In 1989, Tim Burton brought forth the phenomenally popular Batman to the screen. It was dark and exciting, but it was also heavy on the cartoon like nature of the piece, with the retro-40's look and colorful set pieces. When Christopher Nolan rebooted the franchise with Batman Begins, it was grounded in a more realistic world that jettisoned as much of the zany nature of the first in order to cement the drama in something closer to our world.
Why am I bringing this up? Because this is the exact same thing that has happened with Spider-Man. When Sam Raimi made his 2002 version of the wall crawler, it was spectacular albeit a bit on the cartoonish side. If you want proof, you need look no further than that the Green Goblin wearing, as Weird Al called it, a “dumb Power Rangers mask.” The directing too was filled with unusual angles and energy. And the score for both Burton and Raimi's movie was done by the Simpsons composer Danny Elfman. None of this is necessarily a criticism of Raimi's Spider-Man, which I quite enjoy. But it is important to juxtapose that to Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man. Webb, whose only other feature was the fantastic (500) Days of Summer, chose to take the Christopher Nolan route, toning down the broad and the load for the subtle and the serious.
That is not to say that The Amazing Spider-Man is boring. Far from it. Webb knows that he needs to infuse the film with lots of spectacle, but he does not do anything that breaks the character's believability The story retells the origin of Marvel's most famous hero. This time he is played by up and comer Andrew Garfield, who was the best thing in The Social Network. (I also find it interesting that both Nolan and Webb hired Brits to play such quintessentially American characters. Peter gets his powers, gets his motivation, comes up with his costume, and fights the big green bad guy.
Comparisons to Raimi's Spider-Man are inevitable and are more necessary than comparisons to Burton and Nolan's films. With the Batman movies, many of the origin elements are told non-linearly, so the audience is not sure what comes next. But The Amazing Spider-Man follows the same story trajectory as the original. You almost have to forcibly push Raimi's Spider-Man out of your mind in order to enjoy this film. This is the movie's biggest deficit, because the echoes of the first story are so strong, that they constantly push in and remove some of the tension.
But Webb does offer us a few bits that make the film seem a bit fresher. First of all he introduces us to Peter's parents and shows us the night they leave his life. This theme of parental abandonment gives us new dimension to the character. Also gone are the organic webs, and instead Peter must invent and create the mechanical ones as he did in the comics. This also adds a distinguishing layer. While Maguire's Spider-Man was also a genius, he mostly expressed this in a few lines of dialogue. Garfield's Spider-Man shows us his intellect, which makes for a more powerful character statement. It also solidifies his relationship with Dr. Conners (Rhys Ivans), the amputee who works with Peter to come up with a serum to regrow his limbs. The relationship is paternal and affectionate and grounds the story in a bit of sadness when Conners choices turn him into a monster.
And special note must be made of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.
In the original, Mary Jane was supposed to be the inapproachable, popular girl in school, even though she lived next door. Gwen is much more real and approachable. She was girl you went to school with who was in the honors classes and would go out of her way to be nice to you, just because that's how she was. Stone captures that perfectly. Webb flexes his romantic comedy muscles and finds the truth in how Peter and Gwen communicate (or in one very funny scene, don't communicate). Stone is in every way the idealistic school girl, down to her knee-high socks, but never plays it as immature or helpless. She is convincingly tender and resolute. Her love story with Peter is one of the best parts of the film. Dennis Leary as Gwen Stacy's father, Cap. Ned Stacy, swaggers into the scene with the grit and scowl of not only an overworked NYPD officer, but the dad of a teenage daughter who is dating a seeming loser. Martin Sheen also does admirable work as Uncle Ben.
Another notable departure from the traditional super-hero fare is the preference of practical effects over digital. Don't misunderstand, there are tones of CGI set pieces. But a large portion of Peter's action scenes are done with what looks like a combination of wire-work and parkour. This actually makes the film much more thrilling as we see real people leaping and swinging from large heights and witness the grace and agility of the actors. And when the CGI is used it is spectacular, especially set against the heroic score by James Horner.
Garfield also delivers Spider-Man's trademark humor in a way that keeps you laughing at the joke but not at the movie. The movie is serious, but not humorless. This Spider-Man feels like a real teenager with all of the angst, passion, and miss-steps that they are wont to make. He begins his crusade first out of blind vengeance for his Uncle. But then he evolves to doing it out of a sense of duty. But Webb so smartly lays out a conflict between Peter's brain and his heart. And we can see how this conflict will continue to come up in the next film. Those familiar with the comic know what is to come and it is all the more heartbreaking because of the affections we have for the character's in Webb's movie.
Raimi's Spider-Man, like Burton's Batman is a modern-day classic and a necessary step in the evolution of the super-hero genre. But with all due respect, Webb has given us a Spider-Man more tangible and more real, but also one more amazing.
4.5 out of 5 stars