MovieJay Is So Very, Very Thrilled With The Magnificent Achievement That Is ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’
The Amazing Spider-Man is everything a great superhero movie can be, and one of the best origin stories rendered to film since Superman in 1978, when superheroes got sexy again at the movies. Only 5 years after the conclusion of Sam Raimi‘s Spidey trilogy, the series gets a reboot from director Marc Webb and he transcends the action-adventure genre just as he did with romantic dramas with the wonderful 500 Days of Summer.
Spider-Man is back, he’s got ‘tude and his movie is filled with rich characters, perceptive human moments, real romance, excellent adventure and some of the best displays of special effects I can remember seeing at the movies.
I go into every movie hoping it’ll be a good one, but as I sat there in the packed house before the preview screening started, I could hear many of my inner thoughts being voiced aloud by the movie lovers seated around me. After three Spidey pics in the last decade, where can the series possibly go from there? Have our appetites for Spider-Man been satiated as a result? Is this new series even necessary?
Arriving so soon after the Sam Raimi three, those questions are unavoidable, our collective sense of hope tempered this time with undercurrents of concern and subtle prejudice.
And then the lights go down and the tinted coating of cynicism covering the audience melts away as The Amazing Spider-Man (TASM) equals everything that is great about the previous set, and then improves upon those things. It starts with the patience that Webb has for fleshing out characters who we become emotionally invested in. And it helps when the leads so uncannily embody their roles that we don’t think of them as actors in a Hollywood production.
In a brief prologue, we see Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) as a boy being whisked away to live with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) after his father, Dr. Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) is embroiled in secretive scientific work that sees him and his wife having to go on the run. Flash-forward to Peter Parker as a senior in high school. He’s a social outcast, science nerd and skater boy, and he’s not afraid to stand up to the chiseled school bully even if he does get his clock cleaned every time. That earns him the sympathy and respect of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) the girl in class he likes the best but is too afraid to approach.
At home, Uncle Ben and Aunt May have brought Peter up as their own and issues involving parental abandonment surface in him once more after one of his father’s old briefcases is salvaged from a basement flood. It reveals a photograph of Peter’s father as well as another man, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who we learn were partners in the study of cross-species DNA. Later, in a hidden compartment of the briefcase, Peter discovers a complicated set of scientific equations that fuel his urgency to find Dr. Connors.
The set-up most familiar to audiences is that Peter gets bitten by a radio-active spider while on a class trip, but in TASM the set-piece is more deftly handled as Peter makes his way to the magnificent OsCorp Tower (with Norman Osborn unseen as its proprietor) on his own terms and not through a class trip. He fakes his way in as a newly hired intern where he and Gwen meet-cute as Peter discovers that she works there. The sequence involving Peter and the spiders is tense, claustrophobic and wonderfully cinematic and we get the added bonus of seeing Gwen and Peter as intellectual rivals in a subtle duel that sees Gwen pulling the plug on whatever it was that Peter was doing in the building in the first place.
Undeterred, Peter makes his way to Dr. Connors’ house where the doc is surprised to find that Peter is as much a genius (or so he thinks) as his father was. Impressed with the boy, Connors invites Peter to hang with him at OsCorp after school where Peter’s formula helps crack a difficult DNA code that could eventually allow human cells, crossed with animals, to grow limbs for the limbless such as Connors, whose right arm stops at his elbow.
Enough with plot details. TASM is a spectacular achievement in part because it owes a lot to how Richard Donner handled the first Superman, taking the time to involve us in rich human drama for the first half before it evolves into a first-rate action-adventure flick in the second half.
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) and Emma Stone (Easy A, The Help) recall the wonderful chemistry shared between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. The flaw in Sam Raimi’s trilogy was that it made Peter Parker socially retarded to the point that he was impotent. In this story, the young couple is given moments that make them seem like real, hormonal teenagers entering adulthood. Consider that scene Peter and Gwen share in the school hallway as they begin their tentative flirtation after Uncle Ben has had to pick Peter up from detention for seeking vengeance on the school bully. “He has you on his computer”, Ben says in order to embarrass Peter in front of the girl. “Hi, I’m Peter’s parole officer!”, he says as he slips off to let Peter and Gwen stew in their teenage awkwardness.
What a perfect scene.
In the Sam Raimi three, the peripheral characters were an obstacle that we had to overcome in order to get to the action sequences. In TASM, however, we actually enjoy our time with Sally Field and especially Martin Sheen, who lends the movie gravitas in the first half in how he’s used as a moral compass. Those two, along with Denis Leary as Gwen’s father Captain Stacy are as American as apple pie and ice cream and they’re given full screen time and real humanity.
Rhys Ifans is terrific here as an atypical villain. As Dr. Connors, we see him as a good man who’s urgency for scientific discovery evolves into a zealotry that gets the best of him.
And then there are those special effects. What a magnificent achievement. At times in the Raimi series, Spidey looked too computery. When he whipped around the skies of New York he appeared more like Mighty Mouse than Spider-Man. Amazing, what 10 years will do in terms of CGI development. The effects are put to such good use here that it all looks so seamless and real. The sequence showing the changes in Peter are funny and awesome, and when he finally dawns the tight-fitting leotard and sling-shots through the air, we’re convinced that’s Andrew Garfield in that suit, a real human with weight and dimension flinging around downtown Manhattan.
The action sequences are vivid and alive because they are borne out of real human moments of conflict. The Williamsburg Bridge set-piece in Brooklyn with Spidey trying to save a youngster from a dangling mini-van had my heart racing.
The whole breakthrough with Spider-Man was that creator Stan Lee (in what is his best cameo ever?) gave us a hero unlike the godly figures who came before. Peter Parker is awkward and infallible, a character audiences could relate to on a pure humanistic level and in The Amazing Spider-Man, what we have here is a movie generous in feeling that evokes the humanity of its characters about as well as any superhero movie you’ll see.
In one word. Amazing.
The Amazing Spider-Man **** (out of 4)