In 2008 Marvel Studios released The Incredible Hulk. That film rebooted Hulk, the 2003 Ang Lee film, and it did it by simply telling a slightly different version of the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then moving on from there. There was no need to go into details - everybody knew the basics of the Hulk’s origins, and the opening credits sequence gave enough new context that the movie could get on with its own business.
This is what Sony should have done with The Amazing Spider-Man. Rebooting a ten-year old, very popular and well-known movie is a foolish idea, especially when the reboot is covering so much familiar ground. But Sony didn’t take the smart route and director Marc Webb, working from a script by Alvin Sargent, James Vanderbilt and Steve Kloves, returns to the overly familiar origins of Spider-Man.
Strangely, this is not the worst part of the movie. Webb’s version of Peter Parker, played with James Dean sullenness by Andrew Garfield, in no way resembles the Puny Parker we know from Amazing Fantasy #15, but that’s a concern only for the nerdiest Spider-Man fans*. Despite the fact that Garfield seems to spend a third of the movie crying or pouting, he’s a magnetic force on screen and he’s often a joy to watch.
Even more of a joy is Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Together they have a remarkable chemistry, and their scenes together have an energy that is too often missing from the love stories of comic book movies. And so even though the first hour of the movie is just rehashing stuff we already know in unnecessary detail, it’s watchable. There are a lot of problems in the first hour - the pacing is dreadful, the love story (while enjoyable) has no momentum, as Peter and Gwen meet and pretty much fall right for each other without any kind of obstacle or problems or interesting incidents along the way - but The Amazing Spider-Man is mediocre in a watchable way for this stretch.
Then the superhero stuff kicks in and the movie shudders and begins falling to pieces before finally becoming a howlingly bad shitshow for the final action scene. The only thing amazing about this movie is how badly it goes off the rails.
The Lizard is a horrible character in this film; not just physically - his design is terrible, stupid and silly - but in a fundmental way. The first half of the film spends lots of time with Dr. Curt Connors as he looks at his stumpy arm, talks about his stumpy arm and mourns his stumpy arm, but none of these uninteresting, poorly done scenes prepare us for what kind of a character the filmic Lizard is. Instead of a Jekyll and Hyde type, where Connors is desperate to cure himself of his alter ego, the movie Lizard is a megalomaniac whose plan is to turn everybody in New York City into lizards. Rubbing our faces in the tragedy of crippled Dr. Connors does not make his stupid take-over plan more sympathetic. At least Magneto, who had the EXACT SAME PLAN in X-Men, was coming from a position we could understand.
Just as the love story has no momentum, the Lizard story has no momentum or gathering tension. Connors is not the Lizard and then he is. Once the Lizard shows up the movie slams into the wall of banality, becoming a completely generic superhero film. Webb clearly has no feel for this stuff, so he just takes pages out of other movies and recreates them. By the time the finale occurs on top of a tall building where a gadget is threatening everybody I had all but checked out. Also checking out: Spider-Man. While the buzz in advance was that this movie finally had Spidey cracking wise the way he did in the comics, the actual finished film has Garfield delivering a few ADRed bon mots in early scenes before Spidey becomes almost silent in many of the finale bits - which only adds to the banality of the ending.
Amidst the banality are some delightfully terrible moments and editing decisions that add levity to the ho-hum drabness of the finale. There’s a bit where every construction worker in Manhattan helps Spidey out by turning their cranes out into the street; if there’s a worse, less motivated, cheaper scene in the movies this year I’ll be surprised. And then there’s the bit where the Lizard turns an entire SWAT team into lizards... all of whom promptly disappear from the movie, likely to avoid burdening the picture with further FX costs. The whole movie is like that, with bad scenes or pointless interludes that point to a vastly different story that was hacked out in the editing process.
The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t know what kind of a movie it is. Obviously influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Batfilms (before he makes a costume, Peter swings around the city in the exact outfit Bruce Wayne wore in Batman: Year One, the Holy Grail comic of grim n' gritty), there’s a dour quality to everything that only makes the giant lizardman stuff seem sillier. The romance and relationship business is nice on its own, but scenes between Gwen and Peter are haphazardly placed throughout the movie without regard to the flow of the story. These scenes - again, while nice - often go on too long and involve characters just saying out loud to each other things we already know. It’s as if Webb shot these scenes for a version in which all of the superhero business was cut out, and he needed Andrew Garfield to explain what happened offscreen.
And maybe Webb should have cut out all the superhero business, as his action scenes are poorly constructed (there are some nearly incomprehensible beats in a subway fight scene - a fight scene which, by the way, serves no purpose and only undercuts what should be Spidey’s first big fight later in the film) and devoid of energy. Even the POV web-slinging shots - what should be this 3D film’s bread and butter - are boring.
Instead he ended up with two movies clumsily welded together, and neither fully works. Even within the best parts of the film Garfield and Stone are given terrible dialogue or nothing interesting to do. Stone’s Stacy is an egregiously useless character; despite being the smartest girl in school all she is capable of doing is being Peter’s sidekick at critical moments. I guess the fact that she’s never a damsel in distress was seen as being progressive in the script stage - no need to give her any actual proactive moments in the story.
There are other highlights - Martin Sheen is great as Uncle Ben, and I felt that his reconfigured death worked very well. It’s probably the best of the few changes made to the story. Denis Leary is also great as Captain Stacy, making up for the dismal Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors - although to be fair he’s not given a complete character to play; it feels as if Connors is schizo even before he takes the serum that transforms him.
These small bright spots do not a good movie make. I was willing to write off The Amazing Spider-Man as misguided but cute fluff until the movie got almost contemptuously bad. The good news is that the leads are well cast, and when the story is soft-rebooted in three years by a different director and writers at least Garfield and Stone will be back. Everything else in this film can be easily forgotten.
By the way, I saw the movie in IMAX 3D. Huge sections of the film were simply two dimensional. I could take off my glasses and nothing on screen was blurry. The scenes that have more 3D are not particularly impressive. I cannot recommend seeing this movie in theaters - it is totally a home video experience - but if you must, don’t waste money on the 3D version.
* In whose number I can be counted. I find the new version of pre-Spidey Peter Parker to be pretty terrible and to be utterly missing the point of the character. Peter Parker is a smoldering hunk here, not an impossibly square dweeb. When he gets his Spider-Man powers nothing really changes for Parker; instead the movie has him just becoming even more of the smoldering, dangerous hunk. It’s a stupid choice, and it robs Spider-Man of the aspirational qualities the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko character always had - that any one of us schlubs could become something special tomorrow, purely by chance. The movie makes Peter always a ‘hero’ of sorts, standing up to bully Flash Thompson long before he gets bitten. This means that the spider bite only brought out what Peter inherently had within him; the beauty of the original stories is that Peter must always strive to match up to the power he has received. He’s no natural hero, he’s working at it every single day.