Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hey, True Believers! Spidey Returns in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN!


- No matter what, there is going to a specter hanging over this latest effort to bring Spiderman to the big-screen. It was only a few short years ago that the third Sam Raimi-directed Spidey film was released, a film that ended up being the finale of a trilogy that was a big part of the modern superhero cinematic boom - a trilogy that made Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's 1960's creation more popular than ever. And anyone who follows movies knows that this latest Spiderman flick was a movie that, essentially, *had* to be made by Sony. If they didn't make a new one, they'd forfeit the rights to the character, and the property would revert back to Marvel Studios. So yes, we get a new Spiderman movie now, but if Sony hadn't retained the rights, then hey, Peter Parker and friends would be back home at the House of Ideas, free to co-mingle with Iron Man, Captain America, and Nick Fury. So sure, there is a certain cloud if cynicism and corporate politics that hangs over The Amazing Spider-Man. And yet, my own long-held skepticism about the film slowly but surely began to wear away as I watched it. No, this one never reaches the loopy comic book highs of the still-brilliant Spiderman 2 (the pinnacle of the previous series), but it helps make the same ol' origin story semi-fresh again - with a more-than-up-to-the-task cast, a slightly darker and more modern feel, and plenty of classic Spidey action.

The fact is, even if Sam Raimi's Spiderman 3 has a small but vocal group of supporters, I've rarely seen a more disappointing entry in a beloved blockbuster franchise. To me, Spiderman 3 was a huge black mark in Marvel movie history, and so I was ready for a clean slate. Sam Raimi remains one of my all-time favorite directors, and he did great things with the character. But there were certain things that did intrigue me about a reboot. For one, I've become a big fan of Andrew Garfield, and he seemed to be a great choice to play Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire always seemed a little off to me as Spiderman, so I was eager to see if Garfield could bring a little more of the wise-cracking, smart-alecky Spiderman of the comics to the big screen. As it turns out, Garfield does a pretty great job here. He is appropriately awkward as Peter, but there's also a toughness in him that makes him feel like a natural as a superhero. He also has great chemistry with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Peter's pre-Mary Jane gal pal. No, they don't have the will-they-or-won't-they drama that Peter and Mary Jane did in the earlier films, but that's okay. It's fun to see Peter with someone who's less a fantasy object and more a partner in crime. So yeah, even though Garfield and Stone are pushing believability a bit as high school students, I really enjoyed both, and they definitely brought some real depth and sense of fun to the two lead roles. They've created versions of Peter and Gwen who I'd gladly follow into future sequels.

And that's the thing with this movie - its biggest accomplishment is probably that it lays some fantastic groundwork for future sequels, establishing a great new cast and a fresh start for Spiderman's cinematic adventures. Not that the movie isn't well-done and entertaining in its own right - it's just that, again, the shadow of the Raimi films looms large. What I mean is that you can almost feel this one stretching to avoid major beats from the first Raimi movie. The film's villain, Dr. Curt Connors - aka The Lizard - works at OsCorp, but Norman and Harry Osbourne don't factor into the film. Peter still takes the inspiration for his Spidey costume from a pro-wrestler, but this film avoids the protracted wrasslin' sequence of Raimi's. Uncle Ben utters a variation of his famous credo - "with great power comes great responsibility" - but paraphrases, in a moment that seems to scream "this is not the Spiderman you know." And yet ... certain sequences mirror the Raimi original almost to a T. Even the font of the movie's title is almost identical (calculated move by Sony, given that they later co-opted that font for the PS3?). Point being, movie fans now have a taste of what comic book fans have long suffered through - having to see your favorite character's growth endlessly stunted by a continual cycle of reboots and retcons, the same origin stories told over and over and over again - always tweaked for more modern audiences, but always familiar to longtime fans. So here it is, mainstream: your chance to know the unique anguish of the comic book fanboy. Ironically though, the film reintroduces one of the main concepts that comics fans complained was absent from Raimi's films - the idea that Spiderman's webshooters are mechanical - invented by boy-genius Peter Parker - rather than an organic part of his spider bite-induced transformation. Personally, I can take or leave the mechanical webshooters - while they are comic book cannon, it *does* seem a little silly that web-shooting isn't just a power of Peter's ... ya' know?

Still, The Amazing Spider-Man surprised me in a number of ways. Not through any crazy plot twists, per se, but more so in how much it actually did get right. I mentioned the strength of Garfield and Stone as the leads, but let me mention Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. He rocks. Sheen plays the hell out of ol' Uncle Ben, and the strength of his performance really anchors the early part of the film. Sally Field is also really good as Aunt May. No, she isn't the vegetable-esque grandma of the older comics, but that's fine by me. At this point, I don't mind May being more of a three-dimensional character and less a one-note joke. Another big surprise for me was Denis Leary a Captain Stacey, father of Gwen. Leary makes what could have been a minor character into a memorable badass, and really steals a couple of key scenes. I also enjoyed Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors. While his motivations for villainy were a little silly, Ifans did a nice job, I thought, of making The Lizard into a more multidimensional villain than probably was written on the page. I know some couldn't get over some of the goofier aspects of The Lizard's evil plan (he wants to ... turn all of NYC into ... lizard people?!), but it didn't bother me that much given that Ifans sells the character well and makes him into a formidable menace. And no, I didn't love the character design of the CGI-created Lizard (looked more like Killer Croc from Batman), but I also didn't think it was that bad. Personally, I was won over by the fact that we had numerous, fun, kinetic action scenes of Spiderman fighting a giant reptilian monster.

On that note, I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed the film's action scenes. They're mostly smaller-scale and less over-the-top than some of the big set-pieces in the Raimi films, but I thought there was some really solid stuff here. The action definitely has a fast-paced, videogame-esque sheen to it, but I thought that there were some pretty kickass moments, with plenty of interesting, web-slinging moves that we've yet to see on the big-screen. A fight between Spidey and The Lizard that takes place in the halls of Peter's high school was particularly fun and innovative-feeling (and featured a fantastic cameo from Stan Lee!), and was a major highlight. I also admired the use of first-person during a few web-swinging sequences - if it was overdone, it could have been annoying, but given that it was used sparingly in a couple of key moments, I enjoyed it. That said, Marc Webb is a talented director, but he follows in the footsteps of one of the most visually-innovative modern directors in Sam Raimi. All three previous Spidey flicks had a couple of those jaw-dropping, vintage Raimi moments (think the Doc Ock transformation scene in Spiderman 2) that helped elevate those films. I don't know that the new movie has that one sort of instant-classic visual moment, per se. But it still looks great overall, and given that this was Webb's big leap to blockbuster action, I think it's a great first step.

Where Webb is 100% in his comfort zone though is when dealing with the quirky-cute Peter/Gwen relationship. It's no surprise that the guy who made the charming 500 Days of Summer would do a bang-up job with the young romance portion of The Amazing Spider-Man, but still ... Maybe it's just that we've had to endure so many lame, forced-feeling romances in superhero movies over the years, but man, this one was refreshing. Not for any melodramatic stuff that occurred, but more so just for the little moments of banter and flirtation between Gwen and Peter. In short, most superhero movies - yes, even the mighty Christopher Nolan Batman films - make you cringe at the romance subplots. But not here - you can't help but root for these crazy, mixed-up kids to find love.

One final surprise for me was that, despite being smaller-scale, the movie had a couple of big, heart-filled emotional beats that caught me off-guard. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any superhero story where a whole city rallies around their local hero (I am), but I thought that the film did a nice job of remembering that Spiderman is of and for New York City. Even if it's a bit darker than the Raimi films, this one still has a very New York feel to it (Garfield even does a pretty good NYC accent), and I liked that - even if the setup to get there was a bit contrived - the movie eventually paints Spiderman as a hero to the people of New York, even if the police and media think of him as a menace. And, even if the Raimi films owed more visually to the old Lee/Ditko comics, I still thought that this movie maintained a bit of that old Marvel feel, with certain shots evoking the comics both old and new. Sure, purists might complain about superficial updates like Peter now being a skateboarder, but to me, there was no doubt that this was the Peter Parker we've known and loved. In particular, the way that Garfield's Parker seemed to revel in the web-slinging and wise-cracking ... that to me was more OG Peter Parker than the version we often glimpsed in the old trilogy.

The biggest problem with the movie? It feels like it's in too much of a hurry. It almost seems like the movie is on the same page as us going in: "yes, we realize you want to skip past the origin and get to the good stuff." That's fine, but the movie is very much structured as a full-on origin story, and so it jumps between all the usual origin-story beats (Peter is bitten, he's horrified by his new and uncontrollable abilities, he goes off and tests his abilities, he puts on a ski-cap and all-black and foils a crime or two, he dons a prototype version of his costume, he constructs the actual costume, etc., etc., etc.). It can all feel very by-the-numbers - and so you have to ask ... did we need it all? I always think back to the beginning of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, where he brilliantly lays out the classic Superman origin story in one page, and then gets right to the good stuff. I'm not sure why that couldn't have been done here. Because the side-effect of spending so much time on the by-now tired origin story tropes is that we miss out on some potentially cool moments that are only briefly touched on. For example, it feels like we really only see about 3/4 of the full Lizard story. We never find out how he lost his arm, we never learn exactly how and when Dr. Connors is able to transform back-and-forth into a reptilian monster. We never get the full explanation of his sinister plan for the citizens of New York. And we never see much of the hinted-at inner conflict he has, where part of him has affection for Peter and Gwen, and part of him - the monster part - wants to destroy them. Some similar jumpiness exists in the Peter/Gwen relationship arc. There are tons of great little moments between them, but there's also a slight sense that we've skipped over some key beats in their story. Of course, a lot of these sorts of problems are just inherent to translating serialized comics to two-hour movies ... these stories were designed to be multi-part soap operas, and so you inevitably miss out when cramming everything into one film - particularly an origin film.

And yes, some random other moments in the film bothered me. Ironically, many were similar pet peeves I had with the Raimi films. For one, I get that you're paying your star a lot of money, and thus don't want him behind a mask the whole time, but DAMMIT ... Spider-Man needs to keep his mask on when in costume. For one thing, he's got a secret ID to protect, and for another, Spider-Man looks cool with the mask on, but without it, he's just a nerd in tights. But similarly to the previous flicks, The Amazing Spider-Man finds every contrived way in the book to get Garfield to lose the mask. Lame. Also, few superhero flicks have ever done a good job of having heroes interact with kids (Captain America is one of the only ones that had a great hero-meets-kid scene). And this movie has a very groan-inducing Spidey-saves-annoying-kid moment that grated on me (even more so because Spider-Man took his mask off in the process of saving him for no good reason). Finally - and this has been a problem with most Marvel movies to date - the score is ultimately pretty forgettable and not iconic like it should be. Spider-Man deserves an awesome theme, dammit. Get Hans Zimmer or John Williams on the phone, Marvel, and stat.

Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man didn't necessarily 100% wow me as a standalone movie, but at the same time ... I thoroughly enjoyed it and liked a lot of the creative choices it made. It did give me a lot of hope for the franchise going forward, and I could see a sequel really blossoming once more distance has been achieved from the Raimi movies, and now that the origin is out of the way. Certainly, this is a huge step up from the abysmal Spiderman 3, and certainly, this is one of the better big blockbuster films we've gotten so far this summer. Those who say this is one of the worst Marvel movies are, quite frankly, on crack. No, this isn't The Avengers ... but this to me is a crowd-pleaser - a fun and charming superhero flick that's true to the spirit of Spider-Man.

My Grade: B+


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  2. Thanks for the insight, especially the part about the licensing. I haven't been following who owns which Marvel character rights, though I do agree that Marvel's made the best flicks. Also, I'm happy to hear Denis Leary was his usual rockin' badass self.

    I'm tied up with travel and weddings this month, but I hope to have time to see The Amazing Spiderman soon!