Despite a few comic book movie trappings, The Amazing Spider-Man is a major success story.
There’s a scene in The Amazing Spider-Man that inadvertently captures the magic and cynicism that coalesce in the summer blockbuster. Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) has just seen off a giant lizard on the Williamsburg Bridge in a jaw-dropping display of CG wizardry.
Now a child is trapped in a burning car dangling over the river and our hero must go to the rescue. As the flames creep closer, Spidey removes his mask and hands it to the boy. "Put this on," he says, "it’ll give you strength." And as the trembling child pulls the mask over his head – becoming Spider-Man in a moment of ecstatic transfiguration – you can practically hear the cash tills registering a million extra sales of official merchandise.
The uneasy splicing of art and commerce has long been typical of Hollywood’s tentpole event movies, but it stands out in The Amazing Spider-Man precisely because Marvel’s comic-book do-over is such an atypical film in almost every other respect.
There is, of course, the question of context. Where Superman went 19 years between iterations, and Batman managed eight, it’s been just five years since Tobey Maguire hung up his web-slingers. Nevertheless, (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb has started from scratch, recruiting smartly from the ranks of teen idols-in-waiting and reinvesting in his story some of the heart, humour and humanity absent from Sam Raimi’s unwitting finale.
So here we go again – Peter Parker, Uncle Ben, spider bites and superpowers; an origin story but not as we know it. There’s the mysterious disappearance of Peter’s father, a scientist working on a formula to splice animal genes into human subjects.
And there’s a new love interest, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a classmate of Parker’s who moonlights (implausibly) as an intern at genetics giant Oscorp, where Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) dreams of regenerating his arm from lizard DNA despite the increasingly capricious demands of old man Osborn himself.
For all its quirks, this opening act is the film’s most laborious: the recipe may be new but the ingredients are stale. Still, there are hints that what’s to come will be worth the wait. The spider-bite scene is creepy, and Peter’s exploration of his powers showcases an earthy aesthetic grounded by DP John Schwartzman’s naturalistic palette of dense greys and sharp blacks that does much to make Parker’s journey (literal and metaphorical) more credible.
And then, finally, Spider-Man takes to the air, the film takes flight, and Webb’s vision comes soaring into its own. For all the liberal use of CGI – in the transformation of Connors into the Lizard; in conjuring the playground roofscapes of New York; in the climactic skyscraper showdown between good and good-gone-awry – what’s most impressive about The Amazing Spider-Man is how rooted in reality it is.
Webb has one big advantage over Raimi – 3D – and he uses it to create a sense of scale, to show how tiny Peter Parker is against the backdrop of this city and these events, and how, courageously, he steps out into its midst and earns the right to become Spider-Man.
Even as Parker wrestles with his responsibilities, Spider-Man discovers his power with a ferocious sense of freedom. The camera responds, peering precipitously over ledges, free-falling, flashing from first-person to slo-mo. Webb demonstrates an unexpected fluency for action cinema, effortlessly integrating the real and the computer-rendered, giving Spidey a definite style and muscularity in the film’s fight sequences.
As for Garfield, he may be too pretty to play the nerd, but his Spidey is a more organic, more insectile creation than we’ve seen before, while his Peter Parker is seductive and sympathetic in the film’s more intimate moments. With a mega-watt smile to go with the newly bulging biceps, this is the stuff of movie stardom.
There’s the usual Stan Lee cameo nonsense, of course. The underwritten female role. Moments where the film adheres too closely to Raimi’s original (what... more blue-collar New Yorkers coming to Spidey’s rescue?). And an emotional coda that reeks of focus-testing.
But The Amazing Spider-Man is a major success story. Webb’s film stands comparison with Raimi’s, but does so much more than that, too. It creates its own mythology, its own magic, and it’s own future. Spider-Man is dead. Long live Spider-Man.
Didn’t Sam Raimi make this already?
There’s a new Webb-slinger in town – and he’s here to stay.