And for much of the film, Webb manages to balance those seemingly disparate points of view. There are times when the whole thing seems like it’s going to topple too far in one direction or another, but with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige on as an executive producer, it seems as though Spider-Man is taking some cues from the Marvel Way of moviemaking, even if he’s not officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s humor and heart mixed in with all the big scenes of lizard men and stuff blowing up, and those elements are the ones that keep the film grounded and relatable.
Being grounded and relatable is especially important because at times, Webb’s special effects are lacking. Much has been said about the filmmaker’s desire to create a more realistic environment by blending practical effects and stunts with the digital ones, and that’s admirable—but not only does it not always work, but sometimes effects of either type looked downright shoddy. From the flecks of window glass inexplicably suspended in mid-air to make the 3D seem more impressive to the cardboard “steel door” that The Lizard tears through in one of the least suspenseful scenes of suspense ever filmed, sometimes things just didn’t work out the way they seemed like they ought to.
The Lizard himself is best when he’s moving quickly and not looking right into the camera, as there are a few shots where he’s just…silly-looking. Rhys Ifans’ voice acting doesn’t do much to offset that, either: He howls and grunts and screams and at times it’s difficult to really take him seriously because he sounds so much like the lovable loser he played in Notting Hill, doing it all for attention.
All of that said, of course, most fans will want to compare it in one way or another with the Raimi films, and that’s where I’ll be of little help. Moment of honesty here—I’ve never really cared for the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. The overwrought dialogue and paper-thin characters drowned out the admittedly great performances and solid plotting that the movies had to offer for me. If anything, though, Webb’s problem is the opposite. As pointed out by Keith Simanton of IMDb in our monthly conversation earlier today, this movie never really feels like it has anything much at stake. The plot plods along, hitting mandatory beats where it’s supposed to, and ultimately culminating in a “grand battle” that’s not particularly grand and a resolution to the movie’s major conflict that’s so quick and easy it really just feels like cheating.
There’s a lot of Raimi influence in the film, too—even though Marc Webb has taken Spider-Man in a very different direction from his previous screen iteration, there’s elements of the way things are filmed that seem remarkably similar and music cues that are so close to identical that it seems like the composer on The Amazing Spider-Man must have been overpaid. Even when it isn’t looking, sounding and acting like the Raimi trilogy, Amazing has some plot beats that will remind you of Raimi—even if they sometimes exceed him. One of the things that never worked for me in Spider-Man was the angry mob of pro-Spider-Man New Yorkers who hurled garbage at the Green Goblin as part of the film’s overt post-9/11 rallying cry. There’s a similar plot contrivance here—the idea that the community rallies around Spider-Man in a key moment—but it’s far better executed, it has some grounding in what’s come before it in the film, and it allows for a film that’s more visually interesting rather than less so.
The acting is, once again, a high point. While Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were well-suited to Raimi’s version of Spider-Man, they really would never have fit in Webb’s script, even if it didn’t take Spidey and his pals back to high school and start all over again. The newbies are brought in to bring some much-needed life back to the characters, who by the third film in the Raimi trilogy were starting to feel listless and stale, and it works well.
Garfield, though, is pitch perfect. He has a wily smirk throughout much of the film that betrays the fact that he’s having a ton of fun playing Peter Parker, and it makes Peter Parker feel like he’s having a ton of fun playing Spider-Man. Emma Stone is as good as she’s ever been, and even though she’s involved with many of the film’s best laugh-lines, she’s actually diminished in the couple of times Webb tries to bring her Superbad character out of her. That said, she’s not the typical, one-dimensional Gwen we’ve all seen before. She’s a complex and thoughtful person who is Peter’s intellectual equal—a task made all the more impressive by the fact that Peter is played up here as being a prodigy able to quickly and modestly revolutionize Curt Connors’ lab in essentially a weekend.
Neither Martin Sheen nor Sally Field are given a ton to work with, but they play well with what they’re given (even if they seem to be basically just playing themselves for the most part). There’s a recurring bit with Field, though, that really is interesting. The meaningful glances and proud smiles she shoots Peter’s way suggest that she may know more than she lets on, including once or twice that she seems to stop short of actually saying it. It’s a bit like Jim Gordon—you always assume a cop as good as him figured out who Batman was a long time ago and just leaves it alone because it’s easier than complicating things by admitting you’re aware of the double-life.
As far as the parents go, it’s Denis Leary who’s given the juiciest role and he handles it ably. The grown-ups in the film are all pretty shallowly-defined, but it’s Rhys Ifans who really seems to bring little to his role; his take on the Lizard seems too cartoony and out-of-place for this movie, like something that would have been more at-home had the studio made Spider-Man 4 and established this as a sequel to Spider-Man 3.
Aside from comparisons to Raimi, of course, the next biggest question that many fans will inevitably have is about the changes made to the mythology to suit Webb’s vision of Spider-Man. Ultimately, though, there’s not a ton to talk about. While changes have been made along the way, none of them seemed particularly major.
Okay, so Peter didn’t get bitten by a “radioactive” spider. It was a genetically-engineered one (as I seem to remember it being in Raimi’s Spider-Man as well). How was it modified? That’s not importan to the plot, apparently, and isn’t really discussed. The only bits of science we ever see these handful of brilliant scientific minds get up to are the bits that directly impact the events that happen between the time the film begins and when it ends.
While “responsibility” was a ready theme that ran through the film, touching down with Uncle Ben, Peter’s parents, Captain Stacy and more, I will say that I missed Ben actually using the words “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s one of the few pieces of cornball dialogue so key to making Spider-Man who he is, that I would have preferred to see it to the more “realistic” conversations he actually ends up having. Captain Stacy got to deliver a variation on one of his most famous lines, too, but that’s getting a little too spoilery for a first date.
Speaking of spoilers, the film is very spare with them as it regards to the obviously-in-development sequels. Norman Osborn is seen briefly on a screen at the beginning of the film, but his face is obscured. When a character appearing to be Osborn appears in a post-credits sequence talking to Dr. Connors, he’s similarly impossible to see, although the voice used was distinctive enough that it seems unlikely someone won’t know who it was by the end of the weekend. Then begins the waiting game to see whether that actor is cast in the role later.
Ultimately it’s a good movie, but not a great one. Webb, director of indie favorites before he took on the Spider-Man reins, seemed at the time like an odd choice because it seemed unlikely he could work within the confines of a major tentpole franchise without putting too much of his own stamp on it. While that didn’t happen (outside of a brief, awkward “let’s date” dance that felt a little too Marc Webby for comfort, he largely let Spider-Man be Spider-Man and didn’t take many risks. So few, in fact, that he may have pushed the film too far in the other direction, where there was almost a checklist: You need the origin story, the inspirational scene, the self-doubt and the “come fly with me, Superman” sequence. Once you get all of those out of the way, you don’t leave yourself a ton of room to make anything more interesting than just a movie meant to keep the rights in play for Sony.
Still, it hits all the points it really needs to, including a few great sequences that you don’t see coming—getting to see Field’s Aunt May respond to the death of her husband is powerful stuff, and really points out to me that since Peter is the point-of-view character, we’ve never really seen how this woman who means so much to Marvel readers dealt with her own husband’s murder. There’s a story beat in the film that’s kind of the thematic opposite of the way Uncle Ben is killed and Spider-Man blames himself. There’s a brief bit where Spider-Man seems to have his powers “activated” by the spider-sense, giving him powers that are unpredictable and stress-based, like the Hulk, as well as a great “training montage” sequence right after.
Give this one a spin—it’s a fun little film, even if parts of it feel somewhat unsatisfying, and it’s absolutely worth the cost of admission. Just don’t bother with the 3D.