A scant five years after Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, and Kirsten Dunst decamped from the Spider-Man series, Sony Pictures has already decided to start the series over with new talent. The resulting movie, called The Amazing Spider-Man, goes over the same territory as Raimi’s 2002 film but does so in more complex terms. It’s a well-made piece of work. I’m hard-pressed to put my finger on anything terribly wrong with it, but I’m also at a loss to cite anything that’s transcendently great about it. I have a feeling that in the battle among the summer’s big-ticket superhero movies, this one may very well finish third. That’s too bad, because it really is worth the admission price.
The film begins with a prologue in which 4-year-old Peter Parker is dropped off with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field) by his parents, who fear for their own safety and for their son because of his father’s work with genetics. In the present day, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is a high-school student with interests in math, science, and photography, but he really wants to discover who his parents were and why they were killed. Then a radioactive spider bites him, and his quest for knowledge accelerates.
This is only one plot strain here. The second one involves Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a one-armed ex-colleague of Peter’s father who’s now trying to use animal DNA to cure human diseases, with the ulterior motive of using lizard genes to re-grow his missing arm. The third involves Peter’s awkward pursuit of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a whiz-kid fellow student who happens to work for Dr. Connors. These strains are brought together gracefully by new director Marc Webb and his team of writers, including Alvin Sargent (who penned the other Spider-Man installments) and Steve Kloves (who wrote most of the Harry Potter series).
Garfield is the biggest difference between this Spider-Man movie and its predecessors. The British-American actor is smoother and more conventionally handsome than Tobey Maguire, lacking the doofus edge that Maguire brought to the character. However, his taller and ganglier build fits the role of a superhero who relies more on agility and reflexes than brute strength. Whereas Maguire played Peter Parker as a damaged case way out of touch with his emotions, Garfield plays him as a kid who’s bursting with feelings, whether it’s delight in his new superpowers, joy at Gwen agreeing to a date with him, or grief after he finds his Uncle Ben murdered. With our multiplexes bursting with complicated superheroes, Garfield’s simple, straightforward approach to the role is refreshing, and the actor overlays it all with a winning puppy-dog energy and scruffiness. (The hair and makeup people keep him from looking too put together.) Check the scene in which Spider-Man tries to convince a boy to jump out of a car that’s dangling off the side of a bridge. The tension in the scene comes not from the action but rather from Garfield’s performance, as Spider-Man takes off the mask and tries to calm the panicking kid.
Webb’s only previous film was the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, but he fills the demands of this big-budget blockbuster with little trouble. The action sequences here aren’t particularly innovative or witty, but they do offer clarity and concision, which are particularly hard to come by when you’ve got a giant monster taking chunks out of buildings and tossing cars around. There’s a neat touch, too, when Spider-Man sets a trap for the bad guy by spinning a web in the middle of the sewer system and then sits on the web’s center and plays video games until he feels the threads start to vibrate. Webb’s attention to actors pays dividends, too: Stone is a well-matched foil for Garfield, Sheen lends moral weight and force to the ill-fated Uncle Ben, and Field finds a way to play Aunt May as something other than a little old lady.
Overall, this is a supremely competent and effective movie rather than a great one. However, we can’t judge these blockbusters on their own these days. We also have to judge them as parts of a potentially larger whole. In that light, The Amazing Spider-Man is a good restart, an even better beginning than Raimi’s first outing with the superhero. I’m intrigued to see where this goes.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Directed by Marc Webb. Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s comic books. Rated PG-13.