Before embarking upon a full weighing of director Marc Webb’s reboot, it’s worth taking a moment and looking back oh, those ten long years ago to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, a blockbuster that signaled the full arrival of the Heroic Age in Hollywood. Sure, the X-Men had made a splash two years earlier, but Raimi’s film showed just how powerful a superhero film that paid attention to its source material could be. Until then, studios had been like a con artist eyeing a boy with his head buried in a comic book and asking himself, “How do I get the rest of that kid’s money?” With Spider-Man, it was as if that same grifter took a moment to read the comic himself and finally understood why the kid was so absorbed in the first place. Raimi’s films—especially the first two—not only adhered tightly to the emotional, character and story arcs inherent in the source material, they also paid attention to iconic panels and action sequences of the original comics. In a turn of events that surprised absolutely no comic book fan, the story that had enthralled readers for 40 years proved good enough to stand on its own—no non-canon villains, mucked-up origin stories or capes that suddenly change into super-saran wrap needed. Even better, it totally got the rest of that kid’s money.
The success of Raimi’s trilogy left Sony/Columbia, the studio that made them, in a bit of a bind when it parted ways with the talented director. Instead of Spider-Man 4 and Spider-Man 5—there are plenty of villains and storylines left to explore in the Spidey-verse—the studio needed a new director and new stars and a way to market that change as something exciting. If you’re a Hollywood exec, that leaves four options: sequel (Raimi-less, so no), prequel (with what, a non-super-powered ten-year old?) or a reboot. (Yes, I said “four options,” but the fourth, the remake, has fallen out of favor—and will just be called a “reboot” by marketing anyway.)
The Amazing Spider-Man proves that the reboot approach isn’t so simple. First, a reboot works best with properties that have become stale, over-burdened by conflicting bits of canon or weakened by over-exposure. Only ten years removed from the first film (and five from the third), it’s not like Raimi’s trilogy is a distant memory for viewers. Considering the films occupy spots #1 through #3 in all-time box office for Sony/Columbia, it’s tough to argue flagging interest, either. Finally, unlike that most famous of recently rebooted properties, Star Trek, where its heroes’ early days have been untouched on film—and thus make for intriguing fan-bait—Spider-Man’s origin story is a central part of his Big Screen tale.
As a result, Webb was faced with a daunting proposition: Retell a story that was just told (and told well) a few years earlier—and, oh yeah, no major changes to the origin allowed. Boy meets spider. Spider bites boy. Boy gains some freaky powers, which he uses frivolously at first. Bye-bye Unca Ben. Spider-Man is born—bring on the first villain!
Perhaps this stricture explains why The Amazing Spider-Man feels less like a reboot than an extended paraphrasing of the plot points and emotional beats from the first two films in the Raimi/Maguire trilogy.
Why is paraphrasing such a bad thing? Try the following experiment: Start with a well-written paragraph. It can be fiction, nonfiction, the instructions to your Blu-ray player—whatever. Now, take each individual sentence in that paragraph and paraphrase it. (You must convey the same ideas, but you can’t use the same words.) Now look at the results. It’s possible that a few of the sentences are as good or better than the original. It’s more likely that most of them are not. And the paragraph as a whole? It’s practically guaranteed that it won’t fit together as smoothly as the original. (To complete the analogy, then put the new, inferior paragraph up on an IMAX screen and watch it in 3D.)
Within this paraphrased universe, Andrew Garfield may be the best thing the new film has going for it. Though his hair occasionally undermines the whole “high school kid” illusion, Garfield is arguably more convincing as a lanky, mumbling, angsty adolescent than Tobey Maguire (who always seemed like an angsty 28-year-old).
But for the most part, there’s little in The Amazing Spider-Man that surpasses the original. Some daddy (and mommy) issues are added, though this achieves little beyond detracting from the emotional impact of Uncle Ben’s death (and answering the question, “What’s Campbell Scott up to these days?”). As Gwen Stacey (instead of Mary Jane Watson), Emma Stone (instead of Kirsten Dunst) is charming enough. Denis Leary’s surly Captain George Stacey replaces J.K. Simmons’ surly J. Jonah Jameson as the vigilante-disapproving old guy. (In the comics, Stacey is a supporter of the masked hero.) Even Rhys Ifans’ Lizard, as presented in this film, is basically just a scalier, less impressive and less sympathetic version of Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus from Spider-Man 2.
That’s not to say the “paraphrase paralysis” afflicting The Amazing Spider-Man is the only measure by which it can be judged. (After all, for those who haven’t seen the Raimi versions, who cares how Webb’s film suffers in comparison?) No, for those who wish to evaluate The Amazing Spider-Man in a vacuum, there are still plenty of things that suck.
Foremost? The script is infested with cheap plot enhancers. These “convenient” moments are easy enough to overlook at first. The hero sort of stumbles his way into a highly secure research lab? Hey, a boy’s got to get bit by a radioactive spider somehow! Seven or eight henchmen just appear in response to our protagonist roughing up a pimp? Well, okay. Sure, I guess. (Maybe there was a meeting of Henchmen Local 482 taking place nearby?) Those same henchmen unhesitatingly chase the kid who just went all Cirque du Soleil on their heads and then climbed up the side of a building—reaching the rooftop at the same time as the kid, no less? Um. We’ll assume they had just watched a very inspiring YouTube video from a recent TED Conference entitled, “Ya Gonna Let That Punk Get Away With That?!”
By the time we’ve reached the final act and Spider-Man’s attempt to catch and defeat the Lizard (who’s trying to pull off basically the same thing Magneto was trying in the first X-Men movie), it’s as if Webb and company have downed a whole bottle of “Screw It!” Police snipers somehow perched along an impossible-to-predict path to shoot at our hero, ignoring the large reptile whose dalliance in chemical warfare has caused a mass evacuation of Manhattan. Police units suddenly appear dangling from ropes suspended from who knows where the second Spider-Man hits the ground. And then, to cap it all off, there’s the plucky band of New York construction workers miraculously willing and able to reach their just-as-miraculously placed construction cranes. Instead of creating an inspiring moment (à la the scene in Spider-Man 2 where the train passengers help an injured, unmasked wall crawler), this laughably contrived sequence mainly provides a pre-credits opportunity to verify that “that was C. Thomas Howell!”
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter how one chooses to approach The Amazing Spider-Man. Whether judged in relation to Raimi’s trilogy, compared with successful superhero franchises as a whole, or just rated on its own terms as an action film, the only thing amazing about Marc Webb’s reboot is how quickly a Hollywood studio can forget the lessons its own films have taught it.
Director: Marc Webb
Writer: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent & Steve Kloves (screenplay); James Vanderbilt (story); Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel comic book)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary
Release Date: July 3, 2012