Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan Martin Sheen, Sally Field 
Running Time: 136 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Forget about the question of whether it was necessary to reboot the Spider-Man franchise so soon after Sam Raimi's trilogy concluded. We already know the answer. It wasn't. We don't really "need" any movie, whether it's a remake, prequel, sequel, adaptation or even an entirely original story. But that doesn't make it feel like any less of a privilege when we get an exceptional one. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man is easily the best film released thus far by Marvel studios, differing from Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and yes, even the overpraised The Avengers, in that it doesn't feel like it was written by a committee, but by those who simply care about telling a good story. A few of those other movies could at best be considered "dumb fun," and this is fun too, but smart. To say I had no interest at all in seeing it would be a massive understatement, but an even bigger understatement would be claiming I thought it had any chance at success. But a success it is, reaching a level creatively that Raimi's films couldn't go near.

Webb knows the story he wants to tell and takes his time getting there. And when he does get there it means something because we care about the characters and the journey they've made. By nature, Spider-Man faces the same problems coming to the big screen that Superman does. Besides offering little in the way of depth or complexity and being an unfailing do-gooder, you run a high risk of the character coming off silly if not executed just right.  But here, the actual superhero element evolves organically from a richly rendered coming-of-age story and touching romance, leading to genuine thrills when the web-slinging begins. Raimi's films talked about how with "great power comes great responsibility," but that ended up being just a catchphrase to sell tickets. This movie is actually about it.

This story starts at the beginning, but the very beginning, as 4-year-old Peter Parker is mysteriously sent away in by his parents to live with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). We flash-forward to meet a teenage Peter (Andrew Garfield), who's now taken an interest in discovering the truth about his real parents, even while being bullied constantly in school and crushing on pretty, mini-skirt wearing classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who's the daughter of police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary). Soon Peter discovers a suitcase of old documents, detailing his father's extensive work at Oscorp with scientist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) in trying to combine human and animal DNA to cure illnesses and regenerate body tissue. It's during a trip to Oscorp to get answers from the one-armed Connors that Peter's bitten by a genetically engineered spider, its toxins arming him with superhuman speed and strength. He also supplies Connors with the missing algorithm needed to complete his research and restore his missing limb, but things get out of control when the is new lizard DNA causes his whole body undergo a reptilian transformation, putting the entire city's citizens at risk. Only Parker, working as the masked vigilante, has the capabilities to stop it, but Captain Stacy has other plans. He wants Spider-Man either killed or locked up, which proves to be a major obstacle in Peter's burgeoning relationship with his daughter.

That description could be construed as making The Amazing Spider-Man seem like any other superhero movie, with the title character coming to terms with his new identity, gaining a love interest and eventually engaging in a climactic battle with the villain. Put in crudely simplistic screenwriting terms, that's true, but this may be one of the few times (and certainly the only instance in a Marvel entry) where I was too engaged in the origin story to even think about it. The first hour is nothing short of spectacular in building a backstory and fleshing out characters both major and minor. Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who couldn't have appeared for more than a total of 5 minutes in Raimi's films, are given the grand treatment this time. As far as family portraits go, it's a riveting one, held together by Martin Sheen radiating a tough but benevolent warmth as Ben that recalls his work as commander-in-chief on The West Wing. It's not a small part, nor should it be, considering his death provides the impetus for Peter's emotional transformation. It feels like we get nearly an entire mini-movie about the Parkers before tragedy strikes, which only makes the actual moment seem that much more powerful when it comes.

Peter's troubles at school are emphasized far more here than in any previous depiction of the character on screen, but never exaggerated simply for effect. As opposed to being portrayed as some geek who can't stand up for himself, he's presented more wisely as a relatively normal outcast who's just overmatched at everything. The most ridiculous element of the story, the actual spider bite and the superhuman powers that spring from it, is presented far more less campy manner than in Raimi's original. The scenes where Peter takes to the streets as a masked vigilante in search of his uncle's murderer, emerging as both a fugitive and celebrity, more closely resembles the very the best of more grounded entries in the genre like Kick-Ass and Chronicle, both of which could have easily provided inspiration for approach the film takes. And there's little doubt this was the right direction to go, as it's literally the exact opposite of what we saw in 2002 and its succeeding sequels. Even if at certain points in the narrative inevitably covers some the same material, it never feels that way .

If the director behind (500) Days of Summer seems like a strange choice to be tackling this do-over, it's only after watching it does the selection make perfect sense. The crux of the story is the relationship between Peter and Gwen, so you'd figure the filmmaker behind one of the few recent intelligent modern romances would be the perfect person to flesh it out. And did he ever find the right two actors to fill these roles with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. I'm always skeptical (and even a little disappointed) whenever really talented actors sign on for a multi-film superhero franchise, as there's always a risk it could be a waste of time and talent better served in more prestigious projects. But any worries of this material dragging these two down were unfounded as both only elevate what's surprisingly an already strong script that makes excellent use of their skills. Disproving early criticisms he was too old for the part, Garfield gives us a totally different Parker than Tobey Maguire, managing to be completely likable without losing any of the character's edge. He just has a presence that makes you want to root for him and has great on screen chemistry with Stone, whose natural spunk and charm makes her a perfect choice for the witty Gwen. Better yet, both takes differ enough that it never feels like they're competing with or in the shadow of Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, who were never the source of that series' issues.

As well developed as Peter's relationship is with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Gwen's relationship with her father is fleshed out almost equally as well in only just a few scenes, with Denis Leary proving to be a surprisingly inspired casting choice for the tough, sarcastic Captain Stacy. The same can be said for Rhys Ifans who brings a restrained level-headedness to the role of Curt Connors, who's villain I far preferred to Willem Dafoe's campy, Halloween costume wearing nut from the original. There's kind of a Jekyll and Hyde take on this character and his fascination with science that's interesting and not something we usually see in modern superhero movies. Similarly, his transformation into The Lizard (featuring a believable looking mix of CG and practical effects) and the carnage he brings feels like a throwback to something out of King Kong or Godzilla. And because the storytelling is so tight, his culminating clash with Peter is presented as more a case of science steering the two on a collision course than the mandatory showdown we're used to seeing in the third act of previous Marvel movies, too many of which were poorly conceived and executed. All the alterations made to the physical depiction of Spider-Man on screen are also improvements, right down to the sleeker looking costume and the fantastic, vertigo inducing flying scenes across the city's skyscrapers, which this time looks like a person in the air rather than a video game. There's some connection between Parker outside the costume and in it, and Garfield makes you believe there isn't a second when he wasn't under the mask.

Audience apathy toward the idea of re-booting a series this soon is about the best explanation as to why this hasn't received the praise it deserves. If that's the case, it's understandable, but I'm more willing to put the blame on the oversaturation of superhero movies in general. Most of that blame lies with Marvel, so it's not hard to go into this thinking it would be just another cash grab for them. Their insistence on releasing a reboot no one particularly wanted to see in 3D likely didn't help matters either. Anyone who was fully satisfied with Raimi's interpretation probably won't enjoy this but if you disliked his approach as much as I did, then this suddenly becomes the definitive take on Spider-Man. It's a great example of what happens when the right creative choices are made and talented actors are cast who are capable of taking the material even further. In their age bracket, Garfield and Stone are two of the best right now and it's a credit to Webb that this doesn't at all feel beneath them.  It's also nice for a change to see a post credits scene in a Marvel movie and care about the next chapter instead of it feeling like a calculated commercial for another project. The Amazing Spider-Man may not transcend its genre like The Dark Knight Rises did earlier in the year, but it's leagues better than it's gotten credit for, proving that sometimes there's no shame in finishing a distant second.      

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