Review by: Anton Bitel
Released: June 29
Towards the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, a literature teacher can be heard telling her pupils that her old professor was wrong to assert there are only ten plots in fiction when in fact there is only one. It is ironic, then, that high-school student and part-time web-slinging vigilante Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) should arrive too late to class to hear this lesson – for his teacher’s words strike a revelatory, self-reflexive note in a film that is itself simply reweaving a plot already familiar from the original Marvel comicbooks created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, as well as from numerous adaptations for the small and big screen, recently culminating in Sam Rami’s epic CG-inflected money-spinners Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). The urban playground of Spider-Man is one that we know all too well, and not just because it is the actual (though still virtual) New York City rather than some fictive Gotham or Metropolis, but also because it is has been visited many, many times before.
This creates a challenge for director Marc Webb, hired as much (one hopes) for the innovative way he re-energised an otherwise stale genre with his debut 500 Days of Summer (2009) as for his spider-friendly surname. Not that this is exactly – or at all – an auteurist work. Rather, much like its chief antagonist the biogeneticist Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), the film starts out with its own distinctive, individual character, before being taken over by more primitive forms and primal urges to become a bloated, rampaging monster, cookie-cut for blockbuster season. Far from breaking away from its predecessors, it merely recombines their genetic material into a hybrid creature which, while slightly different, is hardly new. If the public wants more of more or less the same, then The Amazing Spider-Man shoots straight and at length in 136 minutes of voguish 3D – just don’t expect the intertwined plotting and counter-plotting, let alone the formal adventurousness, of Webb’s previous feature. All the retrogressive, self-replicating signatures of a Summer tentpole have been spliced into this film’s very DNA, no doubt ensuring its box-office survival, but also limiting its capacity to evolve. This is Web 2.0, but certainly no paradigm-shifting Metaverse.
Plot elements that at first seem new to this reboot have really just been recycled and upgraded with differences that, upon examination, prove largely superficial. This is perhaps typified by Spider-Man’s high-tensile webs, now shot not straight from his body (as in Raimi’s trilogy), but from devices strapped to his wrists (as in the original comics) – but given the apparent inexhaustibility of this sticky bio-cable, the change seems purely cosmetic. Likewise, Spider-Man’s origins story (both the transformative bite that he receives, and his growth towards moral responsibility) is not made fundamentally different here from what was already seen in 2002’s Spider-Man, while the early appearance (and disappearance) in the film of Parker’s mother and father (Embeth Davidtz, Campbell Scott) adds little to the story besides the setting up of yet another sequel/remake/reboot/whatever – as promised by a now de rigueur mid-credits coda. Mary Jane may have been obliterated from this version of the story, with Parker finding a new belle in Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), but Stacy had of course already appeared as a (rival) love interest in Spider-Man 3, and is well known from the comics. And while Connors’ villainous alter ego the Lizard may be new at least to the big screen, his story arc of monstrous conflict and buried humanity is taken more or less directly from Spider-Man 2‘s Dr Otto Octavius (or Stevenson’s Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde), with only the scientist’s saurian appearance to ring the changes. Even the spectacle of an oversized reptile running amok through a cityscape is hardly a novelty, as Stacy’s policeman father (an underused, over-restrained Denis Leary) self-consciously observes with the words, “Do I look like the mayor of Tokyo?”
Maybe there really are no new stories to tell, and it is all just in the way that they are told. Certainly Webb seems more comfortable in the film’s slow-building first half, with its focus on human characters, and he brings, along with leads Garfield and Stone, a real charm and chemistry to the developing relationship between Parker and Stacy – even if Stacy’s combined status as pupil, teacher and high-ranking corporate intern strains credulity no less than it ties together plot strands. This is a graver, more brooding Parker than we saw in Raimi’s opus – even than when he donned the black Venom suit in Spider-Man 3 – but at the same time Stacy is far perkier than the depressive Mary Jane, so that the film hedges its bets somewhat between its lighter and darker moments.
By the time the high-flying action set-pieces have kicked in, Webb effectively bows out, letting his team of stunt designers and computer programmers manage the ensuing aeronautic pandemonium. The sense of high-rise vertigo formerly captured by Raimi is if anything enhanced here both by depth-dizzying stereoscopy and by a privileging of point-of-view shots that place viewers right there alongside Parker as he stares – and then plunges – into one abyss after another. Where the film really ought to have distinguished itself, however, is where it most notably falls down. For, despite the leaps and bounds taken by CGI since the last Spider-Man film, while Connnors may have developed the technology for merging his own and a lizard’s DNA, that merger is never convincingly rendered, especially when we see the Lizard’s half-human face (and hear Connor’s voice). Evidently no amount of parabolic swinging can get Spider-Man across this particularly uncanny valley – and the climactic sequences, for all their soaring scale, are a titanic struggle between characters too artificial and aloof to engage. It is, of course, exactly the sort of thing we might expect from a Spider-Man story – but Webb is more at home when he comes back down to earth.
So think of this film, if you like, as stopgap Spidey, doing whatever a spider can, but doing little that has not already been done before, and less amazing than adequate.