The Amazing Spider-Man: Getting Lost Along the Road Already Traveled

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.

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52 thoughts on “The Amazing Spider-Man: Getting Lost Along the Road Already Traveled

  1. Agreed entirely. Gwen Stacey is the only significant reason to give props to this new version. The originals Mary Jane was a very accurate portrayal but seems washed out and paper thin compared to Emma Stone’s character who seemed a generally well realized and actual person.

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            • Much of the problem, I suspect, is that the majority of Superhero Movies just aren’t very good. Even the ones that are very good (for superhero movies) are more likely to have a really good scene (or couple of scenes) or a spectacular monologue rather than be a good movie in their own right. (For example, the Joker in the most recent Batman movie was *AWESOME* but there were still a handful of plotholes that only appear once you get home.)

              Adrenaline can only carry you so far.

              That said, there are folks who have had to put up with very, very crappy treatments of their favorite heroes. We’re now in an era where they’re playing the stuff straight rather than as high camp (or low camp). Their enthusiasm is understandable.

              I don’t know where the teenagers get off enjoying this stuff so much, though. It’s not like they watched Captain America jump a motorcycle off of the back of a truck AND THAT WAS THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE EPISODE.

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              • It doesn’t hurt that, these days, these same fans have to put up with very crappy treatment of their heroes in the comic books. In fact, I think that the crappy treatment of the heroes in the comic books probably allow said fans to enjoy the movies more.

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              • Much of the problem, I suspect, is that the majority of Superhero Movies just aren’t very good.

                Which divides us into people who enjoy them in spite of the fact that they’re not very good, and people who don’t enjoy them because they’re not very good. It’s weird to me that my group (the second one) isn’t the majority.

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                • Well, Superhero movies are capable of doing things that straightup action movies can’t do. The Batman movies? I want to say that those movies are wrestling with what happened during 9/11 a hell of a lot more than, say, Flight 93 or World Trade Center did.

                  While I enjoyed the Batman movies because, hey, I love me some Batman… I still wrestle with those movies with my inner adult because of the themes that delve much deeper than merely “broody gadgeteer billionaire fights crime”.

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              • But why aren’t they good?

                Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Daniel Craig’s take on Bond.

                As an example, James Bond movies could be considered bad. After all, the movies are very much the same thing over and over. Villain has an improbable scheme. James Bond is dispatched. While not clever, things always fall into place around him and he has a lucky streak to the point that the laws of probability do not apply to him. Through luck and coincidence, James Bond defeats villain and seduces 1+ females in the process. Wash, rinse, repeat with little to no deviation in the formula. However, people keep lining up to see those movies.

                This can be applied to any action movie. In every one of them, you have a hero/heroine who is improbably lucky/tough and takes on an organization that should be able to bury them PDQ. Yet, since good triumphs over evil, it is the organization that is hung out to dry. The only real difference with a superhero movie is that the hero/heroine shows up to work in their pajamas.

                I know some consider superhero movies to be bad for the same reason that gamers complain about live action theatrical release movies. (FF:Advent Children was the first VG movie that did it right. Avoid the theaters and market directly to the fanbase.) The main character is a woman instead of a man or they don’t spend enough time seeking a rooster crest but that seems to be nitpicking from my perspective. When someone tells me that Lady Deathstrike was not part of the Weapon X project, I am less inclined to believe that this ruins the movie so much as I believe that the person hung up on this needs to relax.

                So I guess the question for me comes down to: What makes superhero movies so much worse than the standard action flick?

                Note: If you don’t like action movies, then not liking superhero movies is self explanatory. I’m asking this more for people who do like action movies.

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                • Superhero movies – the good ones – have the tension of otherness.

                  The hero is not improbably lucky, they’re blessed (or just as often cursed) by circumstance with their powers.

                  A good chunk of the better superhero movies is dedicated to the tension of the otherness. Of course, the poor superhero movies just concentrate on, “BOOM! Headshot!”

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                    • Okay, trying again, if we’re going to take the themes of these movies seriously, instead of just seeing them as escapist fun, and I’m totally willing to do so, it seems to me more like the tension of Übermensch otherness. How many superhero movies verge on the authoritarian fantasy that our liberal democracy, laws, and institutions won’t be enough to protect us from some existential threat and we’ll have no choice but to give our genetic superiors or vigilante members of the one percent the leeway to use overwhelming force at their own discretion? It’s a bit like Dirty Harry in spandex.

                      [Note: The site considered this comment to be spam. I fixed it.]

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                • It’s very difficult to make a good movie at all. I mean, look at the number of movies that come out in any given year.

                  How many of them are actually, seriously, *GOOD*?

                  I don’t mean how many of them are entertaining, or how many of them are better than monopoly, or even how many of them are worth the 9 bucks (fewer than would be worth the 7 from a few years ago or the 5 from a few years before that, I tell you what).

                  Without getting too far into aesthetics, I’d just ask how many of them fall on the right side of Sturgeon’s Revelation?

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                  • But what defines good here?

                    As you know, I liked Seeking A Friend for the End of the World but that doesn’t mean that I would want self-reflection for every movie I watch.

                    Avengers had quite a few parts that, logically speaking, just slipped into place but I don’t care because it was awesome. That doesn’t mean that (spoilers) V tvir hc gur evtug gb or cvffrq vs n yrffre zbivr unf n “Onat, lbh uvg gur zbgurefuvc naq nyy gur fbyqvref snyy bire qrnq”: Qrhf Rk Znpuvan va gur zbivr.

                    Is a movie not “good” if it only has one or two elements that are really good? I found Thor to be kind of average EXCEPT for Loki who is completely awesome. Loki sold the DVD to me but does that make Thor “bad”?

                    You mentioned the plotholes in last Dark Knight movie. Does that really make the movie not “good”? I would submit that, if you didn’t think of the plotholes before you left, then they couldn’t have been that big a deal.

                    Rather than asking where a movie falls on the right side of Sturgeon’s Revelation, I would ask “Does Sturgeon’s Revelation come off as something that a bitter old man would say?” Not to come off as too confrontational but you watch Pro Wrestling and I think we know where that would fall under Sturgeon’s Revelation.

                    In the end, when someone says that “the majority of Superhero Movies just aren’t very good. Even the ones that are very good (for superhero movies) are more likely to have a really good scene (or couple of scenes) or a spectacular monologue rather than be a good movie in their own right.”, I’m going to ask my initial question”But why aren’t they good?” because, in the end, yours was a subjective statement.

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                    • Not to come off as too confrontational but you watch Pro Wrestling and I think we know where that would fall under Sturgeon’s Revelation.

                      95% of it is to be endured. 5%, however, leaves you spent from yelling and saying “oh, yeah, that’s why I watch this stuff.”

                      in the end, yours was a subjective statement.

                      I assume aesthetic realism. It makes more sense to do so than to just up’n say that Mozart is Jackass is Orwell is 50 Shades Greyer.

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                • ?What makes superhero movies so much worse than the standard action flick?

                  I wasn’t even thinking of that distinction. To me, action movies are like ice cream. You want some on occasion, but not as a steady diet.

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  2. “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?”

    Oh
    my
    goodness!

    If you want many money out of my new book, you’d better copyright this idea right now. This is a phenomenal idea.

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    • Rami spent quite a bit of time on M.J. in his first Spiderman movie.

      Which was annoying, because M.J. wasn’t an interesting character for, like, her first 100 appearances in the comic.

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  3. I don’t know, maybe I’m easily fooled, but I’d easily put this Spider-Man on the same level as the original, or in fact, even a little better. Looking back at the original Spider-Man, it is in fact, a little cheesy which I get because Raimi was going for a classic timeless origin instead of a origin that is very 2012.

    Also, I think the idea that Parker is supposed to be this clown-ish buffoon who can’t walk two steps in front of a girl without tripping over himself is kind of silly. For example, the Ultimate Spider-Man version of Peter Parker wasn’t among the “cool kids” in his origin, but he could still talk to girls (such as Mary Jane) without falling over himself.

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  4. I’m still a bit skeptical about this reboot.

    It just feels like an attempt to cash in on the “shared universe” stuff so that they can eventually shove Spider-Man into the next or the one after iteration of the Avengers.

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      • This is precisely correct: Marvel sold the rights for the Xmen and Spiderman to Sony back when they were an independent company. Disney came in and bought all of Marvel (to a tune of about 4 billion if memory serves) in a deal that a lot of analysts thought was a lemon. Now, with all the various Avenger heroes movies and the Avenger movie itself in the rearview mirror (and the golden glow of sequels shining on the horizon) it looks like Disney is going to make crazy bank off the Marvel acquisition. This is without even talking about the merchandising or theme park tie-ins; Disney is a merchandizing machine and they’ve acquired countless new ideas to merchandise. The future is golden for Disney but a couple of Marvels’ sweetest plums are still out of their reach; Spiderman and the Xmen both still liscenced to Sony.

        If Sony didn’t make a movie then Marvel (Disney) could assert in court that the intellectual property was being left fallow and eventually get control of them back. By making the movie (let alone by making bank off of it) Sony is protecting their ownership of these pieces of property. Note that they’ve been defending their Xmen ownership the same way (Xmen First Class made decent money). When you consider it Marvel really turned out to be a chest full of gold for a company like Disney or Sony.

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  5. Not sure the best place topost this, but the recent formatting changes are really wonky, especially on the subblog. At least that seems to be the case on the iPad and on Safari on Mac. FP seems to work okay, but basically all headers, tool bars, and side bars are missing on the subs I’ve been frequenting.

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  6. Sorry to hijack the comments, but this is awful, Erik. The block-text headers are ugly, the reverse-video links are unreadable, and we’ve lost the comment-specific links.

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  7. Man! I came to write a short (one paragraph) review of this movie, and I’ve been scooped!

    Well done, though, and I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written here.

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