Super-hero movies have come a long way in the last decade. For proof, you need only compare 2002’s Spider-Man with its notional remake, The Amazing Spider-Man, which starts the series over and takes the opportunity to perfect an already successful formula. Consider how each film addresses the challenge of incorporating the hero’s origin story, by which I mean Uncle Ben’s mundane demise, into the action-blockbuster mould complete with CGI explosions and an over-the-top villain. Whereas the original threw its hands in the air and delivered two chapters separated by an extensive time gap, this new version blends its themes and concepts so as to give us the illusion of a single, seamless narrative.
I use the term “illusion” because, in fact, we still get two stories, though director Marc Webb weaves them together through our protagonist’s orphan complex and progression as a character. In the main plot, seventeen-year-old Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) uncovers some of his roots by way of Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a geneticist who once worked with his father. Using the same technology that gives birth to Spider-Man, the good doctor turns himself into a giant lizard bent on propagating his hybrid species. Truth be told, the villain strikes me as somewhat lacking in charisma, but I do appreciate the way he plays into a wider conspiracy regarding our hero’s heritage.
The other storyline pertains to Peter’s dynamic with his family, how Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) comes to replace the boy’s father and serve as catalyst for his super-hero career. Determined to bring a new twist on the iconic origin tale, screenwriters Steve Kloves, Alvin Sargent, and James Vanderbilt depict Ben not as a saint but as a gruff old man making up for his academic limitations by imbuing his intellectually gifted charge with unflappable moral values. Similarly, our hero’s prerequisite training montage is linked to a more human phenomenon: the feeling a teen gets when things look like they’re finally falling into place. The rug gets pulled from under his feet, of course, but this time we feel Peter’s loss by virtue of having got to know his uncle as a full-rounded person.
The movie also fleshes out Spider-Man’s character or rather that of Peter Parker, whom Andrew Garfield doesn’t play as an insecure dork so much as a promising man-in-the-making who uses his quick wit and natural defiance to navigate the bottom rings of the high school food chain. We don’t like him because he gets beat up every day but because he’s willing to take a punch for the little guy. By the same token, Spidey’s trademark one-liners come across less like an adolescent fantasy than the defense mechanisms of a boy coming to grips with the absurd cruelty of his existence. In other words, unlike Tobey Maguire, the actor understands the difference between responsibility and crippling guilt. I love his performance.
Come to think of it, with the exception of Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), who can’t seem to get his priorities straight or call for backup before facing down a seven-foot-tall super-being, every character in The Amazing Spider-Man comes off smarter, stronger, and, you know, less whiny. Even the school bully, Flash (Chris Zylka), hints at hidden depths, though I suspect somewhere on the cutting room floor lies a scene or two explaining his sudden shift. I also prefer Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) to Mary Jane Watson as a love interest. She’s bright, proactive, and able to bypass the rom-com clichés that dominated the three previous films with simple deduction.
Equal thought has been put into the action set pieces, which are driven more by concept than pyrotechnics or adrenaline. Take, for example, the spider-themed trap Peter sets in the sewers or the mayhem surrounding Stan Lee’s hilarious cameo. The movie even improves on the cornball “altruism is contagious” sequence found in every Spider-Man flick, tying the moment to our hero’s specific powers and limitations. As an aside, I dig the mechanical web shooters, which can short out or run low at any moment, but they do raise some questions like, what’ll happen when the folk at Oscorp realise someone’s been raiding their supplies, and who’s going to clean up all those cobwebs across New York City?
These constitute the least of the threads left dangling by the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, which presents itself as the first chapter in a saga centered on the disappearance of Peter’s parents. If it seems like too much is left unresolved, keep in mind that comic book movies have changed quite a bit in the last ten years, what with Marvel’s The Avengers making multi-part storytelling a standard. More to the point, our protagonist needs a fresh angle to stand out from all the super-powered underdogs now crowding the genre. As Uncle Ben’s final voiceover indicates, Spider-Man’s new selling point lies in his embracing a life much like our own: messy, bittersweet, and an eternal work in progress. I can get behind that.