It might be hard to argue the necessity of an origin story for a superhero who already had one on film not all that long ago, but even though The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t revolutionize main hero Peter Parker’s past, the movie usually gets its genre basics right while boasting some significant improvements over director Sam Raimi’s franchise works.
From (and away from) the familiar
The film opens with Parker, as a child, being left with his uncle Ben and aunt May by his parents. This otherwise unremarkable scene partially justifies itself by focusing the camera on a complex math equation that becomes a small plot point later on in the film.
Skipping ahead in time several years, we again see Peter, now in high school. He’s ridiculously awkward (is it too much to ask to have more young protagonists who are mature and confident at the start of their movies?), but while his attempts to be “cool” sometimes look ridiculous, such as riding a skateboard through crowded school halls, Peter somewhat redeems himself by standing up for a person being bullied. Our hero gets pummeled for his trouble, in a scene that’s impressive to watch but may be a bit intense for younger viewers.
It is here that Gwen Stacy is established. She is the best thing about this film, being more immediately and consistently likable (in terms of her maturity and character) and more competent than can be said about Peter or most anyone else in this movie. She does not get kidnapped. She does end up in danger, but she’s not helpless. She even helps Spider-Man in a fight. She is his love interest, and I honestly don’t know what she sees in him.
Peter Parker is an individual who outright steals a person’s ID badge, which for whatever reason lacks a photo, in order to enter the Oscorp science facility. This is not exactly the first impression I as a viewer want to see of a superhero’s moral conduct in a superhero movie, but there it is. (Said badge’s owner is shown being forcibly escorted from the building for something out of his control; I can only hope he got his situation straightened out.) Parker simply zooms past being unlikable, to the point of becoming a liability for–guess who?–Gwen Stacy, who happens to be leading a tour group of the building.
Naturally he wonders off into a dangerous and off-limits area, and if you’re at all familiar with the Spider-Man story, you should be able to guess what eventually happens. Parker doesn’t even care about having a good excuse for his actions at this point, though in fairness at least he isn’t doing all of this in order to stalk Gwen or to do something equally ridiculous.
Not-Yet-Spider-Man, while on a subway, gets through his first big fight scene through the most incompetent means, with an increasingly ridiculous series of events showcasing his newfound reflexes and sticky grip at his expense, never mind everyone else’s. Once he escapes that “fun for the eyes but pointless for the plot” scene in which no one really asks how he’s physically able to hang on the subway ceiling, the movie wastes more of our time with character-establishing scenes that could perhaps have gone faster.
After Peter comes back home and flatters his worried-sick aunt and uncle, he endures a lame joke in which Uncle Ben insults Aunt May’s meat loaf, and then the movie tries to force sympathy for Parker by having his super strength accidentally destroy his bedroom. Peter, for whatever reason, tries to look up the symptoms of a spider bite on Google instead of calling his guardians and going to a hospital. An additional lengthy sequence follows where another important character is established in some detail, and–are you seeing a pattern here with how much time the first half of this film wastes? It’s not as slow as I felt the first Transformers movie was, but the plot seems to take its sweet time early on without being half as enjoyable to watch for its own sake as it seems to think it is. (The problem there may, again, simply be the familiarity of the material.)
Parker is at least something of a gentleman when it comes to helping people who are both unfortunate and likable, which is nice, and after yet another funny but pointless “superpower scene” involving a basketball, Gwen Stacy demonstrates one of her many moments of competence, while Peter just stumbles through his words. It’s too bad she wasn’t the one to save the day.
The movie finally begins to demonstrate a part of its potential with a visually delightful scene of Peter running around and swinging on ropes to the sounds of Coldplay’s “‘Til Kingdom Come.” And then, with demonstrations of a lizard regenerating its limbs and of who would find that ability useful, the film’s excuse for a story gets off to a rough but nevertheless appreciated start.
After a requisite tragedy that still manages to bring out some good performances from Andrew Garfield (Parker) and Emma Stone (Stacy), there is an interesting but all too familiar scene of Peter designing his outfit and gadgets and honing his skills on criminals–in the name of revenge. Indeed this is a film where we as the viewers have to wait for Parker to become an admirable and sympathetic human being, and in the meantime the movie’s ethos begins to contradict itself.
While Peter’s web-slinging sequences naturally look more or less as good as they did in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, particularly with the very impressive first-person scenes, the problem is that the movie just makes Peter’s and eventually Spider-Man’s lack of personal responsibility look so cool. Parker, initially and rightly seen as a masked vigilante who causes more problems than he solves, is shown off as he runs from the police and causes all kinds of chaos. This naturally causes Aunt May more than a bit of worry, especially in the context of everything else she’s had to endure, and Peter just becomes all the more aggravating for acting like he doesn’t understand why May worries so much about him. (She doesn’t know the details of what he’s been doing–making her seemingly one of the few characters in this movie who is not aware of this–but indeed, knowing would probably not ease her fears.)
The previously mentioned chaos is a lot of fun to watch, but besides the issues of this being very much a “guilty” pleasure in a movie that’s supposed to be saluting heroism and selflessness, there simply isn’t enough of this sort of excitement in the first half of the film to make up for its otherwise boring writing. Bizarrely enough the romance between Parker and Stacy is noticeably improved from the one he shared with Mary Jane, particularly in the annoying Spider-Man 3: while it’s clumsy and filled with too many scenes of Peter again struggling to communicate vocally and lucidly, and while I frankly don’t know what on earth Gwen sees in this boy, he is blessed to be cared about so deeply by someone as downright smart as she is (perhaps “otherwise smart” when it comes to her romantic choices), even if she isn’t a very complex person. Also, she does figure a few important things out early on …
There is, finally, another eventual scene of a truly noble act in this superhero movie, which has lasted somewhere around an hour at this point. A child needs to be saved, the scene looks awesome, and … it’s one of the few moments of its kind throughout the whole movie. There are no scenes I can clearly recall in which Spider-Man does something like saving a whole busful of people, for example, and as such most of the film’s second half feels like Peter is either interacting with Gwen or going after the Lizard–which makes sense, but there’s no buildup of Spider-Man rescuing larger and larger numbers of random people along the way to a final confrontation while having to make difficult moral decisions like he’s had to do in previous series entries.
Peter does tell Gwen about his spider bite, and before this is followed closely by a bloody sequence of a mouse chomping on something, this moment does help make the film as a whole feel like it’s not just another superhero origin story where the main character has to keep too many secrets and ends up going through too many dramatic-irony plotlines, because Peter is almost thoroughly incapable of fooling anyone in this movie. (I should note that Gwen has one of her best moments in the film here. She talks about her father’s notably dangerous and admirable career, and even a question as simple as whether he’ll get home safely each day is made very convincing because of the film’s surprisingly well written dialogue and of actress Stone’s great performance.)
How many times can stories like this be told?
The movie’s villain is “acceptable” in terms of his writing and performance, neither a tremendous success or failure in either, though his motivations come off as being a bit messy until he and Spider-Man somehow manage to help explain his motives together. At least the fights are good, though; if you’re familiar with the live-action Spider-Man films, you should have a good idea of the kinds of amazing stunts and dangerous scenes that await; if you didn’t see Raimi’s trilogy, then the question of which origin story you want to go with may well depend on whether you want to admire Peter Parker or his love interest. That might be a difficult decision, and if I could take a Spider-Man I don’t remember watching occasionally lie and steal to get his way, while also keeping the especially interesting Gwen Stacy present, I think that would go a long way toward making a “good” movie great, even if not especially fantastic.
Spider-Man’s antagonist in this film isn’t as sympathetic as previous series villains like Doctor Octopus have been (Spider-Man 2), though I will say that his visual-enhancement effects are pretty neat. He is fun to watch, whether he’s tearing through buildings in one moment or quoting Michelangelo in the next. As with more than one film I’ve seen in this genre, however, there isn’t quite as much “what on earth is THAT thing” surprise in the movie as one might reasonably expect. Even still, said villain does his job “acceptably,” even if Spider-Man’s personal growth seems like an odd mix of being sudden and incomplete, as if the film doesn’t know how to get Peter morally from point A to point B and then becomes unsure of where point B actually is. At least Gwen has yet another of her many awesome moments here.
The police just attempt to gun Spider-Man’s admittedly monstrous enemy down, as if they weren’t even going to bother tasing or using nonlethal force, and again one of the film’s biggest ethical concerns is that some of its most fun moments come when Spider-Man has to face off against a bunch of cops, and this when he’s already being treated as a criminal and not as a “hero” to begin with. Another boring piece of storytelling comes into play when the central criminal device, for whatever pointless reason, has a countdown before it activates, giving Spider-Man all the time he needs to stop it.
It’s hard for a movie to praise the virtues of selflessness and responsibility when some of its most enjoyable moments happen at the expense of those qualities, and that is the problem The Amazing Spider-Man deals with from start to finish, particularly when its main character’s lack of maturity stops being funny and even occasionally becomes disgusting (also, even Aunt May curses in this film, of all possible people). Gwen Stacy is this movie’s most enjoyable character almost to a point of excess, because she simply overshadows everyone else in the story, especially Peter, other than in her simple lack of superpowers. Really, if one thinks about it, she wouldn’t have made a bad role model for Peter despite being close to his age.
I won’t say the film lives up to its name, whether in terms of its plot or of its central character, and I also won’t say this origin story felt very unique, whether in the context of the original Spider-Man film or even of other superhero films I’ve seen. I will say, however, that because of the movie’s decent action and its rather likable if thin romance, it definitely avoids being “awful”–so I’ll call it “adequate.”
(Author’s note: This post was originally published on my movie-review blog, Projected Realities.)