Whether you liked it or not, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man back in 2002 is what really touched off the rash of super-hero movies we’ve seen over the last decade. Even moreso than 2000’s X-Men, it showed that you could make a ton of cash off of translating a comic book to film. Everybody else piled on after that. Once the original trilogy was completed with the abomination of Spider-Man 3, the world’s attention shifted to the Marvel Studios productions that were the precursors to The Avengers. Sony, though, still has the rights to Spider-Man, and if they have to keep popping out new variations every few years to keep the rights, they will, which is how we got 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13).
The plot is basic Spider-Man, with more back story. Sure, there’s the nerdy Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), but we also get a glimpse of Young Peter Parker’s earlier life with his parents and how they abandoned him with his aunt and uncle only to be killed later in a plane crash. This is actually critical to the plot of ASM. Teenaged Parker is a crack scientist like his father, with the standard teenaged scientist’s burden of being a social misfit. He gets beat up and can’t bring himself to talk to the girl of his dreams, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). This all changes during a visit to the lab of geneticist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). He’s bitten by a very special spider and BLAMMO!, instant super-powers. Connors, while a good guy, succumbs to the typical movie scientist pressure to experiment on himself and winds up as a psychotic mutated reptile (The Lizard, for those looking for comic book comparisons but haven’t read any of them). And we’re off!
I never liked Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, mostly because his incessantly whiny delivery. Peter Parker is an insecure nerd. Spider-Man isn’t. Maguire was never anything more than Parker in different clothes. Garfield, who I haven’t seen in anything else, brings a far better performance to the screen. When he’s Spider-Man, his whole manner changes. He makes you understand how liberating the new identity is for him. However, as good as Garfield was, I have to question the choice of Stone as Gwen Stacy. While I was delighted to see Gwen as the love interest (since that is closer to the comic book canon), Stone just didn’t fit the bill. She probably would have been great as Mary Jane and not just because she’s a redhead. The script seemed to call for Gwen to keep close to her intermediate comic book roots as the “girl next door.” I say intermediate because she started out far different, but that’s a whole other topic entirely. My point is that Stone is good with sarcasm and dry delivery. She doesn’t project wholesome or even high school, for that matter. It might be that Garfield nailed his part so well that Stone seemed out of place. I’m not sure.
Every origin story has pacing difficulties. After all, you’re forced to include a huge range of stuff that isn’t necessarily going to be all that interesting or exciting but is still vital to later character development. Sometimes, this is handled well (Thor). Sometimes, it’s atrocious (Ang Lee’s Hulk). ASM handled it well. In retrospect, I can’t really come up with glaring instance of material that should have been cut or re-worked in order to keep interest. I was very happy with this, since it was one of the drags from Raimi’s initial effort. I had never heard of director Marc Webb before, and the scriptwriters were guys from somewhat lackluster productions like The Losers and (ugh) Spider-Man 3. Fortunately, they must have learned a few lessons since those days because ASM delivered a stream-lined product without over-dosing the audience on action or angst.
Speaking of action, there’s plenty of it, but it’s nothing like what I expected. The previous incarnation of Spider-Man was all about sweeping, wide shots of swinging through New York or being chased across buildings and so forth. ASM is right in your face most of the time. It can be a bit jarring, but the increased intensity and desperation make it a far more satisfactory engagement, I think.
So it all sounds pretty good, right? Alas, there is no perfection in this Vale of Tears. Spider-Man has a well-known theme that hasn’t really changed in five decades because it’s just that good. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Jesus says as much in Luke 12:48. In a certain sense, this is touched on in even greater detail in ASM than in Raimi’s films, as Garfield realizes that helping people is now his job because it’s what a good person would do, the exact line from Uncle Ben has been excised in favor of a longer-winded shpiel. Many will probably say that the implied is better than the explicit, but I’m going to disagree in this instance. Taking a powerful statement and diluting into a monologue deflates the whole point. So yeah, I’m griping about one missing line. It just so happens that the one line encapsulates the hero’s entire existence.
This is also the main Catholic theme. We help others who are too weak to help themselves. I’ve always marveled at the number of Ayn Rand disciples who read comic books. Since the whole point of the hero is often pure altruism, wouldn’t a proper objectivist find these stories repulsive? Yet here we have a willingness to pay the ultimate sacrifice for no other reason than the good of the other. Not just a willingness, but a perceived obligation to do so.
On the negative side of the Catholic ledger, Parker breaks a very significant promise and then plays it off like it never really mattered in the first place. I was pretty disappointed in that, but again, I wasn’t expecting perfection either.
The rating is PG-13, mostly for the violence, I suppose. Connors’s transformation is a bit gross, and there is some blood in the more graphic scenes. My kids didn’t have a problem with it. The only sexual content is Gwen and Peter kissing while he is shirtless. The profanity is mild throughout, though I warn parents that there are some f-bomb replacements (“Mother Hubbard!”) that might make you uncomfortable.
If I was to give it a place among the earlier Spider-Man movies, I’d say it’s definitely better than 1 and 3. I’m not so sure about 2, but it’s close. As a reboot, I thought it was great and far better than anticipated, with way more strengths than weaknesses.
Review by Throwback