(WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers)
Spidey’s new suit is a fitting metaphor for the new Spider-Man movie.
Compared with the original it’s darker and more complicated, yet looks cheap, occasionally feels awkward, and most revealingly, changes elements for the sake of being different, without managing to better something that worked fine the first time round. “The Amazing Spider-Man” has its own peculiar, unique charms but those simply aren’t enough to convince that it’s much more than a cash-grab by a studio desperate to hold on to the property rights. This is not a bad movie, just a thoroughly mediocre one, and in some ways that’s even worse. I’d rather have a movie that aimed high and died trying over one that feels like its coasting along on built-in goodwill.
As a brandname, Spider-Man is pretty well established, with a fanbase spanning generations and continents. And that’s what Sony/Columbia Pictures was riding on when it decided to reboot the entire franchise, minus the original creative team of Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire. Reasons behind the split ranged from money disputes, to differences in artistic vision (which began on “Spider-Man 3″), to the studio wanting to skew younger in an effort to capture the lucrative teen market. The truth probably comprises all of the above. Yet none of that would matter if the final result turned out well.
On paper, the credentials seemed promising. At first glance Marc Webb was an unusual choice for director, since he’d never done anything remotely similar. He was an indie darling however, thanks to his wonderful romantic drama “ Days Of Summer”. So he knew a thing or two about storytelling. Script duties were handled by James Vanderbilt and Steve Kloves, who between them boasted very respectable fare like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and the “Harry Potter” saga. For continuity, they had Alvin Sargent bringing his penning skills from Raimi’s Spidey films to the mix. And castwise, everyone generally agreed that the likes of Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field was a quality line-up.
So what happened?
Let’s start with the script. Or even before that, let’s start with the intent. The studio was fully aware going in that memories of the “Spider-Man” trilogy were still fairly fresh in people’s minds. People know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. And yet they chose to go with an origin story again. That’s just asking for it, really. In order to avoid coming across as a retread, the writers changed key elements of the origin story, repackaging it as The Untold Story. If by “untold” they mean not properly told, then yeah, they nailed it. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a different take on a familiar story, as long as it’s well-told and doesn’t betray the essence of the original. The script for “The Amazing Spider-Man” stumbles on both counts.
Practically everything they changed has turned out to be for the worst. The death of Uncle Ben is THE defining moment of Spider-Man’s reason for being. Raimi’s version gave the lead-up to the event and the outcome of it a very strong emotional weight. So that you totally got the guilt that Peter felt when it happened, and you knew this was the thing that changed him forever. Here, it’s done in an almost by-the-way manner. There’s hardly any transformation in Peter, save for some tears. Sure, he’s sad that his Uncle died but can you tell whether he’s hit by the realisation that “with great power comes great responsibility”? Hardly. Besides, that famous line’s not even in the movie at all. It’s another needless change just to differentiate itself that has ended up backfiring.
Speaking of needless changes, I’m not sure why the writers felt the need to introduce a new thread about Peter’s background. This film starts out on the premise that his parents were involved in some genetic work for tech giant OsCorp, and their disappearance is what sets Peter off on a quest to find out what happened. It’s a slightly cumbersome backstory because him being orphaned has never been part of what makes him Spider-Man, unlike say, Batman. Still, it could’ve worked as the main narrative through-line for this particular tale. I actually thought they were going somewhere with this. There are shades of Ang Lee’s “Hulk”, where Bruce Banner turns out to be the result of experimentation by his father. Well, the thread takes us as far as inside OsCorp HQ where Peter has a fateful encounter with a spider. And then, nothing. He pretty much abandons his investigation about halfway through the film. If there is an allusion to a larger arc meant play out in the sequel(s), I sure can’t see it.
The film is full of half-baked, insufficiently thought-through stuff like this. The villain’s motivations are never clearly established. In Lizard form, his Big Evil Plan is to turn everyone into a lizard. Uh, yeah. But why, Lizzie? Are you lonely? In human form, Dr. Curt Connors’ sole ambition seems to be to regrow his lost arm. There’s a line he keeps spouting about “A world without weakness”, but what does it mean to the character? Does Connors see incompleteness of the body as one of the spirit as well? There seems to be a vague echo of this in Peter’s search for his parents, where he feels a part of him is missing if he doesn’t know. But that connection is due more to my own conjecture, rather than any conscious theme the filmmakers have put out. Ironically, this betrays the incompleteness of the film itself.
Yes, there are quite a few things in the film that go unresolved. Apart from plot threads, characters also disappear without a trace. Connors’ boss, Dr. Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) spends the whole movie pushing Connors for results, but when “results” finally show he’s nowhere to be seen. Based on footage seen in the numerous trailers but not in the finished film, it’s clear they removed a number of Ratha’s scenes, including his ultimate fate. Similarly, Peter’s search for his Uncle’s killer is addressed for a while, then fizzles out completely. Together with the matter of the missing parents, all these were cut evidently to shorten the running time. Just a few lines of expository dialogue here and there would’ve helped close those gaps, but no. Well, that’s just sloppy filmmaking.
On some films, plot holes can be overlooked if the entertainment value is powerful enough. Take “Prometheus” for example. In the case of “Amazing”, there’s simply not enough of it to go on. Marc Webb’s direction somehow comes across inert and anonymous here, surprising since his last film “ Days” felt like the work of a director who took total creative ownership. What most expect to be his forté — the human drama — also seems to have escaped his grasp this time. The film’s romance angle takes centre stage, yet never really seems like it comes from a genuine place. I got the impression they’re together just because they’re supposed to be together. Any spark in the relationship between Peter and his high-school crush Gwen Stacy is solely due to the talents of the performers themselves.
And that’s really the best part of “Amazing”: seeing Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone play their respective characters and bounce off each other. This is perhaps one of the few areas in which this reboot trumps the original. I thought Tobey Maguire was an okay Peter, but Garfield is in a league of his own. His Peter feels every inch a real teenager, down to the gawkiness and nervous tics. Stone is just adorable as Gwen, and she adds an extra zing to the proceedings whenever she’s onscreen. She and Garfield make a great couple, and are endlessly watchable even when the script fails to give them proper dimension.
But what about Spider-Man himself? Well, that’s the thing. I would be willing to forgive a lot of this film’s flaws if it delivered on the one thing everyone’s really paying to see: Wall-crawler action. While the action sequences are lucidly staged and feature some cool uses of his webbing in battle, I can’t for the life of me pick out a single sequence that made me go “Wow!”. At best, they made me go “Hmm.” This feels like a small film, both in terms of budget and ambition. Even when the action takes on a grander scale, like an attack on a New York city bridge, or a skyscraper showdown at the climax, the scale feels contained, restrained. On the plus side, they got his poses picture perfect. Some shots of Spidey in mid-air look like a comicbook panel brought to life. Too bad they went with this design for the costume.
Which brings me back to the suit. For something so controversial, it’s turned out to be the least of the film’s problems. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that redesigning it was utterly unnecessary. Just like the film itself. As much as it pains me to say this, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is the Summer’s biggest disappointment. Might as well change that title to “The Agonisingly Average Spider-Man”.