There is one moment of pure visual magic in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” perfectly staged and realized, and when the Stan Lee cameo is the best thing in your movie, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
One of the biggest questions you’re going to hear in the days and weeks ahead as people finally get a chance to see this series reboot is going to be “Why?” Sony’s answer to that question is “Because we had to.” From a business perspective, they had no choice but to make another movie, and since they couldn’t afford to stay in the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire business, they made a decision to go back to the start and kick things off with a new creative team…
… only they didn’t. The producers are still the same producers, and sure enough, Alvin Sargent’s got a shared screenplay credit on the film, making him the most consistent creative player in the series so far. While there’s one advantage to restarting the entire series, allowing them to layer in Gwen Stacy from the very start and then, somewhere down the road, play out her most infamous story line, what you gain by doing that, you lose in narrative momentum. This film’s got one major issue that nothing can overcome, and that is a profound feeling of “been there, done that.”
This is a strange sort of creative stumble, because it’s not an overtly bad film, and judged in a vacuum, it’s got stretches that work. Unfortunately, the film is following three other movies, and the places where it does something dramatically different than the Raimi films are the places where it makes some of its biggest mistakes. For example, one of the cornerstones of the Spider-Man story involves the death of his Uncle Ben and the events that lead up to that moment. It’s one of the easiest elements of the story to get right, and somehow, in trying to find a new way to do it, this movie totally fumbles the beat. Poorly conceived and poorly staged, it’s an emotional zero, a moment that should serve as the thing that motivates everything else Peter does on his journey. Instead, it just happens with no real weight, and the film would be essentially the same with or without the scene.
Look, I get that comic characters are somewhat elastic. You can’t read comic books your whole life without getting dozens of practical examples of the way you can bend the characters different ways to create different effects. I love what Brian Michael Bendis did with “Ultimate Spider-Man,” and I think he did a tremendous job of taking familiar moments and characters and iconography and refiguring them into something that felt new and alive. That could have happened here, but the movie has a weird dour tone, mournful from the opening moments, that seems like it’s at odds with the actual material being played. Not every superhero films needs to be buried under mountains of angst, and a little of it can go a long way. I don’t mind the attempt to tell a new version of Spider-Man, but this particular version doesn’t work for me, and it’s an accumulation of all the small terrible decisions that snowball into something that just doesn’t connect.
James Vanderbilt, Sargent, and Steve Kloves are all credited with the script, and it seems like an awfully big group of heavy-hitters to throw at something that feels like it was assembled from a “Make Your Own Generic Superhero Movie” kit. Competently assembled, the film spends a whole lot of time covering ground that has been well covered before. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko originally designed Peter Parker, he was a nerd, an outcast, but in the 21st century, that archetype has been completely reconfigured. Nerds run the world these days, so while it’s understandable that Peter might be somewhat dented from the loss of his parents during childhood, I’m not really sure why he’s being played like a guy who no one notices or likes during the first act of the film. It doesn’t seem genuine or motivated, particularly when it’s Andrew Garfield playing the part. He and Emma Stone have nice chemistry together, and there are several scenes between the two of them that are charming. But the film doesn’t know what to do to update the archetypes that Lee and Ditko originally utilized.
Another good example is the way they’ve written Curt Connors, the villain played here by Rhys Ifans. The film can’t decide if he’s a good guy who suffers the side effects of an experiment gone wrong or a bad guy with secrets who only reveals his true face once he’s become the Lizard. It doesn’t help that the film has that same maddening franchise-minded tendency to drop clues to future films at the expense of this one. We hear mention of Norman Osborn in the film and some mysterious disease that’s killing him, and there is a suggestion of a larger conspiracy about Peter’s parents that both Osborn and Connors were involved in, and all any of it does is make the whole world of the film feel very, very small. Just like George Lucas and his bizarre insistence that everyone in the entire galaxy of the “Star Wars” films is somehow connected directly to the story of the Skywalker family, it seems that the entire world of “The Amazing Spider-Man” revolves around Peter Parker even before he becomes Spider-Man. It robs the story of the everyman quality that was one of the things Marvel Comics built its empire on, and it turns this into another story of The Chosen One finding his destiny. Huge mistake.
The late Michael J. Riva was the production designer here, and there’s something that rings false about the overall design of the film. The New York stuff is so anonymous that it could easily have been shot anywhere, and the science-fiction elements that are introduced via Oscorp feel like something from a theme park, not a lived-in and cohesively realized world. John Schwartzman’s cinematography is slick, but again, it doesn’t feel like either a fully-realized comic book world or the real world, stranding the film in some awkward neither nor. The one tech collaborator whose work really shines here is James Horner, but it’s like he’s scoring the film they tried to make and not the film they actually made. There’s a lot of his score that is inventive and exciting, and I would imagine it’s a good listen on its own. I just wish I’d seen the movie that I was listening to instead of the one I actually saw.
I liked the presentation today at the IMAX screening room, and it’s obvious that the 3D classes Sony threw for the director paid off in a something that delivers a few big bang visual moments. Marc Webb’s work is entirely serviceable, and I hate saying that. I hate damning a filmmaker with faint praise. He’s got a certain degree of technical proficiency that works in some of the bigger scenes, and I do think he has a nice touch with Stone and Garfield and their chemistry, but there’s so little momentum to the overall film that it never feels like it starts. It all feels like preamble, like they’re warming up for a second film. I don’t understand why studios ignore the James Bond model when they’re making franchise films like this. We get it. Tobey Maguire isn’t going to play the role forever, so if you’re going to recast it, just recast it. But don’t bother wiping the entire thing away and starting over. And if you are going to do it, don’t deliver something that feels like a remake that was made by someone who only had the first film described to them. What’s good is okay, and what’s bad is baffling, and overall, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is, at best, average, and in an age where talented filmmakers are battling to elevate a genre that has become a mini-industry within the larger industry, average just isn’t good enough.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” opens everywhere July 3.