In many ways, The Amazing Spider-Man is a response to Christopher Nolan‘s soon-to-be-concluding trilogy of Batman movies. It darkens the familiar, well-worn origins of Peter Parker (tough, considering that his origins involve the murder of his uncle), tones down on the camp that came to overwhelm Sam Raimi’s version of the character (much like Nolan’s trilogy rescued Batman from the quagmire of Joel Schumacher’s worst, campiest decisions), and manages, somehow, to be altogether from its billion-grossing predecessor. Despite the fact that Peter Parker’s in high school, The Amazing Spider-Man sees the character grow up considerably, becoming something more than a dopey whiz-kid in a mask.
This is quite the accomplishment, considering how many comic book movies still struggle to provide anything beyond the sizzle of spandex-on-spandex violence. Comic books are one of the great, original American art forms and have been trading in dynamic, out-sized metaphors since their creation, but the heroes and anti-heroes of Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Green Lantern, Ghost Rider, and scores of other recent comic adaptations wear blandness and formlessness as though they’re badges of honor. For a long time now, the axiom of the genre has been that the film is only as good as its villain. The best of this new crop of movies—The Amazing Spider-Man included—figures otherwise. The hero and the villain can be on equal footing. If permitted, the hero can carry the movie.
Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) carries The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s a likable high school kid with an appropriate amount of quirk—his hobbies include skateboarding, photography, and bio-genetic engineering—and a good taste in sweethearts. The movie takes great pains to establish that he’s a good kid of fine upbringing. As a weakling, he stands up to bullies. After being bitten by a genetically mutated spider (gaining the proportional strength and agility of one in the process), Peter has the ability to fight back against his tormentors, but doing so would cause friction between him and his surrogate parental units, Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), who are as steadfast and hard-working as they are kind.
Peter’s parents have been mysteriously absent since he was four. One day, he finds his father’s suitcase buried beneath a bunch of junk in the family’s flooding basement. The contents of that briefcase lead him to Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist working with animal DNA as a means of regenerating lost limbs. It’s something of a passion project for Connors, as unspecified circumstances cost the doctor his arm. With Peter’s help, Connors is able to complete his long fussed-over formula, successfully growing the missing limb of a lab mouse using lizard DNA. It’s undoubtedly a triumph, but Connors is an employee of one of those giant pharmaceutical corporations with a hazy standard of corporate ethics and a dying CEO willing to skirt them if the end result is a cure. Tragedy is inevitable. Once Connors is sacked for refusing to participate in human testing, he injects himself with a serum and finds, to his delight, that his missing arm grows right back. He also grows scales, sharp teeth, a bifurcated tongue, and is nine-feet tall, but science has always been a cruel mistress.
The Amazing Spider-Man works well at its most basic level, as a superhero movie. The costume looks good, the action sequences are well choreographed (though there are a few curious POV shots that don’t work as intended), the CGI set-pieces are appropriately huge and showy, and the Lizard, while not as memorable as Doctor Octopus or the Green Goblin, is handled as well as a talking, labcoat wearing lizard can be handled. Given how saturated the market is, it isn’t much to ask that The Amazing Spider-Man cover that ground. It is at its best, though, when functioning in the same capacity as the classic run of comics that inspired it, as a super-sized metaphorical version of growing up and going through puberty.
The original Peter Parker was a nebbish kid, the kind of guy too square to hang even with his contemporary counterpart, though fellow nerds they very much are. Here, Parker is a photo-snapping, gadget-building geek blessed with hipster-Adonis looks, sure, but his struggles are identifiable, understandable, palpable. The object of his far-away desire is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), daughter of New York City’s chief of police (Denis Leary), a girl you could vote both Most Likely to Be A Supermodel and Most Likely to Win the Nobel Prize in Science. A romance between the two develops, as one must, but only because Parker lets his web-slinging alterego do the talking when he can’t.
Stacy has more meat to her role than the Mary Jane of Raimi’s trilogy, not merely an object to be kissed or rescued. She’s awkwardly hustled into a police car after risking her life as part of Spider-Man’s plan to save New York, but she’s a person in her own right, a budding scientist who saves Parker’s skin and has her own confrontation with the Lizard. Emma Stone channels the inner-Molly-Ringwald she found in Easy A, which, though the focus is squarely on Spider-Man’s heroics, allows the superhero’s girlfriend to stand for herself in ways most superhero’s girlfriends haven’t since Margot Kidder established the too often ignored blueprint in Superman: The Movie.
As a franchise reboot, it’s something of a necessity to rehash Uncle Ben’s death. His shooting has always been played as a wake up call to a kid too infatuated with his new body, and its the same here. This is where the decision to make Spider-Man a teenager (as opposed to college-aged Tobey McGuire) is really felt. Peter Parker is forced to grow up before his mind (and his body) are willing to, and his conflict with the Lizard suddenly means more than a simple hero/villain clash. It represents a line in the sand, the point at which Peter decides to be more than a masked vigilante looking for his uncle’s killer. He channels his grief into something much more useful than rage. He makes his uncle proud.
The Amazing Spider-Man sets things up nicely for the next film (or two) in the series, but it doesn’t quite function as a stand-alone story. At the edges of Curt Connors’ periphery, a corporate overlord reminds Connors that the man he works for is relying on his serum to live. Peter is haunted by the disappearance of his parents, which is, of course, tied to Connors’ work. None of the Oscorp bits feel as vital or interesting than Parker’s home life or his relationship with Gwen Stacy. If the movie feels long, it’s because The Amazing Spider-Man, like last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, goes to the Giant, Evil Pharmaceutical Company well one too many times. In doing so, it sacrifices the only thing that’s really missed from Raimi’s interpretation of the character: That tangibly breathtaking sense of freedom watching Spider-Man swing from building to building. Peter Parker has plenty of time to grow up. Why can’t he cut loose a little, first?
The Amazing Spider-Man. Directed by Mark Webb. With Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard), Denis Leary (Capt. Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), and Sally Field (Aunt May). Released July 3, 2012, by Columbia Pictures.