The Amazing Spider-Man: A Superhero Film… For The Ladies
When you think of Spider-Man, do you think of an everyman dork who can’t get a girl to save his life? Or do you think of a handsome smoldering stutterer with amazing hair who gets the girl before he gains powers? When you think of a superhero’s love interest, do you think of a feisty damsel in distress who is kept in the dark about his alter ego? Or do you think of the smartest girl in the world, never needing rescue, immediately accepting her boyfriend’s superhero double life, and even attacking the bad guy on her own on multiple occasions? As I watched The Amazing Spider-Man, the reboot of perhaps Marvel’s most iconic franchise, I grew acutely aware that this new take was designed predominantly with the interest of attracting a female audience. It’s a success in that regard, as Andrew Garfield is gorgeous and Emma Stone is immensely likable and the film on the whole is sleek and stylish and wrings emotion out of every possible moment. However, the storytelling is inconsistent, the villain is subpar, and there’s really nothing new for this film to offer. I was promised “amazing,” and that promise wasn’t upheld.
We begin with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) playing hide-and-seek with his father (Campbell Scott). Turns out someone broke into their home looking for something– his father drops Peter off with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), and he never returns. Flash forward to high school: Peter is really into photography and skateboarding– is skateboarding actually dorky now? or is it something most teenage girls will find to be the most endearing form of quasi-teen rebellion? I digress– and he finds his father’s briefcase in the basement, complete with a special algorithm. Turns out Peter’s dad was friends and co-workers with a man named Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), and they were big time into cross-species genetics. On a trip to Connors’ facility, he encounters Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a gorgeous-but-not-intimidatingly-so girl who is giving a tour, who earlier admired him for standing up to a bully. He sneaks off from the tour and breaks into a series of empty lab rooms, where loads of important science is going down. Peter finds himself in a room full of genetically altered spiders, used to generate biocable from their enhanced webbing. He touches something, and spiders rain down on him. One bites him. No good.
He finds almost instantly that his hands stick to things, his strength is significant, and his reflexes are top-notch. He slam dunks a basketball at school over a bully using these powers, and thinks, “I should see what Dr. Connors thinks about this.” Apparently, Connors is experimenting with lizards, but he’s missing the magic algorithm– Peter hands over immediately the formula his dad labored to hide, and they work together. However, between working with Connors and flirting with Gwen, he’s ignored some duties at home. One night, he runs out when Uncle Ben scolds him, and a huge douchebag behind a cash register won’t let him buy a chocolate milk because he’s two cents shy. The cashier won’t even let him take a penny out of the little penny tray! When the man in line behind Peter robs the cashier and tosses Peter his chocolate milk, and the cashier pleads for someone to stop him, Peter understandably doesn’t. Uncle Ben, out looking for Peter, tries… and gets shot in the process.
I wanted to detail the series of events before Uncle Ben’s death because a number of problems with the storytelling have already arisen. 1. Peter is… kind of cool. The girl likes him, he skateboards, he rocks earbuds, he has dreamy hair. 2. Peter is seeking out trouble when the spider bites him. Instead of being chosen at random by fate, Peter breaks into rooms and touches things willy-nilly. 3. Peter never undergoes that series of events in which he tries to shamelessly exploit his newfound powers. In the original film and comics, he wrestles for money. Here, he slam dunks over a sadistic bully. 4. Peter’s refusal to stop the burglar is TOTALLY UNDERSTANDABLE. Instead of Peter’s selfishness leading to Uncle Ben’s death, he accidentally leads to Uncle Ben’s death by giving the cold shoulder to a guy who was a total dick to him and passively helping out the burglar, who actively helped him out first. Uncle Ben’s death doesn’t have the same resonance because Peter didn’t have the ivory tower to come down from. He’s still a lovable if emo guy before and after Uncle Ben’s death. The character arc is more like a plateau.
Meanwhile, Curt Connors injects himself with the formula, becoming The Lizard and giving us the umpteenth take on Jekyll and Hyde we’ve seen in these kinds of films. I did like Connors having only one arm, giving him some extra motivation to try to cure mankind’s weaknesses, but unfortunately, Ifans isn’t given a lot to do, especially because The Lizard is entirely CGI and not especially impressive-looking. His evil plot? Spread a biochemical gas across New York City, so everyone can become a lizard like him and achieve their evolutionary perfection. At one point, he starts spraying policemen with the gas so that they all turn into lizards like him. Awesome, right? If Spidey has trouble fighting one Lizard, it’s a lock that fighting ten is going to be really badass, right? Unfortunately, this never develops. They’re turned to massive lizards and never seen again until the inevitable happy ending. The plotline with Peter’s father? Never really brought up again. Peter’s hunt for the man who killed Uncle Ben? Goes on for a long amount of screen time only to be subsequently dropped and never resolved.
I’m spending a lot of time harping on the bad aspects of the film. The film isn’t bad– really far from it. Although I don’t care much for the take on Peter Parker, Garfield absolutely does well in the role: he switches from moping to banter with ease, and he’s consistently believable. Same for Emma Stone, who goes farther from her typical Emma Stone work than I’ve seen to date here. She’s credibly brainy, funny, and endearing. Martin Sheen does the best acting work in the film as Uncle Ben… he somehow even surpasses Cliff Robertson from the first series. Marc Webb’s vision is steady, as the film’s tone and general style never waver, even as the movie jumps from comedy to drama– Raimi’s films struggled with this aspect most of the time, but here the transitions between joke and emotion are smooth. The visual effects regarding Spider-Man himself are pretty great, as we believe there’s a man in a suit swinging as opposed to a CGI figure, and while the same can’t be said for The Lizard, their interactions are pretty convincing, and a few of the fight scenes are inventively staged (the Stan Lee cameo in particular is memorable).
One simply can’t escape, however, the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. Not just from the other Spider-Man films either. The plot device of a machine which will create airborne toxins that will wreak havoc on the city and start society anew is directly out of Batman Begins. The post-credits tag at the end of the film feels like an attempt at aping the Avengers series of films– the fact that the tag is utterly pointless and adds nothing to the saga makes it feel even more like a desperate attempt to mimic something else. Even the basketball sequence feels like a direct reference to Teen Wolf. The only thing that feels remotely new is the fact that Peter Parker, our dweebish everyman hero, is a hunk, and Gwen Stacy, our love interest, is a brilliant badass. Combine those with the relative shortage of action and the relative overload of emotional scenes (there may be more crying here than in Spiderman 3, the previous record holder for crying in a superhero film), and you may start to feel the hand of a corporate studio head reaching into the film and writing on top, “How can we get the female demographic to come to this movie?” Those tactics are certainly an overwhelming success in terms of achieving its goal– I’d be stunned if exit polling revealed dissatisfied female viewers on the whole. However, if you’re jonesing for mind-blowing action, consistent storytelling, and the Spider-Man you’re familiar with, you may find yourself doing some mild Andrew-Garfield-esque moping.