what becoming Spider-man truly means.
In the wake of Batman Begins (2005), there has been a tendency to try to match our comic book heroes to a more “realistic” world. For Marvel’s most famous creation, the suspension of disbelief always ended with the powers and the villains, as Peter’s other problems are very much grounded in the real world. Garfield’s Parker is a bullied loner and an outcast, something the core comic book audience has always been able to relate to, and he brings an enthusiastic freshness to a well-worn character. The real strengths of the film are the interactions between Stone and Garfield, and (500) Days of Summer director Webb is accomplished at generating genuine affection against adolescent angst. Yet this is not a pure romance film, and The Amazing Spider-man suffers under the burden of having to achieve a great deal in a short period of time, but accomplishing very little.
For this is not simply Spider-man’s origin story, but the start of a journey for supervillain The Lizard as well, not to mention the shady past of Peter Parker’s parents . Unfortunately, only Peter’s story comes close to being engaging. Once we leave the comfort zone of an elongated exposition, we are mostly left watching two CG creations chase each other over Manhattan, creating a hollow second act that only serves as filler for the final showdown. While Ifans gives it his all, the two-dimensional character is not terribly compelling. Thankfully, the presence of Sheen, Field and to a lesser extent Denis Leary (as Gwen’s police captain father) adds some weight, but their screen time is all too brief.
The effects are actually quite impressive, and they rarely expose themselves as being too overt. Yet while Webb’s second film confirms his talent for character pieces, it also reveals how far he has to go in learning about action. Fight sequences are close-quartered and uninspired, as is the trend in modern blockbusters. Conversely, finally getting a chance to see Spidey cut loose and swing across a city is revelatory.
The Amazing Spider-man is a film designed to initiate a new franchise. With a planned trilogy a foregone conclusion, this film is about setting them up to knock them down later. Indeed, with this film doing the hard work of reestablishing characters, we can look forward to some spectacular Spider-man sequels down the road. This first outing is certainly entertaining, and there are often times when it soars, but it is far from amazing.
The Amazing Spider-man is released in Australia on 4 July 2012 (2 July QLD & NT) from Sony, and on 3 July 2012 in the US.