Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: A Review


A Bite of a Misnomer...

It wasn't all that long ago when your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man appeared on screen.  In fact, it was just a mere ten years ago when Spidey first spun his web over us.  Add to that, it was a mere FIVE years ago that Tobey Maguire took his last spin in the financially successful disaster known as Spider-Man 3.  Now we have The Amazing Spider-Man, and for good or ill it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that we've seen this story already.  I try to keep that out of my head and/or my review, but more often than not because it repeats so many of the same moments, it sure makes it sure impossible to do so.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a troubled teen.  In his childhood, his parents Richard (Scott Campbell) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz) are forced to flee for unknown reasons.  They leave him in the care of Richard's brother Ben (Martin Sheen) and his wife May (Sally Field).  Peter is brilliant in science, loves photography, but other than that he's bullied all around.  He does have an unrequited love for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is both beautiful and bright.

Richard Parker's secrets are accidentally uncovered by his son, who finds a picture of his dad with a mysterious man, whom Uncle Ben identifies as Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).  He and Mr. Parker had been working on cross-species experiments to cure illnesses.  Peter sneaks into OsCorp, where Gwen happens to be Dr. Connors' chief intern.

It is here that our teen hero gets his infamous spider bite.

While he starts gaining incredible powers, he also continues to be a moody, sullen, slightly disrespectful and deeply hurt kid.  His efforts to get back at his chief bully Flash (Chris Zylka) not only cause Uncle Ben to change his shifts, but the joy in being able to convince Gwen to see him outside school cause him to forgot picking up Aunt May.  Both these things leave Uncle Ben livid, and Peter parts angrily.

He tries to buy some milk but is two cents short.  The clerk refuses to let him buy it.  The guy right behind Pete robs the clerk...and Peter refuses to help.  Well, said thief runs into Uncle Ben, who has been looking for Peter.  Said thief guns him down.


With Uncle Ben gone Peter is devastated, but there are other things to worry about.  First, Dr. Connors, with Peter's help, has his breakthrough, allowing animals with missing limbs to regenerate them.  To the one-armed Dr. Connors, this sounds like manna from heaven.  It also sounds good to OsCorp, for unbeknown to almost all, CEO Norman Osborn is dying, and this might bring him back.

As perhaps one might suspect, this experimenting with oneself doesn't go over very well.  It has a few side effects...such as turning the basically kind Dr. Connors into The Lizard, which is, yes, a lizard.

Peter also has to iron out a few other wrinkles.  First is his efforts to find Uncle Ben's killer, who like the one-armed man from The Fugitive, has a distinguishing characteristic: a star tattoo on his left wrist.  With that, Peter becomes Spider-Man: Vigilante, scouring New York City from Queens to Manhattan in search of this mystery man.  The fact that the same type is being targeted does not go unnoticed by NYPD Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) (the fact that the guy looks like someone who killed someone we know, thus giving a possible motive and suspect, does not).  Captain Stacy doesn't see a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but a vigilante (which is strange because...well, that's what he is, but I digress). 

Eventually, Dr. Connors' crazy can't be ignored, especially after he's gotten into his head that the world will be wildly improved if everyone became like him (I think he wants to remove pain from the world, but exactly how turning into unhinged monsters will improve the world we no not).  Peter, already having revealed his identity to Gwen, now is literally unmasked by Captain Stacy just before Spidey convinces him to go and fight the Lizard in one last battle.

The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't quite end, with a quick scene.  Yes, I'll give you the scene: Dr. Connors is in prison, when a mysterious trenchcoat and fedora wearing stranger (I vote it's John Galt from Atlas Shrugged) asks Connors if he's told Peter the truth about Peter's father.  Connors warns him away from Peter, but nothing doing.

As I stated, it really is impossible to NOT focus on how similar The Amazing Spider-Man is to Spider-Man.  The low point in that is in exactly how Uncle Ben bit the dust.  In Spider-Man, a guy who cheated Peter from his prize money gets robbed, Peter allows him to escape, and the robber ends up shooting Uncle Ben.  In The Amazing Spider-Man, a guy who wouldn't let Peter take a milk because he was two cents short gets robbed, Peter allows him to escape, and the robber ends up shooting Uncle Ben.

I don't ask that TASM be totally different and original (although that would help), but did they really have to basically repeat the same story from Spider-Man?  I was aghast at how close the stories matched to where TASM was less reboot and more remake.

Worse, we have in James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves' screenplay plot points that are introduced and then dropped with nary rhyme or reason.  For example, Peter's sole motivation isn't to help people but to revenge his uncle's death.  A good amount of time is spent on Spidey's search for the star-tattooed man, but that thread (no pun intended) disappears rather quickly to where it's forgotten for almost the rest of TASM, until we get a quick hint of it near the very end where the wanted poster is still up in Peter's room.

Another plot point created and dropped is the entire "lost parents" deal.  Now I have not read a Spider-Man comic so I cannot say with any authority whether Mr. and Mrs. Parker had anything to do with how Peter ended up as Spidey, but I could not help think that this line about a boy's parents in a sense sacrificing themselves to save their son who in turn was somehow involved with something wicked was lifted straight off Harry Potter (the fact that Kloves wrote almost all the Harry Potter films does not help the perception).  I figure this story line will be continued in the inevitable sequel, but I think Peter discovering his parents are A.) really alive, B.) really not his parents, C.) part of some scheme for good or evil takes away from the idea that Peter Parker is just some kid from Queens that just happened to be bitten by a spider and become your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Not that Spider-Man was particularly friendly.  This Spidey is a bit of a smart-ass (to quote Brother Gabe), a more sarcastic, even obnoxious fellow.  This may be how he was in the comics, but I am someone who does not judge by the comics, I judge by what is on the screen.  I wasn't too thrilled with the sarcasm that came from Spider-Man.  Somehow it's OK when it's Peter Parker: teenagers can be smart with people.  Superheroes, even immature ones, not so much.

This is especially true if the Peter Parker we see is still slightly hesitant and intimidated by people, which he was.

As I've stated, TASM sticks too close (no pun intended) to the original to be thought of as something fresh and original.  HOWEVER, what saves TASM are the performances.

I know some of my friends who were extremely concerned about having Andrew Garfield play Peter Parker.  The posh Brit may strike some as a strange choice to play the working-class kid from Queens, but Garfield's performance is equal to if not greater than Tobey Maguire's.  Don't get me wrong: I am a Maguire defender in that his interpretation as the nerdy, insecure teen was perfect for the first film.  Having said that, Garfield creates a young man who is so hesitant, clumsy, even afraid at times (at least out of uniform).  Whenever he's at school, whether it's getting beat up by Flash or being near Gwen, it's in how Garfield looks, how he holds his body in uncoordinated positions, his hesitancy when speaking that project an awkward, unsteady kid. 

The joy he expresses physically when Gwen agrees to see him is almost infectious (again, I'm really not trying to make clever quips).  Garfield gets across the sense that this kid is finding joy in being able to do all these incredible things but still has to figure out exactly who he is going to become.

In terms of the action sequences, Garfield manages to hold himself well, even if Marc Webb (that is his real name) at times makes the direction choppy to where one doesn't quite follow things well.

Stone is also wonderful as the smart Gwen Stacy.  Gwen comes across as someone who can match Peter in the intelligence department (she does hint that she is first in her science class and Peter is second), but she also is in a way the mirror opposite of Peter.  Unlike the Parkers, the Stacy household appears to be a rather happy and stable one.  Granted, Captain Stacy can be a bit strict and defensive when Peter dares to suggest to the Captain that Spider-Man is actually a good guy (curiously, neither Peter or The Amazing Spider-Man make a strong case that he is), but he also appears to genuinely love his family and care about the safety of New Yorkers. 

Ifans' Lizard isn't an interesting villain, especially given how quickly he turned monstrous and had no great motivation to either go after Spider-Man or destroy the city.

His appearance, though, did give Brother Gabe the best line while watching.  He whispered, "It's Godzilla's Mini-Me" when the Lizard was attacking Brooklyn Bridge (at least I think it was Brooklyn Bridge). In a weird turn of events, Captain Stacy brought up a similar train of thought when, after Peter tells him Dr. Connors is turning into a giant lizard, he asks Parker, "Do I look like the Mayor of Tokyo?"

Still, Ifans' gentle Dr. Connors could have been built up more if the screenplay had focused more on how his noble intentions brought his downfall instead of Spidey's pursuit of vigilante justice.  It would have allowed a greater performance, but what we do have is still pretty good.

Leary has got the cynical, rapid-fire delivery he's known for down, and his Captain Stacy is actually quite a good performance.  Stacy is a man who has some reason to believe Spider-Man is a menace (granted, not much, but still enough), and while I'm not happy with how the film ended his character's storyline, I figure it had to be done to bring about the sequel.

And for all those keeping score, yes, there is a Stan Lee cameo, which is actually quite funny (even  if it is irrelevant, it is still fun). 

As I've said, some of the action scenes were quite good if badly put together, while some (such as one in the school) didn't quite fit.  One that I thought was silly was the bridge fight.  Basically, Spidey and Lizzie exchanged a few punches, and as soon as a kid is in danger, Lizzie flees.  In this same scene, I kept wondering why didn't Spidey just use his web to sling the kid from his chair rather than having to unmask himself and go through hoops to get him to safety.

I want to at this point address the point about organic vs. created spiderwebs.  I really don't care one way or the other: both work for me as a non-comic book reader.  Both have their pluses: organic means we a more biological approach, non-organic allows Parker to show he is a really brilliant mind.  I won't get hung up on such trivialities (well, they are trivialities to me).

There were also a few things that The Amazing Spider-Man got wrong.  James Horner is not one of my favorite composers, and while the music wasn't horrible it sometimes drowned the film.  One thing I'm beginning to notice is that some film scores are rather incessant, constantly playing, and TASM is one of them.  There were very few quite moments, and I think sometimes people don't need all that music.

One also could be forgiven if one wondered whether the subject of the film was Spider-Man or Superman.  Some of the feats Peter Parker could pull off (such as smashing the backboard or throwing a football so far and so fast, from the bleachers to the goal post--and denting it in the process) appeared so exaggerated to be almost comical.

Some of the comedy didn't work, such as having Spidey take an order for organic eggs on a cell phone (a plot point that actually is important to the film for some reason).  Even when things were suppose to be more serious (such as Spider-Man telling Gwen that the Lizard was heading towards OsCorp headquarters and for her to get out), the sight of Spidey on his cell phone in the street while a small group is trying to ignore him appears strange.

There were a couple of shots, taken from Peter's point-of-view, where "we" experience how he swings across the heights of New York.  To me, they looked like they were produced especially for 3-D (which as longtime readers know, I hold to be The Work of The Devil).  They didn't add anything in 2-D and didn't add much to anything really.

Finally, how the Lizard discovered Spider-Man's identity is so stupid that I actually groaned.

I did not hate The Amazing Spider-Man.  What I did find is that without the performances of Garfield, Stone, Leary, and Ifans (along with Martin Sheen as the firm but loving Uncle Ben and Sally Field as the perpetually worried Aunt May), the film would have been at BEST a remake of Spider-Man.  At worst, The Amazing Spider-Man would have been something of a bore.   As it stands, I don't know if it will be as remembered or loved as its predecessor or if it will stand the test of time. 

Not a disaster, but nothing truly spectacular or amazing about it either.            

Tobey Who?

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