“The Amazing Spider Man” is pretty good considering it’s a franchise reboot made only ten years after Sam Rami’s film starring Toby Maguire in 2002. It’s an improvement, mostly in reintroducing the famed Marvel superhero. But at the same time the movie-- directed by "500 Days of Summer" helmer Marc Webb from a script by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves—still suffers from some plot and structural issues (like dumb clichés and coincidences, mostly in the second half where the major action takes place) and whether it wants to be funny or dark in tone.
However, one thing is for sure, Andrew Garfield makes a better Spiderman than Toby Macquire ever did. We knew from seeing him in “The Social Network” that Garfield could play nerdy-cocky with ease but he also just fits the Spiderman/ Peter Parker profile much better. He’s tall and slender, with a slight beehive hairdo. That’s exactly how Peter Parker looks in the Marvel comics. Garfield, with his long skinny arms and legs, narrow head, and nervous, twitchy mannerisms, looks and acts like the kind of kid who would become Spiderman.
Parker has been in sort of a funk of late. He’s a well meaning, handsome young man but he has no friends. Everyday he’s picked on by the resident, buffed up clean-cut douchebag of his high school. He has a crush on the cutie Gwen Stacey (a usually spunky but also contained Emma Stone) who doesn’t really seem to notice him beyond a simple “hello” in the halls. On top of that both his parents died when he was a kid for mysterious reasons. And while he’s been looked after with tremendous care by his uncle Ben (a humble Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (a benevolent, fragile Sally Field) he’s filled with angst and many unanswered questions.
Those unanswered questions lead him to Oscorp Industries-- a company that uses animal DNA to cure human weaknesses—where his father worked. There he meets Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) a scientist who dreams of a world where everyone is perfect and has no weaknesses. While snooping around in labs where he doesn’t belong, Parker gets bitten by a radioactive arachnid and overnight gains the qualities of a spider.
This portion of the movie is by far the best. The origin of the superhero is the most crucial part of the story and Webb does a great job of establishing the character of Peter Parker and letting him grow, instead of jumping right into the superhero stuff. When he first discovers he has lightning fast reflexes and sticky hands and feet, he doesn’t know how to handle it and it takes him a while to control his new found abilities.
Eventually he dons the red and blue spandex suit that comic book nerds have come to know and love.
At first things seem like they’re shaping up for Parker. He humiliates the bully in front of the student body. He connects with Gwen, first casual encounters then romantic, and develops web shooters (metal containers attached to his wrists that contain spider webs, for swinging around town). Sounds like a good life now. Wrong. He’s still troubled and unconfident. One night uncle Ben is brutally killed by a random mugger with long hair and a star tattoo on his arm.
This sends Peter into an emotional fury. In a personal crusade he targets every thug in town who has long hair. He becomes distant with aunt May and irresponsible with day-to-day tasks. Spiderman was first created by Marvel in the sixties and was one of the first conflicted superheroes to come about, as opposed to early Batman and Robin of the forties’ who acted more as parental figures. Seeing Parker tackle these issues and the clashing emotions within himself is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Parker may have super human abilities but he’s also just a naive confused teenager.
To make matters even worse for Parker, Dr. Conners, in his own fury, injects himself with lizard DNA to make himself stronger and healthier than a human being, turning into a giant lizard thing. (In the comics he’s known as The Lizard). Ifans is no doubt intimidating enough to be a super villain but unfortunately there isn’t much substance to him. He simply turns into a giant ugly lizard, that’s it. He wants to dominate the world. OK then. But he’s still just a giant lizard man.
Though, the main problem the picture runs into is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be super silly or more serious. I have no issues with either approach. I loved the dark, noir-ish mood of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films (with a splash of wit thrown in) but I also appreciated the light silliness of Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers.” “The Amazing Spiderman” wants it both ways and together the two methods undermine one another. When Peter is first out preventing crime he acts goofy, while he’s swinging around he makes a reference to “Midnight Cowboy,” saying, “I’m swinging here!” But then at other times, there are really intense and dark moments (uncle Ben getting killed).
Despite this flaw, I can’t write off ‘The Amazing Spiderman” completely. Garfield, along with all of the cast members are spot on, and Webb handles the origin story material surprisingly well considering it’s his first feature. Hopefully, if there’s a sequel the producers and whoever decides to direct it and write it will go deeper and find a consistent tone. As fun as it is to see Peter Parker act goofy and awkward it would also be interesting to see him inhabit a much darker world, as partially depicted in this movie.