Ten years and two months after Sam Raimi's Spider-Man dominated theaters and advanced the comic book movie genre to a whole new level, the web slinger is back, restarting from scratch with a new origin story that is strangely reminiscent of the previous origin story. Cursed by its own lack of originality, The Amazing Spider-Man struggles mightily to shed the not-so-distant memory of its predecessors, but deep down there is a well done movie that sets the stage for some highly charged sequels.
The Amazing Spider-Man is to the franchise what Batman Begins was to the Batman series, a grittier, darker and more emotionally charged reboot. The only problem: unlike with Batman, no one was asking for a reboot of the franchise. Spider-Man 3 was a disaster, but a franchise killer? Not even close.
Still, it's understandable why new director Marc Webb wanted to start over. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were great movies a decade ago, and they're still entertaining, but man have they aged. The special effects don't hold up very well, and, more importantly, the comical, at times intentionally cheesy approach Sam Raimi took verge on cringe-inducing these days.
Webb has constructed a slick-looking, superbly acted action-drama that is superior in many ways to the original Spider-Man movies. The Amazing Spider-Man is more grounded than the happy-go-lucky originals. The gritty action sequences are engaging and varied, and the special effects are generally strong (less can be said about the 3D, which is a waste of money).
The cast is a huge step up. Andrew Garfield nails the Peter Parker character, his emotionally charged and brooding performance leagues apart from the nerdy, wide-eyed Tobey Maguire portrayal. Emma Stone, who plays Gwen Stacey, has great chemistry with Garfield. And it's hard to top Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
The Amazing Spider-Man lays the ground work for some good sequels, but where it struggles is the story. The first hour does a good job of developing the characters, but it's also both action- and Spider-Man-free. It drags at times, not because of the script but simply because we've seen it all before. The specific elements have changed - how Peter gets bitten by the spider is different, Gwen Stacy isn't the girl next door and Uncle Ben's death is altered - but they still tell the same story. An hour is a long time when you're waiting for something new to happen.
When things do finally kick into gear, Webb, whose only other theatrical directing credit is the excellent romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, shows that he's more than capable of handling a big-budget action movie.
Unfortunately, as things get exciting, The Amazing Spider-Man gets dumber. For all the emphasis on character development, it's never explained why Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) suddenly decides that he wants to turn all New Yorkers into reptiles. The whole climax, while a good action piece, is over-the-top given the more realistic approach and occasionally idiotic. How does an intern like Gwen Stacy make an antidote to The Lizard's condition in a matter of minutes, when no such thing existed before? The whole countdown sequence and biological agent dispersal machine scream of old school comic book antics (ironically, Batman Begins pulled off something similar much better). And just when you think Webb had steered clear of Raimi's cheesy patriotism, he unleashes a goofy sequence where a bunch of New York crane operators band together to help Spider-Man out, American flag splashed in the background.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a well done movie that unfortunately treads on familiar territory. It's entertaining and worth seeing, but people with fond memories of the originals will see it as an unnecessary retelling.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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