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[REVIEW] THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

Sony’s decision to reboot their lucrative Spider-Man franchise a mere five years on from Spider-Man 3 was met with trepidation by most and widely perceived as a cynical, not-too-subtle cash-grab. This leaves The Amazing Spider-Man with the unenviable task of delivering an entertaining new origin story for the web-slinger while also justifying its own existence, with the popular Sam Raimi trilogy still fresh in the public consciousness. So the fact that this reboot struggles to prove its necessity in the same season as The Avengers and The Dark Knight Returns is hardly surprising. What Sony and their young director Marc Webb get most right this time around is casting, with exciting British actor Andrew Garfield in the titular role made famous by Tobey Maguire, and the stunning Emma Stone as his romantic lead. Webb brings the heart, comedy and character focus of (500) Days of Summer to the fore here, delivering an emotionally affecting and occasionally angsty coming-of-age drama which wisely focusses on his two phenomenal leads. However, when the obligatory genre conventions take over, The Amazing Spider-Man suffers from some lacklustre action, a clichéd villain, and perhaps most disappointingly, there is evidence of studio interference throughout.

The Amazing Spider-Man opens with a flashback of Peter Parker as a boy, revealing how he was suddenly entrusted to his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his scientist father RIchard (Campbell Scott), setting up a mysterious backstory following the disappearance of his parents and the ensuing Daddy issues. As the story shifts to the present day, we’re introduced to the 17-year-old Peter (Garfield), a brooding skater who is less of a stereotyped nerd than Maguire’s character and more like an awkward, misunderstood outsider whose tragic past keeps him from being able to connect with the people around him. Just like in the comics/Raimi’s films/animated series, Peter has an eye for science and photography, as well as for his cute and clever classmate, Gwen Stacy (Stone). And, of course, he is subjected to the requisite high school humiliations, but even the school bully, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), is less of a stereotype than he first appears.

After stumbling upon some of his father’s old research papers, Peter soon finds himself at the sinister Oscorp, looking for answers from his father’s former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who runs the biochemical facility and hopes to regrow his missing arm with cross-species genetics. While snooping around one of the secret labs, Peter is bitten by a genetically modified spider. What follows will feel familiar to most audiences, but Webb has a lot of fun with Peter’s discovery of his new abilities, including a couple of hilarious scenes on the subway and on the basketball court, as well as an inventive sequence which sees Peter test his limits on the skateboard.

The story beats – although tweaked and updated for 2012 – are overly familiar throughout, but what makes them feel fresh and engaging is Webb’s investment in the characters, and the superb performances he gets from his two leads. Andrew Garfield came out of nowhere in 2007 with a star-making performance in Boy A, and has since impressed with his work in the Red Riding Trilogy, Never Let Me Go and his scene-stealing turn in The Social Network. His casting in this role may have seemed odd initially, but Garfield’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is funnier, sexier and more charming than the character has ever been, not to mention a bit of a prick at times. And Emma Stone – who blew us all away in 2010 with Easy A and has been on a roll ever since – is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, infusing Gwen with the kind of spark, humour and depth that Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane sorely lacked. The film could have done with more of Stone, as she and Garfield clearly have great chemistry together, and the film is at its best when they share the screen.

Martin Sheen and Sally Field are also in fine form as Peter’s adoptive parents, giving us real people as opposed to the clichés we saw in Raimi’s films. Even Dennis Leary impresses as Captain Stacy, Gwen’s overprotective cop father who features more prominently than expected, managing to flesh out what could have been a pretty one-dimensional character. Idiosyncratic Welsh thesp Rhys Ifans is surprisingly the weakest link here, playing a desperate man forced to test an unstable serum on himself, transforming him into a creature known as The Lizard. Ifans’ performance is oddly flat, and his character underdeveloped, although the fault is not all his.

Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, while goofy and already quite dated, at the very least gave us some great villains: Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), and even Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). These were memorable antagonists, with clear motivations and schemes. In comparison, The Lizard – with his uninspired, ugly design work and piecemeal motivations/backstory – is a weak, clichéd villain. But the blame cannot be placed entirely on Ifans or Webb for this. The Amazing Spider-Man, which is the work of three scriptwriters (James Vanderbilt, Allen Sargent and Steve Kloves), smacks of serious post-production studio interference. There are obvious plot holes throughout the film’s second and third acts; without going into spoiler territory, story threads such as the “Untold Story” of Peter’s parents, and the MIA secondary villain – Oscorp higher-up Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) – are frustratingly never returned to. The Lizard’s story is severely truncated, to the point that you almost forget about him for much of the film, which makes the skyscraper showdown at the close all the more anticlimactic. There are several scenes from the film’s various trailers which are glaringly omitted here. [You can read more about the film’s studio interference issues over at Badass Digest].

The film’s action sequences are also problematic. While Spider-Man’s first encounter with The Lizard – as he causes carnage on a bridge full of civilians – is pretty spectacular, the rest of the film is made up of pedestrian action scenes which show little imagination or flair for the genre and rely too heavily on CGI. Webb filmed The Amazing Spider-Man in 3D – a first for the superhero genre – and while that ensures that it looks better than any Marvel’s post-converted 3D films, it also never impresses in the same way Ridley Scott’s Prometheus did. Sure, some of the web-slinging scenes look cool and Spider-Man is obviously an ideal candidate for the format, but many scenes suffer from the same murkiness as most 3D films and it hardly feels necessary here. The production design by J. Michael Rival (Iron Man) is impressive throughout, especially in the futuristic Oscorp building, but the same can’t be said of the film’s patchy visual effects.

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like a film crafted by committee in an attempt to please all, which gives it an odd, inconsistent tone. You can almost picture the executives demanding, “We want the story of Spider-Man and the style of Batman Begins!”. Spider-Man is not necessarily the first character you would imagine pulling off “dark” or “gritty”, but Webb and Garfield do their utmost to make it work, inspired more by Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man than Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original 1960s incarnation of the character. For the most part they succeed as far as the characters are concerned, but there are jarring moments – often when Peter puts on the Spider-Man suit – where the film seems to flip a switch from dark and realistic to comedic and silly. In some ways, The Amazing Spider-Man could be viewed as the antithesis of Brian Singer’s Superman Returns, which was a cumbersome reboot big on spectacular action and not so big on character development.

Webb’s decision to prioritise characters over action was obviously a risky one – and seemingly one Sony regretted upon seeing the first cut – but I applaud him for delivering a fresh new take on the rather tired superhero genre. His obvious affinity for characters and relationships makes The Amazing Spider-Man feel less like a superhero film and more like an intimate teenage romance/coming-of-age story that just happens to take place in the superhero world. In fact, several of the scenes Garfield shares with Stone (or Sheen and Field) wouldn’t feel out of place in an indie drama. These are real characters that you become  invested in, which is something of a rarity in this genre, and if that kind of heart and depth comes at the cost of spectacle then I’m happy to make that sacrifice. Obviously a more assured blend of the two would be ideal (Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon have proved that it is possible), but this is a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable first entry in a flawed yet promising new franchise.

The Amazing Spider-Man may be predictable and ultimately unable to justify its existence, but Webb has given us some refreshingly engaging characters with real depth, and the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is the film’s greatest special effect, easily erasing the memory of the clichéd characters in Sam Raimi’s trilogy. While the film never manages to achieve the scope or slickness of Spider-Man 2, nor the visionary franchise-overhaul of Batman Begins, it does enough to convince me that with a stronger script and villain, the sequel could be something special. Let’s hope Sony manage to find a director they’re confident enough with to keep them out of the editing process next time.

RATING: C+

Watch the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man below.

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