Second chances are a good thing, aren’t they? Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man delivers thrills aplenty with a sureness of foot akin to someone afforded a winning blueprint ten years in advance.
You’re walking on shaky ground when you reboot a superhero series so fresh in audiences minds. It wasn’t so long ago – 2002 in fact – that director Sam Raimi was showing Tobey Maguire how to swing from New York skyscrapers as the eponymous hero. For all intents and purposes, Raimi did a fine job, particularly with the franchise’s first sequel, but after falling out of favour with critics and audiences with the third instalment, the man behind cult classics like Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, felt he had nowhere to go with the character and justifiably walked away. The problem the studio had was the continuing box office potential of Spider-Man. Indeed, the proposed Spider-Man 4 was already being prepared, but no filmmakers felt confident enough to take the story forward as a chronological progression of Raimi’s trilogy. Thus, Sony handed (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb $200 million-plus to reboot the character, to go back to the beginning and start all over again with a brand new cast.
As an indication (and indeed vindication of the argument) that Hollywood has lost the ability to create an original idea, The Amazing Spider-Man is the only exhibit the prosecution would need in front of a judge. Case closed. No matter which way Webb wants to gloss over it, or deny it, the film feels like a remake, going over very familiar ground, themes and even set-pieces. There’s baggage there even before the film begins – a bit like the feeling you get when hit by déjà vu. Have we already paid for this product? The cynic says Webb is inviting us to fork out cash for a piece of Hollywood entertainment we’ve already bought. Where’s the new stuff, ring out the cries. Imagine going out for a meal, enjoying it, and paying for it. As you get up to leave the waiter, oblivious to your time in the restaurant brings out the very same meal you’ve just consumed. Despite your protestations he has no memory of you eating the previous meal and demands payment for this second one. The Amazing Spider-Man definitely has an overly familiar vibe about it that it can’t shake but thankfully it does manage to distinguish itself.
Webb’s story sees a young Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) sent to his Auntie and Uncle’s (Sally Field and Martin Sheen) home by his parents before they mysteriously disappear. Growing up, Peter, now seventeen, discovers scientific notes hidden by his father prior to his disappearance. On researching the internet, he discovers his father worked with a geneticist named Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and believes the notes his father left behind have something to do with genetic mutation, something he finds out Connors is working on in order to re-grow limbs and human tissue. On visiting Connors laboratory, Parker is bitten by a genetically modified “super spider” and begins to take on superhuman powers.
Webb’s a smart director, offering us a confident introduction to Spider-Man’s origins, concentrating on Peter Parker’s youthful exuberance in the face of great power, emitting suitable shades of both light and dark. His grasp of plot isn’t as strong as his ability to bring characters to life in a way that demands we care about their outcome. Therefore, the early part of the film, prior to Peter donning his spider suit, is bogged down by some lazy high school clichés and some highly questionable plot logic (are we really to believe a dangerous science laboratory can be entered by a teenager without anyone identifying him and nobody checking his movements?) But Webb gets Peter infected eventually and as soon as he takes to the skies, The Amazing Spider-Man goes up a gear. There’s some gorgeous aerial photography throughout, culminating in a triumphant sequence involving the city’s construction workers aiding a wounded Spider-Man track down his nemesis The Lizard. It’s a moment of sheer, undiluted joy that inspires gleeful, childlike wonder in me at the sight of seeing Spider-Man’s pendulum swing, the playground on the largest possible stage. It is also a moving tribute to the goodwill of the city’s blue-collar workers.
The romantic element is also better judged (although you feel there’s more to come from Emma Stone in further franchise instalments). It’s more natural and less complicated, and is certainly helped by the chemistry of the actors. Indeed, both Andrew Garfield and Stone seem like a neater fit for the story, perhaps because their characters are more streamlined, while Garfield appears perfectly in tune with the role. The film also feels more relevant coming in the era after Christopher Nolan re-wrote the rulebook, making Raimi’s effort appear cartoonish and throwaway in comparison. There’s some terrific special-effects as well that show not only how computer-generated imagery has come in ten years, but also the best way to apply it without appearing artificial and videogame-like.
Does that make it a better film than Raimi’s 2002 effort? Ultimately, yes. Raimi’s underlying black humour, moments of visual flair, and penchant for outlandish character traits were an enjoyable side dish complementing the Spider-Man of 2002, but Webb’s effort is more clear-sighted and finely tuned. As with all second chances, you find things to refine and improve upon, meaning The Amazing Spider-Man is a lean, self-assured representation of the character that, although treading familiar ground, does so with a sureness of foot akin to those afforded a winning blueprint ten years in advance.