The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – Directed by Marc Webb – Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Chris Zylka, Stan Lee, and C. Thomas Howell.
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If we were able to look at a film as a wholly singular experience, Marc Webb’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN would easily earn a place among the best superhero films. That’s not possible, of course, and so the first half of the film becomes slightly bogged down by the sheer number of origin stories we’ve seen play out on the big screen, not to mention that we saw all of this only a decade ago in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. I don’t know why Hollywood insists on giving us origin story after origin story – at this point, the total accumulation of time spent in walking us through the story of a normal person gaining superpowers could program a network for an entire year.
What saves AMAZING during this first half, and what helps this movie truly become an all-time great superhero movie, is that Webb delivers one of the finest origin stories we’ve seen. Yes, we’ve seen all of this before, but no, we haven’t seen any of them done quite like this and few have been done as skillfully. Whomever in creative came up with the idea to re-focus Spider-Man’s origin as Peter’s quest to learn about his father deserves a lot of credit. By making this a story about a boy searching for the father (Campbell Scott) who abandoned him to live with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), AMAZING is never lacking momentum or purpose.
AMAZING opens with a young Peter discovering that the Parker house has been broken into. His father rushes into the room, checks on some hidden documents and instantly decides that he and his wife (Embeth Davidtz) need to get out of Dodge. Hurriedly, they drop Peter off with May and Ben, say their goodbyes, and leave. We cut to Peter in high school. He’s a bit of a loner and the target of high school bullies, but he also sticks up for other kids who get picked on, even if it means he takes a beating from Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), instead.
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is a fascinating character to watch. He might not run with the cool crowd, but he knows who he is and there’s a comfort level in his own skin (if not his situation) that signals both intelligence and confidence. This is a Peter who’s alone largely because he wants to be alone. We see that several girls at school have taken notice of him, and even if that doesn’t translate into him being an object of desire, he is, at the very least, an object of interest. Even when one female classmate asks him if he’s doing anything Friday night because she wants him to take pictures of her boyfriend’s car for his birthday, there’s an acknowledgment there that she knows he’s a good photographer. If he was completely unworthy of notice by the opposite sex, the girl either never would have noticed Peter’s photos or wouldn’t bother asking him.
She’s asking him to take photos of a car, after all. Even the most technologically challenged kid in high school can take a decent photo of a car with their cell phone. Other girls notice, too. There’s a cutesy, shy, nerdy girl who looks like she’s got a crush on Pete and, of course, there’s the incomparable Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who’s impressed by Peter stepping in to save that underclassman and take a beat down from Flash.
I think the entire global male population is in love with Emma Stone and watching AMAZING it’s not hard to see why. Comic writer Kurt Busiek said that watching Emma Stone play Gwen was like watching a John Romita, Sr. drawing come to life, and there’s no better description – or compliment – that I can pay. Her fashion sense – lots of sensible sweaters and fashionable high boots – is pure Romita, Sr., and Stone imbues Gwen with a complete sense of self. After Peter stands up to Flash and gets beat up, it’s Gwen’s turn to stick her face into Flash’s business, verbally cutting him down and putting him in his place.
There’s never a feeling that AMAZING is anything but Peter’s movie, but the rest of the cast turns in professional work that makes them feel like real people. Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy, Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben, Sally Field’s Aunt May, Rhys Ifans’ Dr. Curt Connors, Irrfan Khan’s Dr. Rajit Ratha, and C. Thomas Howell’s Ray the Construction Worker all deliver the goods in limited roles, and this is critically important because the film is basically Peter sharing the screen with a rotating string of tag team opponents.
After a day at school, Peter comes home to find that Uncle Ben is dealing with a flooded basement, and Ben asks him to come downstairs to help. Ben thinks it’s one thing, but Peter disagrees and Ben acknowledges that Peter is right. “Can you fix it?” Ben asks, and Peter says he can do it but he needs to hit the hardware store first. It’s a small but beautiful scene between the boy and his surrogate dad, and Webb has constructed their relationship as one contrasting Ben’s working class common sense and Peter’s high IQ.
I don’t think anyone will ever play Ben Parker the way I have always envisioned him in my head better than Cliff Robertson, but Martin Sheen does a damn fine job in AMAZING playing the firm but gentle uncle and surrogate father to his younger brother’s son. During the basement scene (at the end of which Peter finds his father’s old briefcase), I wasn’t sure if Ben was allowing Peter to be right to give them a moment, or leaning on him to help fix the problem he himself couldn’t solve (which seems odd, given the conception of the character), but later in the film Ben comes into Peter’s room to have a heart-to-heart, and admits that he can’t be the typical dad because he stopped being able to help Peter with his homework ages ago. Ben wants Peter to know that he does know who the man is in a picture that Peter found in his dad’s case, and this moment is Ben’s way of acknowledging that Peter is becoming a man, and that he needs to start making his own decisions. It’s also for himself, to give voice to the idea that he can’t protect and shield Peter from the big bad world anymore. Sheen gives Ben a strong, powerful dignity and Peter acknowledges it, telling his uncle that he’s a great dad.
It’s the kind of moment that Webb pulls off so well – small in stature but huge in meaning and importance.
AMAZING is a movie that’s more serious and emotional than fun, but Webb does a good job building in some much-needed moments of humor. He uses Ben to tease Peter at school over Gwen. He’s come to school because Peter humiliated Flash in gym class, and has to rearrange his work schedule because of it, meaning Pete has to pick up Aunt May at 9 that night. When Ben sees Gwen lurking in the background, Ben unleashes his goodhearted assault. “He’s got a picture of you on his computer,” he yells over Peter’s shoulder, and then adds, “I’m his probation officer” as a means of introduction.
The fateful spider bite comes early in the film. After Peter is told about Connors, he bluffs his way into Oscorp by pretending to be a high school intern. Once inside, his subterfuge is spotted by Gwen, who’s Dr. Connors primary intern. It’s partly Peter’s fault; Dr. Connors asks a question that no one else can answer and when he steps up, he can no longer slink in the background. The moment displays both Peter’s lurking ego and his desire to get in close with Connors. Gwen doesn’t toss him out (she seems perfectly fine with the idea that Peter is there just to see her, and Peter doesn’t correct her), but she does tell him to stay with the group.
He doesn’t. He follows Dr. Ratha down a hallway after noticing the same symbol on the documents he’s carrying that was on his dad’s papers, and spies on him as he punches in a security code to a restricted room, which Pete then enters. He makes his way into a room full of genetically modified spiders spinning webs (what Oscorp calls “biocable”) and one of them hitches a ride on his back when he exits. Making his way back to the group, Gwen kicks him out, and then the spider bites him, and we get the evolution of Peter’s spider powers.
The dawn of Peter’s powers is the only time in the film where I felt like Webb didn’t want to be doing this. There’s a decent scene in a subway car where Peter beats up some guys giving him a hard time, his fingers clinging to everything he touches like superglue, and another one at home where Peter’s strength causes him to break everything he touches, but by the time Peter starts climbing up walls and swinging by metal chains at a warehouse on the docks, it just feels perfunctory. Peter yells, “Wooo!” the celebration seems more because we’re done with this sequence than because Peter is happy to find that he’s got powers. The perfect moment to symbolize this sequence comes when Peter squeezes a tube of toothpaste and sends half the tube squirting out onto his bathroom mirror. He just sort of looks at it dumbly and then scrapes some of the paste onto his toothbrush. It’s like he can’t get past these moments fast enough.
AMAZING is a well-stuffed movie. There’s so many moving parts here that it’s almost overwhelming during the first half of the film, but it’s not a bad thing because it helps to keep the narrative moving. Unless you’re coming to Spider-Man completely unaware of the character, you know everything that’s going to happen up until Ben’s death; that AMAZING changes the details of the story doesn’t alter the narrative’s beats: Peter is awkward, Peter loves a girl way out of his perceived league, Peter gets bit by a radioactive spider, Peter develops superpowers, Peter lets a criminal go, said criminal kills Uncle Ben.
It’s one of the film’s biggest strengths that it has the confidence to tell its own story. When you re-tell an origin, of course, you’re inviting comparisons to all previous versions of that origin story, and there’s nothing wrong with analyzing the film through that lens. As much as possible, however, I try to make sure that I also look at a film for what it is, not what it isn’t. Sony reportedly kept much of the production crew together from the Raimi films (including using screenwriter Alvin Sargent to offer a polish), and I could feel their confidence in walking in this world. A look at the credits reveals plenty of people used to working on superhero movies, and the result is that AMAZING feels like a very confident film. Despite the massive success of the Raimi trilogy (prior to Avengers, the three Spider-Man movies were the three highest grossing Marvel movies), Webb crafts his own story here and he builds such a solid, cohesive world that by the time Gwen dresses down Flash in front of the gathered crowd the Raimi films were in the rearview. I spent the last week re-watching and reacting to all three of them so I went into the movie with Raimi’s films fresh in my mind, yet the only time they were an active part of my film-watching experience was during that initial high school sequence. There’s no real comparison between Webb’s AMAZING and Raimi’s Spider-Man than there is between, say, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s version of Peter’s origin and Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s version years later; you can compare them if you want because they cover the same ground, but they’re clearly separate, unique visions.
AMAZING takes its cues from its initial premise that this is a story about a boy looking for his dad, and crafts its story accordingly. Webb is more interested in emotional arcs than narrative ones, and there are some dodgy moments in the script. Oscorp should have better security system than Peter pointing at a badge and going, “That’s me,” and having the desk attendant believe him. Someone in the Stacy household should have noticed that Peter never came through the front door when he arrives for dinner. And most damningly, Peter’s revenge quest to find the criminal that he let escape and subsequently killed Uncle Ben just sort of disappears once the Lizard arrives.
The lack of resolution to this subplot is the one area where the film really drops the ball. I can understand why it happens – the arrival of a huge, green lizard man who’s trying to kill you and your girlfriend while also attempting to poison the city is certainly going to knock you off whatever current path your walking. I get that. It’s not like it would make any sense at all if Peter was like, “Listen, Doc Connors, I’m going to have to ask you to hold off on turning the city into reptile people for a bit while I continue to look for my uncle’s killer,” but that there’s no resolution, or even acknowledgment of that dropped plot beyond the police artist sketch in his room at the end of the film is a bit weak after the film spends all that time showing Peter hunting him down. The cops even take notice that the majority of Spidey’s captures fit the same general description, and it would have been nice to see Peter catch the guy during one of the film’s final scenes to illustrate that his experiences have changed him from being a kind concerned with vengeance to one invested in protection.
While there are some narrative flubs, however, all of the emotional arcs work wonderfully. Webb and his team of writers have given each character a unique arc to follow through the course of the movie. They’re not overly complex arcs, but they are there and thus provide a good amount of satisfaction. Captain Stacy sees his world upset with the dual appearances of both the masked vigilante Spider-Man and his daughter’s new love interest. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched Denis Leary develop as an actor over the course of The Job and Rescue Me, but he’s fantastic here as the concerned dad and one of NYC’s top cops. Watching him and Garfield go at it over what Spider-Man is doing, or his awkward talk with Stone over hot chocolate is to see just how good an actor Leary has become. And Captain Stacy is the kind of character who never resorts to type; he’s the tough-as-nails cop, but while he dismisses Peter’s assertions about Doc Connors being the Lizard to Peter’s face, the moment after he has Peter removed from the precinct he’s got the ear of one of his officers to bring him all the information they have on Connors.
Later, when the cops have Spidey pinned down and Pete has his mask pulled off, it’s down to him versus Stacy. Peter slowly turns around, letting the Captain see his face. He tells Stacy that the Lizard is headed for Oscorp, which is where Gwen is, and Stacy recognizes that this vigilante he’s been tracking down is both a well-meaning kid and someone who wants desperately to save his daughter, so he lets Spider-Man go. Even more, he heads to Oscorp, too, to help Peter stop the Lizard, whatever concerns he has about vigilantes momentarily placed to the side in the face of a larger threat.
That larger threat, of course, is the Lizard, and while Rhys Ifans’ portrayal of Dr. Curt Connors doesn’t rank with Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, it is nonetheless a compelling performance and character conception. Connors was Richard Parker’s former colleague; together they were working on inter-species genetic research, fueled in part by Connors having lost much of his right arm. When Peter’s parents left and subsequently died in a plane crash, Connors’ research stalled, and he’s been struggling for years to make the final breakthrough that will lead to human testing. Partly out of ego and partly out of curiosity, Peter gives his father’s “decay rate algorithm” to Connors, which leads to the two of them successfully developing a formula to test on a lab mouse. When the lab mouse regrows a missing leg, pressure comes from on high in Oscorp to begin human experimentation.
AMAZING does a bang-up job creating a larger world for Spider-Man to inhabit. If you know the comics, you know that Gwen and Norman Osborn are destined to have their stories intertwine, and instead of forcing us into that shared narrative, Webb uses Norman solely as an unseen manipulator. We learn that he’s dying and that he’s funding Connors’ research to help save his own life. The movie never formally introduces Norman into the film (except that it seems pretty clear that it’s him who shows up in the mid-credits’ sequence at the end of the film), but keeps him as this shadowy presence sitting above the fray. It’s a wise move, and I would imagine AMAZING 2 will see Peter gain a new college friend named Harry Osborn who’s dad takes a great interest in Peter. For now, though, AMAZING smartly concentrates on Dr. Connors and the Lizard.
Connors is a man propelled by his desire to make the world a better place through his research, but he’s also a man of some principle. He refuses to move ahead with human testing, even though Dr. Ratha insists that it must be done (and insinuates Connors shouldn’t be naive as he knows darn well what happened to Richard Parker when he refused to move ahead with human testing). Afraid he’ll lose his chance to save himself, Connors self-tests the formula, which first regrows his arm and then turns him into the Lizard.
The CGI work on the Lizard is pretty darn great, though I would have preferred to see a more reptilian, rather than human, face. The fight sequences are strong (especially the one in the sewer where Spidey constructs a web to alert him of movement, and sets up his camera to take pictures), though Webb is careful to almost always build a strong emotional element into the battles. The highlight of this approach is seen with Ray the construction worker. When the Lizard first appears, Spidey fights him briefly on the bridge, but he’s more concerned with saving all the cars the Lizard sends hurtling off the edge. Ray calls for help because his kid is trapped in one of the web-hanging vehicles and Spidey heads down to save him. Pete’s conversation with the scared kid, including giving him his mask to wear, is really high quality stuff, a perfect mix of action and emotion. Spidey saves the kid and returns him to his dad. Later, when Spider-Man desperately needs to get to Oscorp to stop the Lizard, Ray gets his construction worker buddies to turn their cranes over the street, building a perfect approach for Spidey’s web-slinging.
AMAZING suffers a bit of the doldrums at the end. Captain Stacy dies during his team-up with Spider-Man against the Lizard, and makes Peter promise to stay away from his daughter in order to protect her. We get a scene of Stacy’s funeral, which Peter only attends by sitting on the roof, and then when Gwen comes to his house to ask why he’s not there for her, Peter tells her they’re over. I had this momentary “ugh” sensation of being about to leave the theater depressed, but then Gwen stops during her exit walk and turns around. “My father made you promise to stay away from me, didn’t he?” she asks, and even though Peter doesn’t tell her that’s exactly what happened, we can see that Gwen knows it and that’s enough. During one of their scenes earlier in the film, she tells Peter that she knows she’s partly attracted to his Spider-ness because she’s grown up in a house where her father gets up every morning, puts on a badge, and goes to work with no guarantee he’s coming home that night.
Gwen is smart. Heck, most of the characters in this movie are smart and that makes it such a joy to watch. Peter builds his web shooters, Aunt May figures out he’s Spider-Man (though she doesn’t say anything), and Gwen runs the formula to create the antidote to Connors’ reptile gas. Even Flash is no dummy. After picking on Peter during the early stages of the film, he offers Pete his condolences after Ben’s murder. There are real people in Webb’s film, full of complex emotions and desires, and when Gwen signals that she knows why Peter is ending things with her, it doesn’t make the two of them run back into each other’s arms, but it does deepen their relationship in a very satisfying manner. At the end of the film, Peter is late to class and he promises his teacher it won’t happen again.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” the teacher chides.
Peter leans forward and whispers in Gwen’s ear, “Those are the best kind.”
Gwen doesn’t turn around, but she does smile, and that’s enough to bring the film out of its momentary dip to the dour end of the pool.
The mid-credits scene that I mentioned briefly above sees a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows visiting Connors in jail. Connors implores this figure (played by Michael Massee, who was the voice of Bruce Banner in the Ultimate Avengers‘ movies and, tragically, was the man who accidentally shot Brandon Lee during the filming of The Crow) to leave Peter alone, but the figure won’t hear of it. There’s no direct indication that this figure is Norman Osborn, but it seems pretty clear that it is intended to be the shadowy head of Oscorp. I suppose it would have been nice to see his face and hear him called Norman, but that would mean they’d have to hire the actor for the next movie now. Better to keep his face hidden and then re-shoot this sequence with whatever actor they eventually hire to play him. Plus, filming it this way also gives them the option to move in a non-Norman direction if they decide that’s for the better.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is one of my favorite superhero movies. It’s lost a bit in the summer of 2012, situated as it is between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but this is incredibly strong film making. If we have to play the Raimi Comparison Game, it’s clearly better that the very good 1 and very awful 3, and almost as good as the masterpiece that is Spider-Man 2. The emotional arcs are very satisfying and more than compensate for a few blips in the narrative, and the wise-cracking Spidey provides some much-needed levity. Garfield and Stone are simply adorable together, and they are both terrific young actors. The result is a movie that’s half origin, half action, and all complicated heart. The acting is incredibly strong and the Spidey-verse has been well set-up for future films, as Peter’s search for the truth about his parents will continue.
Hollywood being Hollywood, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is already scheduled to be released May 2, 2014, nearly a month after the April 4 scheduled release of Captain America 2. If 2012 has taught us anything, it’s that superhero movies aren’t going anywhere, and as long as we get high quality films like these, Hollywood will keep getting my money. When May 2014 rolls around, I don’t know where I’ll be leaving or what job I’ll have, but I know I’ll be making plans to see THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.
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