LITTLE ROCK Like the poor, costumed superhero movies will be with us always, or at least until the cultural hegemony of the baby boomers - ironically sustained by succeeding generations exposed in their cradles to their older siblings’ (or grandparents’) nostalgia - finally dissipates. What is the half-life of Action Comics #1? Perhaps your children’s children will find out.
Still, the prospect of a new reworking of Spider-Man, coming fast on the heels of Sam Raimi’s 21stcentury trilogy, seems awfully sudden. It was just a little over two years ago that we were told Raimi had abandoned plans for a fourth film - that Tobey Maguire would not be asked to suit up again, at least not anytime in the near future. (My idea: How about a story about an aging, mortal, masked vigilante with anger management problems who comes out of retirement to ... oh, wait, Frank Miller beat me to it.)
But even if there couldn’t be a fourth film from Raimi, Columbia couldn’t just let the franchise go dark. So they brought in a new team, and started over, with a fresh young Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and a hip director - (500) Days of Summer auteur Marc Webb - and had them take it from the top. Add $200 million, shake vigorously and pour.
It’s not bad. In many ways it represents an improvement over the Raimi films, particularly the misbegotten third installment, especially in its emphasis on the adolescent nature of its protagonist. Though Garfield is 28, he makes a credible 17-year-old - although Maguire was a year younger when he first pulled on the tights a decade ago, his Parker seemed conspicuously adult - and this origin tale is set before he establishes his famous relationship with the Daily Bugle (which these days operates a cable news station) and the bombastic J. Jonah Jameson.
(Jameson is absent from this film, along with other Spidey regulars Mary Jane Watson and Norman Osborn - although I suspect ol’ Norm may have been the mysterious after-the-credits figure. For the next movie, maybe they’ll cast Samuel L. Jackson as JJ and provide us with a winking acknowledgment of the parallel Marvel universe that exists over on the Disney green screen studios. As it is, I was slightly disappointed that the technicians didn’t add the Stark Tower to their renderings of the Manhattan skyline.)
No, this Spider-Man really is just a kid, and Garfield’s twitchy performance recalls nothing so much as James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Adenoidal and skinny-jeaned, with his skateboard and hoodie, Parker is the sort of beautiful, sensitive outcast that Hollywood habitually inserts into its high schools - and, at least in this case, it works by reminding us less of the actual experience of adolescence than our cinematic experience of it. As a friend of mine put it, the comic book Peter Parker has “high school problems.” While Raimi seemed to want to push past all the greasy kid stuff, Webb and Garfield wallow in it - and, as is almost always the case, the movie is more fun when it follows the alter-ego rather than the superhero.
That said, I loved the movie for the first hour or so, and only mildly liked it after all the web slinging and battery began. The final 90 minutes had me looking around the sides of the frame, impressed by the technical qualities (though the chief villain, the CG-ed Lizard, didn’t seem a clear improvement over the much maligned Flint Marko/ Sandman of Raimi’s third installment) and nodding at the directorial choices. There’s a lot more actual gymnastics performed here than in the Raimi films, which relied largely on an animated Spidey, and the casting is spot-on.
I particularly admired the way Emma Stone was made to resemble the iconic representations of her character, Gwen Stacy (though I wonder how the fanboys will take the movie’s tinkering with the canonical arc of her story), and I appreciated how deeply and carefully the movie was curated. (Though I recognize I am probably the only one who associated Martin Sheen’s role as the doomed Uncle Ben with his turn as Artie the terrorizing subway hoodlum in 1967’s The Incident.)
All of which is not quite the same thing as actually caring about the film, though it’s enough to get you through to the end. Comic book heroes can be compelling to adults, but the whole point of the Spider-Man films is to make lots of money by selling a kind of wish-fulfillment theme park ride to the young (and young at heart). So while I perceive The Amazing Spider-Man as a half-measure, it’s obviously a very well-designed machine that will perform extraordinarily well. A better film could have been made, but not without running the risk of losing some of the natural summer movie constituency.
So, bravo. I guess.
The Amazing Spider-Man 87 Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, C. Thomas Howell Director: Marc Webb Rating: PG-13, for sequences of action and violence Running time: 136 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 07/06/2012
Print Headline: New spin on Spidey