Bitten by a radioactive spider, nerdy Peter Parker is granted weird abilities, the proportionate strength and agility of a spider and the responsibility to do something with his powers. When his uncle dies unnecessarily at the hands of a street hood that Peter should have stopped, he makes a vow to use his skills to protect the innocent in a city of a million stories and a million dangers.
Anyone who has not seen the movie should avoid this review as it is riddled with spoilers…
Spider-Man is the golden boy of Marvel Comics. Dreamed up by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, his comic book series was an ingenious experiment in romantic drama and pulp action/adventure. A teenager gifted with superhuman strength, endurance and agility bit with a smart mouth to boot was an entirely new concept. Comic books were mainly populated at the time with square-jawed stoic champions of justice, making a lanky kid from the suburbs of New York all the more of an oddity. A gifted scientific genius, Parker lived in a world of Marvels in which he was a perpetual outcast. The Avengers were too noble, the Fantastic Four too much of a family and the X-Men too militant. Of all the Marvel superheroes, Spider-Man is the most attractive to awkward misfits which may explain his long lasting appeal.
In my previous articles on superhero movies I talked about how they can either have some cultural significance or act as a marketing tool for toy manufacturers. In the case of Spider-Man, I think he falls between the cracks. Even the best of his cinematic outings isn’t as moving or cerebral as the Dark Knight trilogy, yet his worst film is nowhere near the pandering of Batman & Robin. Full of intense action, unrequited love and drama, Spider-Man was custom-made for the modern motion picture. It just took a while for the movie industry to catch up.
With several decades’ worth of stories to pull inspiration from, there are many different angles to the web spinner. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, for example, mainly drew from the look and feel of the John Romita Sr. comics, with the glamorous females and dynamic set pieces. They told an emotional story of young Peter Parker growing into a man in a world of mad scientists and horrific creatures. It’s a good story and it holds up well.
When Sony decided to start from scratch with the Amazing Spider-Man, I wondered what the point was. The previous trilogy was an enormous hit and made the comic book character a media darling for n entire generation. The only real reason to start over would be to tell a different kind of story and that is exactly what Marc Webb’s movie does.
Drawing instead from the early Ditko comics, this Spider-Man is lanky and spindly rather than buff and handsome with puppy-dog eyes as Toby Maguire was. This Spider-Man has an angrier, sharper edge and a drive toward justice that the Raimi/Maguire version lacked. He is also a mechanical and chemical genius rather than a mutant able to create webs from his arms. This Peter Parker has to work on his web shooters himself and develop schemes to take down enemies using the scientific method rather than luck and determination.
This is a decidedly different Spider-Man, more grounded in reality than the computer-generated and stylized world that Sam Raimi developed. I don’t want to cast judgement here as both work, but I am surprised at how tactile and realistic this Spider-Man looks in action.
In casting Peter Perker, the studio went with Andrew Garfield, whom I know from the magnificent Red Riding trilogy but others are familiar with from his appearance in the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. An accomplished actor, I was still a bit distracted by the fact that he was a good 10 years older than the teenager he was portraying. Even so, the script made good use of the high school setting and established Peter as an angry confused kid with lots of pent up emotions and nothing to do with them.
Raised by his aunt and uncle, Peter Parker lives a secluded and protected life, but even so he is picked on and judged by his classmates, often the butt of a joke. He is gifted and brilliant, but it seems that he will never live up to his potential because he is too weedy and insecure. Even when the blonde bombshell Gwen Stacy shows interest, he cam’t bring himself to make a move. Again, Peter Parker is an emotional mess, but in this instance his anxiety is closer to the surface as opposed to the all-American sweetheart that Maguire portrayed.
The mystery of Peter’s parents plays a strong role in the film (and upcoming sequel), which some may be surprised to hear is a unique idea. In the comics, Peter’s parents are all but ciphers that few writers have ever bothered to explore. making Peter’s father the linchpin of the plot is inspired and also reinforces the importance of scientific intelligence. Peter uses his brains throughout this film, something that was sadly lacking on the Raimi trilogy. Seeking out an old colleague of his father’s, Peter encounters Dr. Curtis Conners who is on the brink of a brilliant discovery in cross-species genetics, but lacks a key piece of information. Researching his father’s notes, Peter gives up the info to Conners who in turn experiments on himself, becoming the Lizard.
In talking about the Lizard, arguably the most ambitious CG villain to fight Spider-Man to date, I should bring up the special effects. Webb had stated that he wanted to step away from the 360 camera angles and hyper-realistic visuals that made the Raimi films so distinctive, Instead, we are given more tactile visuals which was a very risky decision. The Lizard must look believable and real at all times and in my opinion this was accomplished very well. The action sequences and Spider-Man fight scenes seem to be very sparingly enhanced with technological trickery and are therefore more impressive to my eye. In any case, this film needed to show movie goers a new kind of Spider-Man, one that stood out against the glittering imagery of the previous three films.
The central plot hinged mainly on the responsibility of science with Conners/The Lizard taking his discovery to an extreme and Parker/Spider-Man attempting to use his powers to help others. It was interesting to see Parker’s growth from vigilante as he hunted down his uncle’s killer become tempered by a kind of sanity as he realized he was interfering with the law more than helping it. His relationship with Gwen Stacy was an interesting twist as she became more than a lobve interest and instead a full-on confident and associate. Bold move there.
There were a couple of sore points for me but at least they moved the plot forward. I could have done without the prolonged sequence where Spider-Man saves a young boy from an SUV and offers up his mask so that the boy can ‘feel strong.’ It felt like an advertisement for the Target exclusive mask. The reunion with his ‘regular Joe’ dad (played by former 80’s star C. Thomas Howell of the completely undefendable Soul Man) was even sappier yet at least that plot thread developed further.
The fights between Spider-Man and the police as well as the sewer sequences and high school battles were astounding and made the character exciting all over again. The relationship between Gwen and Peter was far more interesting and believable for me than the Mary Jane/Peter Parker love story ever was and I think it has more depth to it as well. I was very wary of this film but hoped for the best. As it stands I was not blown out of my seat, but I was pleasantly surprised and look forward to the forthcoming Marc Webb films.
Throughout the movie, Norman Osborn acted as a kind of wraith, pulling strings off-camera and acting as the motivating factor in the development of the cross-species genetic trials. The work pioneered by Conners and Peter’s father should have saved Osborn from some mysterious ailment. At the conclusion, we see Conners confronted by a strange ‘Man in the Shadows’ who pumps the troubled scientist for information on how much Peter knows about his father. When Connors urges the mystery man to leave Peter alone, it is clear that is not in the cards. I’m tickled pink that anyone could think that this mystery man was anyone BUT Norman Osborn, but there it is. No doubt the mystery of Peter’s parents will continue to grow as the scientific advancements of his father’s research bears bitter fruit in the form of other monstrosities.
It should be spectacular.