July 3, 2012



THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN:  Watch It At Home – Not So Amazing


Part of the unwritten suspension of disbelief deal we have with the movie studios is that although we know they’re going to constantly tell us new versions of the same old stories for as long as we’ll buy tickets, they won’t abuse the privilege by making their lack of imagination too obvious.  Variations will be introduced, different tones will be struck, and we’ll pretend we don’t know pretty much how it’s all going to play out.  Sony, desperate not to lose its one superhero franchise, steps over that line with its instant “reboot” of Sam Raimi’s 2002-07 Spider-Man franchise called THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, not because the Raimi pictures are untouchable classics (although his Spider-Man 2 is pretty damned good), but because the studio’s greed in rushing a new version into theatres just 5 years after the last series’ end–and even though Spider-Man 3 was the weakest of the series, it was far from, say, Joel Schmacher’s franchise-killing Batman & Robin–shows us just a bit too much of its moneygrubbing soul.

Another problem is that while appropriate for a franchise that centers around inter-species mutation, Amazing shares too much DNA with the Raimi series (Alvin Sargent, one of the Amazing screenwriters along with James Vanderbilt and Harry Potter guru Steve Kloves, was also a writer on Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and 3).  A virtue of the later chapters of existing franchises is that most of the basic exposition is set out in the first movie, allowing the later ones to move more quickly to their central stories, but since we’re starting at the beginning again with Amazing, we’re forced to tiresomely go over all the same ground with minimal variations:  Peter Parker (here Andrew Garfield), nerdy outsider high school student raised by his aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), who is bitten by a scientifically enhanced spider and given its powers (web-spinning, super-strength, etc), inadvertently helps cause the death of Uncle Ben and decides he must use his powers for good, winning a gorgeous fellow student (here Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy) in the process.  Even Amazing‘s villain, Dr. Curt Conners who becomes The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), is a close cousin to Spider-Man 2‘s Dr. Otto Octavius who became Doc Ock.

Marc Webb, the director of Amazing, does take a different stylistic approach from Raimi’s, but that proves to be problematic.  Webb, previously known for his low-budget rom-com (500) Days of Summer, is considerably more comfortable than Raimi with naturalism and seeming spontaneity, and that pays off well in the scenes between Garfield and Stone, who have terrific chemistry (in life as on screen, if gossip websites are to be believed), and create a halting, charming romance worth rooting for.  The Uncle Ben and Aunt May sequences are also far less sanctimonious than in the Raimi version.  But it turns out that this material needs some of the operatic comic book tone that Raimi brought to the story–in Webb’s universe, plot holes are much more noticeable and troublesome because the rest of the story exists in something closer to the real world.  So it makes no sense, for example, that an entire bridge full of New Yorkers saw the rampaging Lizard, yet no one objects when police Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), who also happens to be Gwen’s father, only issues a warrant to arrest Spider-Man, who in full view of all the onlookers saved a little boy from certain drowning.  Webb also has trouble making smooth transitions from the character-based inarticulateness of Garfield’s scenes to the professional but completely routine action sequences.

It seems fairly clear that Webb’s heart is with the Garfield/Stone part of the story, and with Peter’s existential mopiness, and so the early parts of Amazing are the best.  Even though Garfield is 29 years old in real life, he makes a convincing high-schooler (ironically, it was the same appearance of youth that became a problem in his recent role as Biff in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, where in some scenes he was meant to be in his 30s), although the genre’s need to make every super-hero start quipping as he flies around the city fits badly on this Spider-Man, especially since much of the time the Spidey we’re watching is computer-generated, with Garfield’s one-liners dubbed onto the soundtrack.  Stone is, as always, splendid, even though Gwen as a character is considerably less interesting than Mary-Jane was in the Raimi movies–at least Mary-Jane got to be torn between Peter and James Franco’s Harry Osborn, as well as having acting ambitions, while Gwen is nothing but The Girlfriend.  Ifans can’t redeem the role of the scientist who meddles too much with the rules of the universe.  Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy at first seems like this movie’s comic blustering substitute for J. Jonah Jameson, but toward the end he gets more to do.

Even as big-budget Hollywood craft, Amazing Spider-Man is uneven.  John Schwartzman’s photography has the right sheen, especially in the nighttime scenes, and his nightscapes blend well with those created by CG.  The special effects are what a $200M+ movie can buy, and the CG Spidey sequences are more effective and less cartoonish this time around (note, though, that until some vertiginous flying sequences toward the end, 3D doesn’t add much to the film).  On the other hand, the editing by Alan Edward Bell, Michael McCusker and Pietro Scalia never establishes a comfortable feel, jumping from sustained dialogue scenes to overly frenzied action beats, and James Horner’s score is strictly by-the-numbers.

The Amazing Spider-Man has some strong acting, fun action and a sense of romance.  Coming so soon after Raimi’s trilogy (2/3 of which was very well done), however, it feels hurried and unnecessary, contributing little that’s new to the saga.  Despite all the effort that’s gone into it, Amazing never pulls us into its web.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."