Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has the undeserved misfortune of coming second. Rebooted only 10 years after Sam Raimi first brought the web slinger to the big screen, The Amazing Spider-Man suffers from been there/done that fatigue. Not only have we seen three Spider-Man movies in the last decade, but nearly every other A-list comic book superhero has been trotted out before our increasingly tired, movie-going eyes. A genre that was previously unformed and ill-regarded is now a critically successful, and highly lucrative, known quantity.
So not only did I go into The Amazing Spider-Man with higher expectations, I was also desperately hoping for something new; different; original. But The Amazing Spider-Man is not trying to reevaluate, or in any way break out of, the corporatized genre in which it’s working. It does not endeavor to be nihilistically epic (Nolan), nor is it exceedingly witty and clever (Whedon).
Instead, Webb’s reboot feels cobbled together and unable to find itself. Every once in while the film’s characters successfully shake things up enough for the heterogeneous mixture of Spider-Man mythology, social media pageantry, and tween power fantasy to evenly combine for genuinely sincere and endearing moments. The rest of the time though, the movie is a mess of obligatory salutes, unconvincing motivations, and disparate moods.
There is one funeral in the movie and it isn’t for Uncle Ben. The story’s most drastic departure, the mystery of Peter’s parents’ disappearance, is important until it’s not. And the scientist who labors to alleviate pain and suffering later decides to destroy it instead, with only one or two throw away lines to explain this dramatic and plot-defining shift.
Like others of its kind, The Amazing Spider-Man is plagued by the dual requirements that it both tell the story of how Spider-Man came to be and serve up an eventual cathartic pay-off born of mass urban destruction, untimely deaths, and the eventual triumph of good over crazy. This is just too much to do, and I’m currently unaware of any comic book movie that was satisfyingly able to deliver both. It is no coincidence that most of the better ones occurred in the middle of their respective trilogies: The Dark Knight, X2, and Spider-Man 2.
Hopefully, it’s clear then that while I have some fundamental problems with The Amazing Spider-Man, I feel more sympathetic than critical when reminded of them. I enjoyed the movie. In many ways it’s the platonic ideal of a summer blockbuster matinee. Though it is rife with dissonance, and drops almost as many balls as it is able, ultimately, to keep in the air, the movie also offers a little bit of everything and for everyone, as a result.
Especially, for instance, Andrew Garfield’s performance, which I went into the theater prepared to loathe, but walked out liking (I stress liking). It’s brooding, egg-headish, often comedic, and always charismatic. Unfortunately though, the character he plays begins to fall away in the process. Whereas I felt like Toby McGuire (and comparisons are of course inevitable) actually was Peter Parker, the Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man felt more like he really was Andrew Garfield.
NPR’s Linda Holmes located the difference between these two versions in the distinction between Nerds and Geeks. Unlike McGuire’s Parker (Nerd) who was awkward, socially dim, and appeared to have no concept of the “rebel” before donning the red and blue suit, Garfield’s Parker (Geek) is socially isolated by choice, interested more in his work (photography, robotic locks for his bedroom door, etc.) then his classmates, and always at odds with a world that took his parents away from him in a sudden swirl of unexplained intrigue.
There is more than some truth in this. Though the Geek/Nerd distinction had not yet permeated the cultural malaise of my late teenage adolescence when I was in high school, it is, in retrospect, an elegant solution to the problem of what exactly it was the separated my friends and I from our less fortunate peers. We were all vulnerable to social rebuke and abuse by meat-heads, but did not really ever fall prey to it.
With unintentional prescience, I made the leap from one social circle (Nerds: academically over achieving but socially ostracized and ineffectual) to another (Geeks: social outcasts that took solace in a creative pursuit) early in my freshmen year. As a result, I and my new friends spent the majority of high school hiding out in the auditorium, marching band, or art room working on various extracurricular activities. Affable but not always accepted, we somehow carved out a safe yet thriving social space for ourselves which others did not bother to trespasse.
Except that Garfield’s geek-Parker has one thing I, and most of my friends, did not: an infectious, almost inhuman charm which, in addition to his stylish hair and handsome, lean symmetricality, elevate him out of the realm of believability. I liked watching him on the screen, but could not identify with him. And Peter Parker, if nothing else, is suppose to be the every boy; a teenage corollary to Clark Kent’s every man. Or even more precisely, the every other. That is, every boy who isn’t well liked, isn’t cool, and doesn’t get, let alone already more or less have, the girl of his dreams.
Whereas McGuire’s Parker pines for MJ from afar, Garfield’s is more than comfortable flirtatiously trading knowing looks with Gwen Stacey. And while this pushes Parker out of “he’s just like me” territory, it also pulls Stacey, played by Emma Stone, away from the brink of caricature and back to reality. Which leaves me with what I wish (let me stress the impracticality of wish) The Amazing Spider-Man had done: made Gwen Stacey the main character.
Because beyond, and even in spite of, her short skirts, tall knee socks, and ever perfect bangs (perhaps Webb’s next project should be a documentary about bangs), Stone’s Gwen is still the movie’s most likable, reliable, and mature character. How great it would have been to watch, for once, the origin of a superhero from the point of view of a related, let alone female character? Maybe then the unmanageable orphan-fueled angst of Parker would have had enough off-screen time to vent that we, the audience, could have been spared its inconsistent presence.
As things stand, Gwen’s character is quickly subsumed (and would be all together extinguished if not for Stone’s exceptional performance) by Spider-Man’s emotional growing pains and Lizard-Man’s predatory maneuverings (in one scene she is saved like a damsel by the former while in another stalked Alien-like by the latter).
In other words, for a reboot, Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man retreads a lot of the same, and now stagnant water from the first movie. It is disjointed and imprecise, with Parker and Stacey’s presumed rather than well established romance acting as the story’s only real through line. The result is that while the new movie has many more concepts, characters, and issues to play with, it never really does anything other than toy with them, falling back more often than not on the safe laundry list of Spider-Man origin tropes: get powers, explore powers, abuse powers, seek revenge, learn responsibility, save the day, etcetera, etcetera, so on and so forth, even going so far as to include a several second scene that includes Peter Parker, a wrestling ring, and an image of a luchador with a mask that looks uncannily like Spider-Man’s soon to be preferred disguise.
I wish I could look at The Amazing Spider-Man outside of the comic book movie milieu and appreciate it on its own, but time cannot be reversed, and the Internet has made the use of self-imposed cultural vacuums all but impossible. At the end of the day, The Amazing Spider-Man is fun, expensive, and dabbles welcomingly in the small-scale authenticity reminiscent of Webb’s only other (in film) directorial venture: 500 Days of Summer. The inescapable fact remains, however, that although The Amazing Spider-Man is awash in possibilities, it explores only a few, and full realizes none of them.
The Amazing Spider-Man will probably be the biggest, most lucrative, and most entertaining missed opportunity of the year.