Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Frank Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)

The Short Version? Let's forget that emo dance number, eh?
What Is It? Super-Hero action/drama.
Who Is In It? Eduardo Saverin, Skeeter Phelan, Xenophilius Lovegood, Mama Gump, President Barlet, Tommy Gavin.
Should I See It? Yes.

Let's talk about Spider-Man. Pull up a seat. This may take a while.

Like most kids from my generation and after, I have no recollection of being introduced to Spider-Man. He was one of those entities that always existed parallel to my own life's development, like Bugs Bunny. The best I can recall are my early memories of Spidey Super Stories on The Electric Company during weekdays, episodes of the Nicholas Hammond live action series recut into weekend afternoon movies, and occasionally catching the '60s cartoon in the wee hours of a given morning. My grandmother used to buy the Sunday paper, so I'd read (but rarely comprehend) the newspaper strip, or get a free promotional comic tying into stuff like 7-11 Slurpee cups and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. When I bought my first comics, media taught me to start with Spidey, Superman, Batman, Captain America and the Hulk (nobody carried Wonder Woman,) until I developed my own personal tastes. While many of those super-media titans fell by the wayside, I continued to periodically buy Spider-Man comics into the late '80s, and of course watched my fair share of Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends. There were times Spidey was among my favorite super-heroes, but as I got older, I preferred more aspirational and/or anti-social heroes. By the time I was a tweenager, I knew that I was an outsider, where Spider-Man was the poster boy for the most broadly inclusive everyman hero possible. Peter Parker may have been a nerd once, but that was generations past. With a supermodel wife, an enviable job, a solid build, handsome hair, and the safest form of sarcasm available, Parker lacked the credibility of even the most mainstream sitcom underdog. He was so well liked and accessible to broad audiences, I couldn't relate to him, and had no use for him. I used to mock the lady I ran my comic shop with for favoring Spider-Man, just for kicks. My interest in Spider-Man ended prior to what I'd term the modern age of the character, which travels into the deaths of Jean DeWolfe and Kraven the Hunter, but before the days of Venom.

I saw Sam Raimi's Spider-Man at the theater with a friend in 2002. My friend hated it, and I thought it was fine, but by no means a favorite. Superman: The Motion Picture had perhaps unintentionally co-opted a lot of ideals originating from Spider-Man comics to bring the Man of Steel into the '70s. Raimi seemed to be clawing those ideals back from Superman, and I felt his first movie was largely a retread of Donner's film. Tobey Maguire was a good choice to play the early, awkward Ditko Peter Parker, and Kirsten Dunst was a decent Gwen Stacey pretending to be Mary Jane Watson. There was too much Ash Williams in Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn, and a decade on, Green Goblin only looks more like a shoddy Power Ranger. The less said about James Franco's Harry Osborn, the better, but the rest of the supporting cast was rock solid. I preferred Spider-Man 2, which I rented. It had a much stronger storyline, better effects, and a cooler villain in Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus. Still, it went from mediocre to okay, so when I heard that Spider-Man 3 wasn't great, I passed on it entirely.

I can't speak for Amazing Friends, which I haven't seen in ages, but I can say Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man is otherwise the best adaptation of the character in my experience. As redundant as it feels to reboot a franchise just five years cold, I connected with this origin story more than I did the one from a decade ago. Where Spider-Man managed to coast on the widespread desire for a hero (cue strains of Chad Kroeger) in the wake of 9/11 and a poverty of quality super-hero movies in the late '90s, Amazing makes the effort to improve Spidey's game in the wake of Christopher Nolan and the Marvel revolution.

Is it just me, or do the leads in the earlier Spider-Man trilogy come across as underwhelming? Despite bringing the nerd hardcore, Maguire's Peter Parker wasn't particularly accomplished at anything. Between organic web-shooters, photographs heavily criticized by J. Jonah Jameson, and inferior interpersonal skills, is it any wonder Parker clung for dear life to the Spider-Man role? The modern Spider-Man is more truly amazing, an intelligent young man who chooses to set himself apart from the brutal, sheepish masses. He can't win a fistfight against a jock, but he will shout down his fellow students and attempt to salvage the dignity of a fellow geek despite the full awareness that his own humiliation is forthcoming. This Peter Parker is a budding scientist who, despite not formulating his own web fluid, is clever enough to swipe it from a corporate lab and then construct a means to employ it in a variety of ways through a versatile contraption of his own design. This Peter Parker may not have conceived of a key scientific formula, but he could understand and recreate it from memory, as well as deduce its later misuse. Parker 2012, like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, had the innate makings of a hero, and only awaited a catalyst to direct his gifts.

Between the first and second Raimi Spider-Man movies, Tobey Maguire made Seabiscuit, and complained of a back injury. Whether it was legitimate or a ploy to raise his rates, Maguire was nearly replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal. I was always sorry that didn't occur, because Maguire's lack of range trapped Peter Parker in awkward adolescence. Despite graduating and moving into the workforce, Maguire's Parker remained the creepy nerd with the nasal delivery, instead of transitioning into the Romita era troubled young adult. Andrew Garfield largely starts from that place, a bit shy and stammering, but already simmering with resentment over being subjected to the childish indignities of high school. He bristles at authority and jumps at the chance to mingle with higher classes of intellect. In costume, Garfield takes that anger and vents it by bullying criminal lowlifes with his acidic words and coarse actions. While Garfield's later school antics border on Teen Wolf levels of indiscretion, the need to take out his frustrations incognito validates the creation of Spider-Man. Garfield is a bit too old to be entirely credible as a student (thirty is fast approaching,) but that just means that he'll be more ready to play an adult Parker in the sequel than Maguire was after five years and three films.

Twenty-three year old redhead Emma Stone is surprisingly believable as a precocious blond teenager. Without being obvious about it, her Gwen Stacy immediately recalls the character's 1960s heyday while still being completely modern and not a little sexy. Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson from the first trilogy used her chemistry with Maguire and sense of longing to elevate her role and the series as a whole. However, Dunst's M.J. was still a bit dim and a victim of circumstance. Stone's Stacy is clearly in charge of her life, and accomplished at a young age. While her on & off-screen fireworks with Garfield similarly enhances the quality of her film, Gwen Stacy isn't defined solely as Spider-Man's love interest. In fact, she contributes mightily to the conflicts in the film and their ultimate resolution. It's Stacy's lab that Parker visits, Stacy's police captain father who hunts the new masked vigilante, and both Stacys are integral to the final act. Gwen was heroic to the non-powered Peter Parker, and continues to impact the movie's story with her intellect and determination regardless of Spider-Man's designs. Mary Jane as depicted was just waiting to be flung off a bridge to cause Spidey more grief. This incarnation of Gwen Stacy would have Pepper Potts' ID badge in one hand and her daddy's gun in the other.

Beyond the two leads is another strong supporting cast, although not quite as across the board excellent as the Raimi films. Denis Leary's Captain Stacy is a one-note hardass for three-quarters of the running time. Martin Sheen isn't given as good material as Cliff Robertson had in the Ben Parker role, but his delivery is at least as sound. Sally Field has more to work with as Aunt May than Rosemary Harris, and makes use of it, even if it's still pretty basic. The same goes for Chris Zylka's Flash Thompson, who could have used a few more scenes of fleshing out, but serves his purpose. C. Thomas Howell puts his all into a smaller part, while Campbell Scott kind of phones it in, and Irrfan Khan makes a bad part worse. Rhys Ifans never quite lands on one side or the other of the good/evil divide, unconvincing in his altruism and overblown in his malevolence. The worst scenes tend to revolve around Dr. Curt Connors, which at least makes a body anxious for the relief and excitement of the CGI Lizard.

As much as Sam Raimi is known to be a stylist, his Spider-Man movies tended to be pedestrian recreations of former glories more than innovations in their own right. New director Marc Webb is similarly pedestrian, but whether through his guidance or staying out of the way, I found the computer generated action sequences much more interesting than anything in the earlier films. I'm grateful I didn't see this film in 3D, as the action is intricate, fast and furious in a manner that I could barely keep up with unencumbered by illusory ocular interference. The (500) Days of Summer alum handles his romantic subplots with maturity and humor, as opposed to the occasional exuberance but typically soapy melodrama of Spidey films past. There are serious problems with the editing that leaves artifacts of excised subplots and discarded trailer material everywhere, but the overall pace of the film still leans toward a welcome briskness. I expect that there was an awful lot of second guessing and last minute decisions here, but what hit the screen was mostly solid, and should secure a superior sequel once everyone is more comfortable with the plush new Spidey-verse. The Amazing Spider-Man is smarter and better acted than last decade's model, with more heart and threads that can bear the weight of sequelization.

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