Director: Marc Webb
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
In what may be the most craven piece of Hollywood marketeering yet, a superhero franchise that is only ten years old gets rebooted with an entirely new cast and filmmaking team.
It’s been done before of course, most notably with Batman Begins, but that was justified because the series had become a bad joke, it was essential past ghosts be exorcised, and it didn’t hurt that its dark new direction took the Batman movies to unprecedented heights.
But there’s nothing like that here. In many fundamental ways, The Amazing Spider-Man is exactly the same film we all saw a decade ago in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; the story of how Peter Parker becomes a spider-powered superhero. That can often make it a frustrating experience because when it ploughs its own furrow, there are moments that delight.
But because it’s so beholden to the existing mythology, certain plot points have to be ticked off and the sense of familiarity becomes overwhelming and may lead audiences to question the entire purpose of the enterprise. That’s a dreadful shame because it’s sufficiently different in subtle ways that it just needed the courage to commit to being its own entity.
This is something demonstrated immediately in an attempt to broaden the mythology by suggesting that Peter’s scientist father was somehow unwittingly involved in his ultimate transformation. With threats arising through his work, he’s forced to leave Peter, as a small boy, in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field).
Moving on to Peter as a teenager, where he’s played by Andrew Garfield, he’s geeky and picked on at school, but willing to stand up for other bullied kids. While searching for clues to what happened to his parents, Peter finds possessions of his father that connect him with Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who has been experimenting with cross-species genetics.
A visit to the OsCorp building (a link to Norman Osborn, Willem Dafoe’s baddie from the original) where Dr Connors works leads to Peter being bitten by a genetically engineered spider and gaining incredible strength and sticky limbs, the better to climb walls and swing from rooftops.
Connors meanwhile, in an attempt to re-grow his missing arm, is transformed into The Lizard, a monstrous giant, erm, lizard, whose overarching machinations feel somewhat recycled from the first X-Men movie.
Clearly this all means it’s still an origin story, but in the way it cuts to the chase, it’s also clear that the filmmakers are assuming some existing knowledge on the part of the audience regarding just who and what Peter Parker is.
The trump card is undoubtedly Garfield, whose Peter Parker is even more awkward and vulnerable than Tobey Maguire’s. Nervous, sweet and graceful, yet equally convincing in the suit as the cocky wise-ass webslinger, he’s a revelation, with the discovery of his powers yielding a rewarding combination of comedy and moving the story forward with style.
But more importantly, this is also the story of Peter’s relationship with classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and Garfield and Stone light up the screen, giving it a strong emotional centre, with the film is at its best in their exchanges.
As such the web-slinging exploits are often a sideshow, the action boiling down to little more than a series of skirmishes between Spidey and The Lizard. Another problem is the weak villain who here, as is so often the case, is a scientist with noble intent gone wrong, begetting a monster, and this is an area desperately in need of freshening.
There can be no faulting the technical expertise with which it all unfolds, but there’s something not quite right with a movie whose grace notes are stronger than its plot points, and whose flashes of soaring brilliance can never quite compensate for its frequent crushing superfluity.