Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"The Amazing Spider-Man" is surprisingly good, but it's impossible not to draw comparisons with the other films.




With "The Avengers" dominating box office records worldwide and with "The Dark Knight Rises" set to definitively close the book on the most epic cinematic chapter in superhero history, everyone has been wondering what room is left for Peter Parker to spin his webs once more. Well, nevertheless we have "The Amazing Spider-Man", a film that retells the story we saw just ten short years ago, about a boy, a spider-bite and some great responsibility.

While I haven't been too vocal about it on this site, I was never terribly excited about this film. Even right up to ten minutes before the film started in the lobby of the cinema, I just couldn't muster up any excitement for it. It's not that I didn't think the film could be good. Certainly, the cast was always going to be impressive and the hiring of (500) Days of Summer helmer Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name and enough people have pointed out the obvious) was an extremely interesting choice compared to the usual action-oriented directors for these kinds of projects.



What bothered me about the film's direction were two-fold: it was obviously far too soon to spend an entire film retreading the origin of Peter Parker/Spider-Man after a (mostly) celebrated, extremely profitable trilogy of films had already covered that within this generation. And seriously, "celebrated [and] extremely profitable" is doing Sam Raimi's films an injustice. The Spider-Man films are an iconic, unforgettable benchmark of the Golden Age of superhero cinema. They represent the beginning not just of mainstream acceptance, but of mainstream embrace of these characters being truthfully represented on the big screen. "The Amazing Spider-Man" marks a new low in cinematic showmanship - it was just poor form to white-out over everything Raimi had accomplished, warts n' all after such a short amount of time. To put it into context, "The Dark Knight" came out a year after "Spider-Man 3" and now "The Dark Knight Rises" is coming out the same Summer as a Spider-Man reboot. It seems like it's too soon. I'm going to warn you all now that comparisons between this film and the Sam Raimi films are going to come thick and fast, as there's just not really any other way of looking at the film.

The other problem I had with the film's premise before the cameras even rolled was that the story was going to deal with the mysterious circumstances of the deaths of Peter's parents. I honestly couldn't care less about Richard or Mary Parker. Seriously, they mean about as much to me as Alfred Pennyworth's father Jarvis Pennyworth. They're the glorified answers to Spider-Man trivia questions, not fodder for a movie-trilogy. Every last speck of integrity and endurance that makes Peter Parker a hero comes from Uncle Ben and Aunt May. His actual parents being dead was just an excuse Stan Lee came up with in order to explain why Aunt May was so old and poorly, in order to give Peter extra baggage on top of all of the problems he dealt with as a teenage superhero. Sure, given the soap operatic nature of Spider-Man's stories it does make sense to eventually give some exciting reason for why his parents live no longer, but to tie it in so squarely with the origin of the Webbed Wonder seemed like it would be really awkward. Luckily, it's only very awkward.

Simply put, I enjoyed "The Amazing Spider-Man" quite a bit.

The film takes many obvious cues from Christopher Nolan - the characters all seem much more like real people in the real world, there's much less emphasis on whimsy and dough-eyed, cornball heroics. Everything is dirtier and more painful (even the webswinging - a stylish MTV dance in the previous films - is intentionally clumsier and more improvised), but there's a sense of refinement in the progression of the plot and its characters.



Chief among the high points of this film is Andrew Garfield himself. Supposedly a lifelong fan of Spidey (aren't they all?), Garfield injects an honest intensity and a web-swinging electricity into Peter Parker, completely submerging himself in the role with understated brilliance. His performance is wonderfully nuanced and layered to the point where you fall in love with Peter as a real person and not as a cartoon archetype. Peter is no longer the stereotypical "Saved by the Bell" nerd he was in the previous films and is far closer to the complex, socially challenged techie of the comics; his bedroom, his belongings and his very mind constantly cluttered with weird little inventions and machinations, retarding his ability to communicate like a normal person. Some fans might be offended by his trendier looks, Robert Pattinson-hairstyle and the general sexiness of his brand of geekiness (as opposed to the wonderfully unattractive aloofness of Maguire), but it's never implausible that this guy would have trouble dealing with other teenagers, let alone girls. This is the Peter of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run, to be sure. As every single fanboy in the world is likely to point out, when Spider-Man does finally show up in-costume (more than a full hour into the film; again similar to Nolan and Richard Donner before him), he is decidedly more wisecrackin' than before (although people do forget that Maguire's Spider-Man had his fair share of comedic quips in his series of films as well, however brief they may have been) and it never feels forced. Like the evolution of the comics character, Spider-Man's humour always feels like a natural development as a result of the confidence Peter's new identity gives him. Spidey's still not quite the comedian he is in the comics, but I was genuinely delighted by the full-fledged three-dimensionality of Garfield's portrayal. For me, Garfield is as close to the definitive Spider-Man as we've seen so far and I look forward to watching him continue to grow and develop over the course of more films.



The best parts of the film are when Marc Webb plays the origin straight, showing Peter getting tormented by Flash Thompson (who's given a much bigger, better role than before) and other callous schoolmates, followed by the burgeoning gift/curse of his spider-powers and the all-important warning of powers and responsibility from Martin Sheen's toned-down Uncle Ben (the dialogue is taken almost word-for-word from the version of the scene in the early issues of "Ultimate Spider-Man"). Sheen does a fine job at fleshing out the world-weary Ben, but he couldn't ever possibly beat the magical, tear-jerking benevelonce of Cliff Robertson's Ben (which is probably why Webb felt he had to hire an Oscar-winner to even try). Sally Field is a truly marvelous Aunt May however, and her role in the film is important at examining a relationship that was excised from the Raimi films. Unlike the original films where Peter promptly moved into a sexy apartment with Harry Osborn after the death of his uncle (although he moved into a shitheap later on), Garfield's High-School student remains house-bound, forced to explain to his ever-loving Aunt where all the cuts and bruises have come from. I was really glad that this relationship was properly explored in the film and I look forward to seeing more of it in the future films.



*SPOILERS, TRUE BELIEVERS*






The deviations start with the lack of the familiar wresting/TV personality sequence with Webb opting for an all-too-realistic scene of a simple newsagent hold-up by Ben's eventual assailant. The structure of the sequence works surprisingly well in giving us a reason that Ben's death is Peter's fault, but it means that we don't get a scene of Peter using his powers for personal gain, an absolutely titanic part of the Spider-Man mythos. And it's this kind of thing that ruins the otherwise well-meaning film. There's all kinds of awkward "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" moments, where the mythos is changed not for any particular reason other than not to step on the toes of the previous trilogy. It makes you yearn to see what a Marc Webb Spider-Man film would have been if it hadn't been living in the shadow of Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire.




*SPOILERS BEGONE*



Emma Stone is predictably enjoyable as Gwen Stacy and her chemistry with Garfield is right on the money. Webb's film gives Gwen much more to do than MJ ever did in the other films and it's a delight to have such a strong female character who's never exploited for sex appeal (no wet t-shirt nipples in this movie!). It's just so damned unfortunate that she's even playing Stacy at all though, when she was so absolutely born to play Mary Jane. The character of Gwen in this film is undoubtedly lifted from Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man version of Mary Jane (although she is a bit bookier; more prim and proper), which makes it all the more painful that once again this film had to change for the sake of breaking from tradition. Outside of those complaints, the only other criticisms I'd have of Gwen is that again, Peter's luck with her runs a little bit more true than what we're used to from the guy who's meant to be anything but smooth. During the very early production of this film, people complained that the producers were trying to emulate 'Twilight' and while that's certainly an unfair comparison to make on a whole, there are some scenes where Peter is uncharacteristically smooth and unbecomingly sexy in a way that at least suggests that Sony want to have their own Pattinsonesque teen-heartthrob love story with Garfield and Stone (even if they are both in their mid-to-late twenties). Peter is in no way the hapless sap he was around MJ in the original films and while in some ways that's a good thing, some are going to find that a hard pill to swallow. But, again, in the comics Peter was better with women than people gave him credit for.



Rhys Ifans is fine as Curt Connors/The Lizard, but his character represents possibly the most glaring problem in the entire film outside of the mythos-changing. While the plot about cross-species splicing and turning into a giant lizard creature is all done as well as it could be (we've seen it all adapted dozens of times before in Spider-Man cartoons and video games) once again we're given the same tired mold of villain that Peter faced in the first two Raimi films. Connors is an intelligent mentor to Peter before some science happens and he begins hearing voices that tell him he has to be evil and kill Spider-Man. This is exactly the same as Green Goblin and Doc Ock right down to the sinister voices in their heads. Can we please have just one Spider-Man film where the bad guys don't discover his secret identity? For some this might be a minor complaint, but for me it represents the fatigue of the franchise, when this was supposed to be the reignition of it. After leaving the film, my friends began a depressing examination of how most superhero franchises have a variation of the same clichéd villain in every single installment (with the exception of Batman). The source material proves them wrong, but Hollywood continues to prove them right. Spider-Man deserves better explorations of his cast of villains.

The other problem with Connors is the aforementioned mystery surrounding Peter's parents. Peter crosses paths with Curt when he discovers that his father worked with him (I'm not spoiling anything, it's in the trailers), but unfortunately, absolutely nothing is resolved from this (okay, well that was a spoiler). At no point does Peter get any kind of closure or even any information regarding what happened to his parents (at least Harry Potter got a photo album at the end of Philosopher's Stone). The filmmakers even had the gall to use this annoying aspect of the film as the central topic of discussion in the now-customary scene-after-the-credits, suggesting that it was sequel-fodder from the very start and that they never had any intention to develop anything of this plot-point beyond (literally) what we saw in the trailers. In a lot of ways, this makes the film feel less like an actual film (something that only comes around every three years) and makes it feel more like an episode of a Spider-Man TV show. All of the parental mystery in the film would have been far more suited to a Spider-Man HBO/AMC series.



To veer the review away from the negative once again, I'll point out how well done the film is technically. Webb gives us more scenes of Peter discovering his powers and having to practice finesse in certain aspects of day-to-day life. The effects here are completely seamless. Peter handing Flash Thompson his ass in basketball (again, a la "Ultimate Spider-Man") was another really impressive scene. The combat throughout the film between Spider-Man and the various thugs he faces, as well as the final showdown with the Lizard all suited the word "amazing". We've never seen Spidey move with such fluidity and spider-like consistency before. The night-time atmosphere of most of Spider-Man's appearances elevates the success of this even further. Finally, the web-swinging as I mentioned previously is done in a way that probably isn't as aerially spectacular as it was in previous films, but is scaled down to evoke more credibility. There are a number of scenes where Spider-Man has nowhere to swing from and finds himself awkwardly jumping from cars and swinging at dangerously low heights, crashing into buses etc. I thought this was a really clever look at how webswinging wouldn't actually be as logistically seamless as Spider-Man stories seem to suggest.





*MOAR SPOILERZ*

There's a scene near the climax of the film where a wounded Spider-Man is having trouble getting to the OsCorp building to showdown with the Lizard, so a group of crane workers set up a more convenient swing-through for him. It's a funny, sweet little scene designed to show how much New York really cares for Spider-Man despite the negative press he receives. One thing kept going through my mind which is unlikely to have crossed anyone else's. In the video game designed for "The Amazing Spider-Man", 'invisible-ceiling webswinging' makes an unwelcome return and once again Spider-Man's webs shabbily arc from the clouds instead of realistically grasping onto the buildings of Manhattan as has been the case in previous games. It's particularly shameful that this is the case in the game, given that there's such a specific scene in the film devoted to Spider-Man's webs needing to stick to things.


*END SPOILERS*


While watching "The Amazing Spider-Man", I suspected on a number of occasions that despite its flaws, it might be the best Spider-Man film ever. Its devotion to fleshing out the previously explored characters and giving a grittier examination of the hows and the whys of Spidey's weird life really impressed me, as did the high-flying special effects. In many instances the performances were stronger than their respective predecessors.

What made me realise that this cannot be the best Spider-Man film ever was that it was so limply grasping onto itself for fear of over-writing the original trilogy. I can't decide whether someone would be better off watching this film having not seen the original films, when in many ways, the film relies on the originals to be relevant. In spite of the cues the film took from Christopher Nolan's Batman series, Nolan made one of the most important and brilliant decisions a rebooter (to coin a phrase) can make when reimagining a loved-franchise: He assumed that no one had ever seen a film made about that character before. "Batman Begins" is a film that builds Bruce Wayne from scratch and hammers his beliefs and ideals into the audience until they fall in love with him. "The Amazing Spider-Man" however is a film that has to assume that you've seen a Spider-Man film before, forcing it to deftly dodge all kinds of predispositions you have regarding Peter Parker and Co. The film has an utterly unenviable task, resulting in an experience that lacks the iconic factor of the originals.



Simply put, if aliens from space who had never heard of Spider-Man before came down and requested I show them a film about this character, I would have to show them the Sam Raimi original. Unlike "TAS" which dances around the themes and ideals of the character (however effectively), Raimi's film hammers them home and solidifies them in the audience's mind. Martin Sheen's Ben Parker only refers to Great Power and Great Responsibility once in the film and it's a roundabout, modernised version at that, never mentioned again by Peter (although he does hint at it once with Gwen). Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben says it twice in his film (once from beyond the grave where he reminds Peter to "Remember that, Pete. Remember that.") and Peter himself says it later as well. It's things like this that make Raimi's 2002 original, goofy and flawed as it is, such an iconic, mesmerising delight.

With that being said, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is almost as good as it could possibly be. Despite a few serious problems stemming from a clichéd villain and a really shabby mystery that does nothing but set up the sequel, the film does an admirable job at reawakening the web-slinger and what he stands for. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-executed the film was (particularly the first hour) and would be quick to recommend it. It didn't blow me away and its flaws were significant, but I'm glad to say that Spider-Man is back and that it looks as though he'll be around for another while longer. I'm going to give this film a 7.5/10.