Improvements in digital special effects in the late 1990’s finally allowed the Marvel stable of super-heroes to be truly super. Prior to that, live-action adaptations of their comic books were embarrassing, with the exception of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno series The Incredible Hulk. Bryan Singer showed what was possible with 2000’s X-Men, and then Sam Raimi delivered 2002’s Spider-Man, a blockbuster with a worldwide gross of over $800 million. Both of those franchises enjoyed excellent second movies in the series, with Spider-Man 2 almost equaling the first movie’s worldwide gross, but then they both stumbled badly their third time out. X-Men: The Last Stand was the last straw, with poor direction by Brett Ratner. Spider-Man 3 didn’t have that excuse, since Raimi remained as director, but it was mess that added new meaning to the term “Jump the shark.” Peter Parker’s descent to the dark side became a cringe-worthy parody of John Travolta’s Staying Alive strut that was done not once but twice in the movie. (I literally did cringe watching it.)
After a pedestrian X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that series came back strong with last year’s X-Men: First Class. (Marvel will be trying Wolverine’s backstory again with The Wolverine, helmed by James Mangold, out next year.) The other citizens of the Marvel Universe – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America – all did well on their own, and then triumphed when brought together in The Avengers. But Spider-Man, arguably the greatest hero at Marvel, was left out of the new renaissance. Until now.
The Amazing Spider-Man goes over some of the same territory of the first movie, but it fills it out in a satisfying way. It also briefly introduces us to Peter Parker’s parents.
While playing hide-and-seek with his young son Peter, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), discovers someone’s broken into his home office. Richard retrieves a file from a hiding place while Peter’s mother Mary (Embeth Davidtz) packs their bags. They drop Peter with Richard’s brother Ben (Martin Sheen) and his wife May (Sally Field) before they disappear. Later Richard and Mary are believed to have died in a plane crash.
Years later, Peter (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network) is an awkward science nerd in high school and an amateur photographer. He’s also nursing a major crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), while suffering bullying by Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka). While helping Uncle Ben clean up a flooded basement, Peter discovers his father’s old briefcase that was left with Ben for safe keeping. It appears empty of anything useful until Peter discovers a secret compartment that contains his father’s special file.
Looking for answers about his parents, Peter sneaks into Oscorp Inc. to see Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former colleague. Posing as a potential intern for the doctor, he’s exposed when Gwen turns out to be Connors’ main intern. Peter runs into (literally) a shadowy Oscorp executive, Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), who’s carrying a file with a similar code to his father’s file. Peter discovers a project his father had initiated to use genetically-modified spiders to create a super cable. While in the lab, Peter is bitten by one of the spiders. The powers he gains are first used selfishly until, as a result of his sin of omission, Uncle Ben is killed. Peter becomes a vigilante, fighting crime while looking for the criminal who killed his uncle.
Peter does connect with Connors later. Richard Parker’s formula seems to provide the key breakthrough in a serum Connors is developing, to use reptile DNA to regrow lost body parts. Ratha, though, pressures Connors to produce results or have his lab shut down. Connors, who had lost most of his right arm, experiments on himself, with tragic results.
This is a much darker version of the tale than Raimi’s, which was almost a transfer of panels from the comic onto the screen. Raimi’s movies danced on the edge of camp – and fell over that cliff with the 3rd – but here there is a much more realistic feel to the story, at least as realistic as you’ll get with a comic book superhero movie. With the addition of Peter’s parents, there’s a level of corporate shenanigans in the story, much different from the benevolent Oscorp of the previous series. (A tag midway through the credits hints at this being the theme of the next movie.) Overall there is more emotional depth, such as a scene where former bully Flash reaches out to Peter after Uncle Ben’s death. Marc Webb, the director, started as a documentarian before doing his one other feature film, the excellent (500) Days of Summer. Handling this SFX-laden is a much more involved job, but he does it well.
The acting is excellent. Garfield plays Parker with less angst than Tobey Maguire while keeping the wisecracking fun. The movie places more stress on Parker’s intelligence, including his creating mechanical web shooters, rather than the organic explanation in the Raimi films. The interplay between Garfield and Stone works nicely, with her being more of a help-mate/assistant rather than an object of desire like Kirsten Dunst. Uncle Ben and Aunt May come across a normal people, and less victims than previously portrayed. It helps to have Sheen and Fields play the roles as they can handle the interplay with subtlety and realism.
I’d never been that taken with the Lizard as a villain. Compared to Doc Oc and the Green Goblin in the comics, he wasn’t that thrilling – just an alligator in a lab coat. But in this movie he reaches the level of the other villains. Ifans is excellent as a scientist who is seduced by his work. Dennis Leary has a fine turn as Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father, who begins as Spider-man’s foe and ends up as an ally.
One gripe: The prop person should have gotten Peter a digital camera. The one he uses looks recycled from the first movie, an old-style reflex that uses film. Yet his pictures easily appear on his computer.
The first two Raimi films are a 500 lb gorilla in the room. If this picture had come first, it would have earned the “Amazing” adjective in the title. While it does change the details, the main plot points are familiar. I think this movie will definitely grab the fans of the comic books, but the wider population will be a tougher sell. It likely won’t come anywhere near the success of those first two films, but given a chance, now that it’s freed from telling the backstory, I think this new series can move on into truly amazing territory. With its potential, it should make it past a third movie without jumping the shark.