Disdain and cynicism has awaited “The Amazing Spider-Man” anticipating its release. The general consensus is that the original “Spider-Man” franchise is much too recent to warrant the complete cast and crew overhaul. I disagree. Any story can be made compelling with the right combination of creative forces, the only problem there being that the combination has to be right. All evidence seems to indicate “The Amazing Spider-Man” had a solid, passionate team behind it, what with the talented Marc Webb directing it and the screenwriters of the film being hot off the “Harry Potter” franchise, “Zodiac”, and even the original “Spider-Man” movies. It is, however, impossible to separate my opinion of the film from my knowledge of the behind-the-scenes-workings of it, knowledge indicating a last-minute intervention from the studio to cut out the brand-new back-story intended to make this film its own beast. The result of this? A film that feels not only incomplete, but almost robbed of the opportunity to make itself stand out. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is an incredibly awkward viewing experience. Not a bad one, not an unpleasant one. Just one that’s clearly not itself, often times drawing remarkably clear parallels to the origin story from barely ten years ago.
As with Sam Raimi’s 2002 original, this is the story of the genius, if socially clueless Peter Parker. Parker’s a high-school student who lost his scientist parents years ago under dubious circumstances, although he’s found parental figures in his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, living in Queens. By a genetically enhanced spider-bite (yeah), Peter finds himself with incredible strength, dexterity and speed, although it is worth noting that in this version his famous “web-slinging” abilities here come from chemical containers, not his wrists. After his Uncle Ben is gunned down by a robber, Parker decides to use his enhanced abilities for crime-fighting. This comes in handy when a giant scientist-turned-lizard (yeah) threatens to unleash a massive toxin that would transform New York into, well, lizards (yeah).
Even typing up that plot summary sort of displays all of “Spider-Man”s narrative weaknesses in one compact little summary: the uninspired, under-developed villain with the ridiculous “evil” plot, this of course ignoring that all the other stuff in the movie has been, well, done before. The film moves at a rapid pace, but not the sort of pace that inspires tension or propels suspense. It’s the sort of rhythm that often makes you pause and ponder, often feeling like you missed the pay-off of almost any given scene. Love stories are developed and unfolded in a matter of minutes, entire characters disappear for up to an hour without much notice being given, and the villain’s major “plot” comes in the last 20 minutes, barely even feeling like a footnote. This is a messily edited film if ever there were one.
But when the film finds its groove, it clicks like crazy. The film’s two leads, Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man and Emma Stone as his love interest/best friend Gwen Stacy, hit a natural chemistry from the first time they lock eyes. It’s really only in these moments where “The Amazing Spider-Man” stops feeling like a product and more like a story, something with a point, a pay-off, and even a heart. Director Marc Webb, hot off last decade’s best rom-com “500 Days Of Summer”, really knows the dialogue and dynamics to make a believable cinematic romance.
Webb assembled a skilled supporting cast as well, although not much is done with them. Martin Sheen and Sally Field nail the roles of Peter’s surrogate parents, making it all the harder when Sheen’s character is gunned down, setting Peter’s transformation into motion. Denis Leary demonstrates his dramatic chops as Gwen’s police-chief father, as well. But Rhys Ifans, for me, is very problematic as the antagonist of the piece, Curt Connors. He’s quite good when Connors plays the ‘reserved-scientist’ archetype, but when he transforms into the villainous “Lizard”, it just becomes laughable, almost completely undoing any dramatic tension built by the film.
All the pieces seemed to be in the right place to make “The Amazing Spider-Man” a runaway success, but it just never coheres the way it should. Sad, but this film seems almost destined to dwell in the shadow of other, better products, serving as more of a footnote in the wake of Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” trilogy, and better yet, in between “The Avengers” and the final Batman installment. A swing and a miss. C-