‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ Review
"There is only one plot in all of fiction," Peter Parker's English teacher tells him near the end of Marc Webb's 'The Amazing Spider-Man.' These words make an all-too-fitting conclusion to a story that's essentially recycled from a ten-year-old movie which was itself repurposed from a forty-year-old comic book. If you go to the theater regularly enough these days, you see a marquee filled with remakes and sequels and prequels and (as in the case of 'The Amazing Spider-Man') reboots. It often does feel like there's only one plot in movies.
And we've seen it already.
That singular plot, Peter's informed, is "Who am I?" So who is 'The Amazing Spider-Man's' Peter Parker? Other than the fact that he's now played by 'The Social Network's' Andrew Garfield and he perpetually carries around a skateboard, he's basically the same Peter Parker Tobey Maguire played for Sam Raimi in three films over the last decade: dorky yet heroic, brave in the face of danger yet timid in the face of romance and a lonely brooder in his room yet a sarcastic wiseacre in his costume. Is there enough difference between the Maguire and Garfield Spider-Man, and between the Raimi and Webb 'Spider-Man,' to justify a full-scale reboot? Not really. The marketing has advertised this version as "The Untold Story" of Spider-Man's origin. To me, it felt a lot more like the retold story.
Take the arc and motivations of Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. the super-villain The Lizard. He is, beat for beat, the exact same character as Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the super-villain The Green Goblin, from 'Spider-Man.' Like Osborn, Connors is a brilliant but overly ambitious scientist. Like Osborn, Connors is struggling to meet a deadline on his latest project, a formula that would enhance human tissue. Like Osborn, Connors uses himself as a test subject after becoming a mentor to the fatherless Peter Parker. Like Osborn, Connors' serum gives him super-powers. Like Osborn, they also drive him insane. Like Osborn, he forces Spider-Man to rescue civilians he leaves danging beneath a New York City bridge. That, we can all agree, is a lot of "Like Osborn..."s.
Or how about Peter Parker's transformation into Spider-Man? There are a few cosmetic differences -- the spider that bites him comes courtesy of Connors and his lab's stunningly lax security; professional wrestling plays a much smaller role -- but they're exactly that: cosmetic differences.
Webb, who previously directed the indie rom-com "(500) Days of Summer," brings a few new images to the table, but almost no new ideas. This is not a matter of going from the Adam West biff-pow-zot Batman to the Tim Burton gothic fantasia Batman, or even from the Burton Batman to the Christopher Nolan terrorism allegory Batman. It's more like going from the Burton Batman to the Joel Schumacher Batman if Schumacher had been forced to reuse the script from Burton's film.
So why remake a perfectly good movie that just came out ten years ago? The answer, one imagines, goes something like this: "Because, dummy, there's money to be made." And, hey, Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' wasn't in 3D. This is absolutely true; it's also the only significant reason to see 'The Amazing Spider-Man.' In 3D, the effects do more than look great; they feel great -- the point-of-view-shots from inside Spidey's mask as he swoops through the steel and glass canyons of Manhattan really give you the visceral sensation of swinging from a web. The action, particularly during the big finale atop Oscorp Tower, is, to borrow the title of a 'Spider-Man' comic, spectacular.
But that only justifies making a new 'Spider-Man' movie -- not necessarily remaking one we've already seen. Presumably Columbia Pictures, the studio behind all four 'Spider-Man' films, thought restarting Spidey from scratch would allow them to erase all that old continuity, and to regress Peter back to high school where he might make a more appealing and relatable subject for the 'Twilight' and 'Hunger Games' crowd. But Peter spends about as much time in class as a juvenile delinquent, to the point where other characters constantly ask him why he's not in school.
His love interest in lieu of Mary Jane is Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. While Stone's portrayal doesn't resemble her comic book counterpart (if such things matter to you), she is a spark plug and a nice match, chemistry-wise, for Garfield. She also has one of the film's few memorable dialogue scenes, when she's forced to improvise a lie to keep her police captain father, played by Denis Leary, out of her bedroom where a wounded Peter is hiding. Leary's character, Captain Stacy, fills the role of Spider-Man's authority figure antagonist previously occupied by J.K. Simmons' grouchy newspaper publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. The substitution does the film no favors; neither does replacing Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson with Sally Field and Martin Sheen as Peter's Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
The only major change from Raimi's 'Spider-Man,' the supposedly "untold" part of this story, turns out to be a red herring: a prologue shows Peter's never-before-seen parents, Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), leaving a young Peter with Uncle Ben and Aunt May after their house is ransacked. The inexplicable departure of his parents hangs almost as heavily over Peter's head as the death of Uncle Ben, and his search for answers is what initially leads him to Connors, who was a former colleague of his father's. But after setting that particular subplot rolling, Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent (who worked on the Raimi trilogy), and Steve Kloves (who wrote most of the 'Harry Potter' movies which, come to think of it, offered a similarly orphan-centric origin for their titular hero) promptly forget about it. Between this movie and 'Prometheus,' 2012 is looking more and more like the summer of blockbusters about unanswered questions.
The biggest one I'm left with is why they didn't just go the James Bond route and continue on the series as if this was a vaguely connected 'Spider-Man 4?' Raimi's 'Spider-Man' looked great but it also felt contemporary. Even with its cutting-edge special effects, the decision to make Webb's 'Amazing Spider-Man' a reboot gives it a faintly stale aroma -- especially when it starts cribbing Raimi's we-are-all-in-this-together post-9/11 New York City milieu. Rehashing the story we already know gives us nothing more than an excuse for some undeniably impressive imagery. That's who this Peter Parker is. He's got an extra visual dimension, but no new emotional ones.
'The Amazing Spider-Man' hits theaters on July 3rd
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’