FOR ONCE, I’VE WRITTEN A REVIEW THAT’S SPOILER-FREE, SO YOU CAN READ THIS EVEN IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET!
It’s the question all comic book geeks are asking – does the world really need another Spiderman movie, a mere five years after Sam Raimi wrapped up his webslinger trilogy with the bloated and underwhelming Spiderman 3? Columbia Pictures obviously thought so; or at least their accountants did. But it’s unfair to say that this is a movie motivated solely by profit, even if (presumably) that’s how it got started.
The Amazing Spiderman is crafted with the usual love and respect that Marvel superheroes usually get in the cinema (and DC heroes, with the exception of Batman and Superman, usually don’t). It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it passes two and a quarter hours of undemanding four-colour thrills without seeming overlong. But director Marc Webb, for all the budget and CG technology at his disposal, is no Sam Raimi. The end product is workmanlike rather than inspired, with some touches of genius, but it seems to be yearning to be a movie it’s not. And that movie is Batman Begins.
Yes, the most obvious inspiration for yet another Spidey origin story so soon after the one with Tobey Maguire is Christopher Nolan’s radical, realistic take on DC’s Caped Crusader. Screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves plainly sat down to watch Nolan’s movie, notebooks in hand, ready to learn some lessons.
Some took well. With Batman Begins, Nolan went with the unusual gambit of not blowing the hero’s best known antagonist in the first movie, saving the Joker for the sequel. This avoided the ever-diminishing roll call of increasingly obscure villains throughout the increasingly naff 80s/90s Batman series, and additionally avoided the flamboyant Joker from pushing Batman into the background of his own movie.
The writers of Amazing Spiderman have, in a similar vein, decided to ignore Sam Raimi’s tactic of going straight in with the Green Goblin for their first movie. Instead we get the Lizard, aka Dr Curt Connors. It’s an interesting portrayal from Wales’ own Rhys Ifans (disappointingly using an English accent; I’d have loved the monster to be Welsh), but a slightly less successful one from a big green CG beastie with a vague approximation of Ifans’ features. It’s obviously a CG-heavy movie, and most of it works very well (especially the usual vertiginous Spiderman swinging round New York sequences). But the Lizard, while a cut above the Mill’s CG for Doctor Who, is pretty average CG compared to the rest of the movie. It’s notable that the character only really comes to life when it’s Ifans doing it live.
Also, while the Lizard is certainly a popular villain in the comics, he’s a little too similar to Raimi’s Dr Octopus from Spiderman 2 – a well-meaning scientist tempted into megalomania by his own creation, in this case the same ‘cross-species’ gene splicing that causes Peter’s condition. Again, if you want to properly reboot a series, try something completely different rather than something so similar to the last one. That was the problem in a nutshell with Bryan Singer’s overly reverential Superman Returns.
Where the movie does do well is in the portrayal of Spiderman himself. Obviously, there’s only so much fiddling you can do with his basic origin story – high school science whiz, lives with aunt and uncle, gets bitten by radioactive spider, discovers powers, uncle gets killed, sets out to use powers for good. That’s the essentials right there, and you can’t stray too far from them.
So here we get Martin Sheen replacing Cliff Robertson as folksy, homily-dispensing Uncle Ben, delivering a much wordier version of the “with great power comes great responsibility” speech – this time, something to do with an obligation to use your potential for the good of society. It’s delivered well by Sheen, who instantly recalls the pearls of wisdom dispatched by President Bartlet in The West Wing, but I don’t think it’s going to be endlessly quoted by fanboys like the previous one.
But Sheen is magnetically watchable in anything, and his workingman version of Uncle Ben is a good contrast to the scholarly Peter. It’s here where the movie really scores. I’m a longtime Spidey watcher – the cartoons, the 70s show with Nicholas Hammond, latterly the Tobey Maguire movies. And I think Andrew Garfield is by a long shot the best Spiderman I’ve ever seen.
I must admit, I was quite surprised at his casting, as (much like Maguire) he had a reputation as a ‘serious actor’ in some heavy dramatic fare. Where he scores over Maguire is that he brings the visceral, physical emotion of his performances in movies like Never Let Me Go to the part of Peter Parker. Spiderman is all physicality, but Peter is usually just a standard nerd; here, Garfield uses his body every bit as much as his voice and face as the hero’s real identity too. Witness his anguish when Uncle Ben is shot; his body is literally curling up into itself in grief, his face twisted unrecognisably as he sobs. Gotta say, it’s the first time that scene has left me with tears in my eyes.
But it’s not all angst. Garfield has in interviews professed to be a Spidey fan himself, and after this, I’m pretty convinced. He delivers the wisecracks as he delivers the punches, just as the character I remember from comics and films does. He also looks extremely good in the suit – as he’s again said in interviews, this is a skinny superhero, for skinny nerds to look up to, and I always thought Tobey Maguire’s buffed up physique was a tad excessive. Garfield’s biceps do look like he’s been put through the standard Hollywood training regime, but he retains his basic slender form and looks all the better for it. Even Jon Stewart on The Daily Show couldn’t help remarking on his “buns of steel”.
Love interest is provided by comic stalwart Gwen Stacy, here played as a resourceful, capable science whiz herself by Emma Stone. Fans of the movies (and more recent comics) may be surprised at the absence of better known love interest Mary Jane Watson, but Gwen actually predates her in the comics, and her ‘death’ in 1973 is one of the series’ best remembered moments.
Gwen, as ever, is an example of a fair bit of plot contrivance. Not only is she at school with Peter, not only is she the daughter of the straitlaced police chief trying to catch Spiderman (the excellent Denis Leary), but she is also, conveniently, the head intern for Dr Connors, giving Peter an immediate in at the soon-to-be villain’s lab. Connors is here recast into a reluctant player in a conspiracy which resulted in the deaths of Peter’s parents, a conspiracy orchestrated by the corporate magnate his dodgy gene-splicing is meant to cure. His name? Who else but Norman Osborn, soon to be (in the next movie presumably) the Green Goblin? Osborn is never seen in the movie, but his malign presence hangs over the whole thing, and I fully expect to see him in the inevitable sequel.
There are some good set pieces along the way, including some genuinely tense moments as Peter tries to rescue a child stuck in a car hanging from Williamsburg bridge, or latterly battles the Lizard on the dizzyingly high roof of the Oscorp building (take note, this is not a movie to see if you’re afraid of heights). Director Marc Webb pulls off these CG-heavy sequences with aplomb, and they’re a lot of fun; but they lack the sheer kinetic invention of the similar sequences in Raimi’s movies. Let’s not forget, Raimi was pulling off camera moves like that when he only had a $50 budget on The Evil Dead, whereas Webb…well, his last movie was the rather different (but still entertaining) 500 Days of Summer.
All told, this is a very entertaining movie and a good and faithful take on the Spiderman legend. Andrew Garfield is genuinely amazing as Peter and Spiderman (though he seems amazingly cavalier here about revealing his secret identity to almost everyone). And some of the lessons learnt from Batman Begins – not setting up the whole thing in the first movie with the best villain from the comics especially – are mostly well learnt. Though it’s hard to try for Nolan-style realism when your bad guy is a mutated lizard-human hybrid rather than just the human psychos of the Dark Knight’s world.
But still, enjoyable though it is, it all seems kind of unnecessary. It’s good, but it’s not different enough from Raimi’s films to make you think the character was crying out for a reboot. Ultimately, if you’ve never seen the 2001 Spiderman, you’ll love this. If you have, then you’ll enjoy it but have a nagging feeling of deja vu throughout.