Monday, 16 July 2012

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Certificate: 12A (sequences of action and violence)
Directed By: Marc Webb
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Chris Zylka
Budget: $230 million
Runtime: 136 minutes
Trailer: Watch

At less than ten years old you can understand some of the dismay Sony met when they decided to reboot Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise instead of pushing forward with a fourth outing. It is pleasing then that Marc Webb's (yes, Webb) take on the silk slinging man spider is actually a more than decent, if not darker reimagining of your friendly neighbourhood spider.

When young Peter Parker's (Garfield) parents are inexplicably spooked they flee town, leaving the young boy to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Sheen) and Aunt May (Field). Now a geeky high-school bedroom dweller determined to get to the bottom of his parent's disappearance, Peter is lead to his father's former co-worker Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans) and of course, a certain radioactive spider.

The central tenets of the story are largely the same, so ingrained in pop-culture that we really don't need reminding of them; Uncle Ben, radioactive spider, fighting crime and super villains. However, this is a more emotionally complex Spider-Man than you've seen before, although if you're expecting something on par with Christopher Nolan's bat then you're looking up the wrong drainpipe. But then this would be an unfair comparison and Webb's Spider-Man should be given the good grace to stand on its own merits.

Webb is quick to stamp his own authority on proceedings by introducing plot strands lacking from Raimi's version of events and more familiar to those who have read the comics or watched the animated series. First, there is far more emphasis on Peter Parker's backstory, namely what happened to his parents. Second, the inclusion of Gwen Stacy as Parker's love interest. There are also more nuanced differences to Toby Maguire's Spidey. Garfield is less the amiable dork that Maguire was, more the introverted intellectual much closer to the Parker of the 1994 animated series which a generation now in their twenties will be more familiar with. Indeed, Garfield's sarcy wisecracking is more on point than Maguire ever managed. Likewise, Raimi's executive decision to make Spider-Man's webbing an organic bi-product has been reversed, Webb going back to the traditional web-shooters designed and built in Parker's bedroom. This is a neat touch and highlights Parker's scientific genius in a much more practical way than Maguire ever managed to conjure. Although you have to wonder, what self-respecting nerd uses the internet search engine 'Bing'?

Gwen Stacy also offers an interesting twist on Peter Parker's more infamous love interest. We've all heard of Mary-Jane of course (a character not featured here), but Stone's Stacy will force those more inclined toward MJ to reconsider who Peter should really be with. What's interesting with what Webb has done with Gwen Stacy is that unlike the go-getter siren portrayed in the comics and animated series, she is actually quite a sweet and charming young lady here, making her an incredibly sympathetic character. One can only assume that when Mary Jane does eventually come along in the subsequent sequels of this rebooted franchise that Peter's choice isn't going to be as black and white as it might have appeared to fans in previous canon.

Certainly however there are times when Webb's drive to tell the story differently feel a little strained. Uncle Ben's infamous speech about great power coming with great responsibility for example must have taken an exhaustive quest to find the optimum synonyms to reengineer it. What's less well realised also is the mystery behind Peter's parents, bombarded at the start with intrigue as to their fait. Throughout the first act it's 'parents this' or 'parents that' but by the end it is never capitalised upon. Although irritating it is likely that, like in the animated series, this will be a running plot strand throughout the coming trilogy. Unfortunately however this is also common trait throughout the movie; the introduction of plot strands such as the mission to track down Uncle Ben's assailant fading into obscurity. Likewise shady Oscorp agent Ratha (Khan) disappears about halfway through when Dr. Connor's Lizard takes the baton as main baddy.

Further annoyances come in the sheer convenience of everything. There are macguffins and checkov's guns littering every corner of The Amazing Spider-Man, one of the most brazen being where Spidey helps out a random guy, who happens to have contacts which later help him in a very major way. Perhaps the Lizard however is the worst thing on show here. Not only does he look terrible, but Webb seems to have missed a beat on exploring ideas of an emotionally damaged scientist whose intent to do good in the world becomes maligned with evil. Although there is a great scene where Spider-Man sets a web trap in a sewer, emphasising the animalistic elements of spider versus lizard, their methodology transferred to man captivating at points.

The Amazing Spider-Man is far more ponderous than you might expect for a superhero movie. It's mostly talkie throughout and high on character drama. In fact, it's this upon which the film rests - a brave move considering audience expectations from superhero movies. It's a long time before Parker gets into the infamous suit, but it is time well spent fleshing out his backstory and those important to his overall character. That's not to say that this eschews all notions of what a blockbuster traditionally features, the last quarter of the film reaching the levels of action you might expect from a Spider-Man film. However, it is a mildly disappointing climax. The big finale feels rather rushed and condensed into a small window where instead of having audiences on the edge of their seats it will barely elicit a stir of the head.

Despite a bemired plot, half-hearted ending, and less than spectacular action sequences, The Amazing Spider-Man is a solid effort galvanised by its more personal focus, and in particular the performances of Garfield and Stone. Perhaps featuring the least superheroism in any superhero film you are likely to see, this is more a film about a superhero's relationships with other people. An interesting take, but overall enjoyably so.