Blame Batman, the first superhero movie I ever saw — and perhaps not coincidentally, my favorite. (Paired with its sublime sequel Batman Returns.) Or blame Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which raised the bar for comic book adaptations — proving they could be artful and commercial at the same time, as well as Oscar contenders. Or blame Bruce Wayne himself, so brooding and tortured and serious, making all those other men in tights look like gravity-defying clowns in comparison.
As a superhero, Spider-Man has never been my bag. Admittedly, my knowledge is limited to those first two Sam Raimi films — the first being moderately diverting fluff, the second being slightly better than that. Neither came close to challenging the first two Batman films in terms of creativity, entertainment value, or overall awesomeness. But then I like a little depth in my costumed avengers. I like them to think, and to feel. I like them to feel the weight of the world on their caped shoulders. After all, their creators knew this, which is why they have such memorable backstories to begin with. Comic books can be taken seriously, sometimes very seriously. But for some reason, when they’re adapted into movies, any pretense of gravity goes right out the window like a disposable henchman, more often than not. Is a satisfying story so much to ask for amidst all the action?
While it’s true that Spider-Man and Batman have similar origins — the death of beloved family members sets them off on a life-long quest for vengeance — for whatever reason, the Spider-Man saga rarely approaches Batman’s when it comes to pathos and realism. Maybe it’s because Peter Parker is younger than Bruce Wayne, or because his costume is so much more colorful, or because the villains are more cartoonish than the usual suspects in Batman’s rogues gallery. The Penguin, Catwoman, and The Joker are quite flawed and human, despite their outward freakish tendencies; compare that to larger-than-life Green Goblin or Doc-Oc or The Lizard. So The Amazing Spider-Man was never going to be The Dark Knight. I get that. But In a summer when The Dark Knight Rises promises to push Batman to even murkier depths than ever before, The Amazing Spider-Man reboots its franchise by… not changing anything, really. It’s not a reboot at all, but rather, a straight-up remake of a movie that’s only ten years old. I don’t want to say it’s unnecessary, because is any movie really “necessary”? But The Amazing Spider-Man is like a cover of a decades-old pop hit; say, Selena Gomez taking on a song by Britney Spears. Maybe the Britney original itself wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it at least sounded fresher the first time we heard it. So who really needs a cover by Selena Gomez?
Like Batman Begins, The Amazing Spider-Man rehashes an origin story that’s already over-familiar, throwing in a fresh villain and new love interest to shake things up. But Christopher Nolan’s vision for the series was much different than Tim Burton’s, a touch more realistic and less stylized. It had roots in a realistic crime world, along with a rather grim outlook on heroism. It looked and felt different than any Batman that had come before (particularly that last Joel Schumache abomination). It was about something. Directed by (500) Days Of Summer helmer Marc Webb and co-penned by the writer of Zodiac, you might think The Amazing Spider-Man has similar ambitions. But it doesn’t. Like Raimi’s trilogy, it’s a lightweight origin story with lots of CGI swooping and web-slinging. And like Raimi’s trilogy, it ultimately isn’t about anything other than how much fun it must to swing from skyscrapers. It’s a ride. But how many times do we really want to go around this same loop?
Maybe it’s unfair to hold Peter Parker up to Bruce Wayne’s standards. Despite his earthly origins, Spider-Man’s story has more in common with Superman than it does Batman (and I’m not just talking about the primary colors). Peter Parker gets bitten by a spider, and, okay, there’s dead parents and a dead uncle (do we really need both?); unlike Batman, there’s no need to train himself in martial arts or invest in a lot of high-tech gadgetry — convenient spider bite comes loaded with superpowers, no assembly required. Fine. But in The Amazing Spider-Man, there’s no real sense of danger, no Kryptonite-like vulnerability for our hero. Despite spending quite a lot of time setting up the parents and some corporate espionage that got them killed, The Amazing Spider-Man ends up forgetting all about that. Peter is raised by his kindly aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), then his uncle is killed in a senseless, random act of violence. Okay, interesting — but The Amazing Spider-Man forgets about that, too, in favor of an oversized Schumacher-esque finale full of generic mayhem. Smilex, the laughing gas that kills people, is genuinely harrowing in Burton’s Batman, because it could kind of happen; this green mist that turns people into lizards? Not so much.
The screenplay sets up a handful of intriguing possibilities, then abandons them in favor of new storylines, then abandons those, too. Like Spider-Man, swinging from building to building, The Amazing Spider-Man swings from plot beat to plot beat without retracing its steps or connecting those loose plot threads into one cohesive web. In the end, it’s about a big mean lizard that wants to turn all of Manhattan’s citizens into big, mean lizards. But it isn’t interested in what happens when innocent people actually are turned into big, mean lizards, either, because we never see what happens with that. Like so many unfortunate flies, we find ourselves caught in Webb’s sticky mess of a movie.
Here’s what’s good — on some surprising levels, The Amazing Spider-Man is genuinely amusing. It’s the rare comic book movie that’s better when it involves the characters and dialogue rather than the story and action. Martin Sheen and Sally Field bring warmth and depth to otherwise stale roles, so Peter’s interactions with them are actually sweet and touching, at least in a safe, ABC Family kind of way. Andrew Garfield brings real charm and a believable boyishness to the role of Peter Parker, possessing a lot more gravitas than cartoon-faced Tobey Maguire ever did. He’s easily the best thing about this movie. And, perhaps not surprisingly given their off-screen romance, Garfield and Emma Stone have terrific chemistry. She’s easily the second best thing about this movie, which is why it’s too bad the script doesn’t given them more to do together. The one scene in The Amazing Spider-Man that can rightfully be called “amazing” is Marc Webb’s reboot of that famous upside-down kiss in the rain from the first Spider-Man; this movie’s kiss rivals that, maybe even surpasses it. As proven in his debut feature, Webb knows how to spin a tale of boy meets girl; unfortunately, this plausible romance has no place in a movie that is so broad and bloated otherwise. It makes you wish they’d just forgotten the giant lizard and let us watch (500) Days Of Gwen Stacy instead. Because that’s where the real heart of this story is. Or would have been, anyway, in a cohesive movie.
The Amazing Spider-Man veers wildly in tone, often going for comedy — most of which works, on its own right. But while the humor can be quite clever, the plot itself is quite dumb, so these two elements never gel or play off each other. It’s like watching two separate Spider-Mans, one of which is on its way to being amazing, one of which belongs in the bottom of the superhero bin with The Green Lantern and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. After a reasonably tense setup, we end up with Spider-Man vs. Godzilla. (Want to reboot a franchise in a fresh new way? How about not having the villain be a mutant lizard attacking Manhattan for the umpteenth time?)
So why spend all that time setting up the murder of the parents, if that doesn’t factor into the story? Peter gets that spider bite reasonably early in the film, then just ignores his superpowers for an awkwardly lengthy stretch — until his uncle dies. Then he goes looking for his uncle’s killer, until he stops that to instead hunt down the mad scientist who has turned himself cold-blooded. There’s no sense of a character arc for Peter; he’s curiously casual about the fact that he’s been mutated into a superhero. In addition to dead parents and a dead uncle and lizard-people, The Amazing Spider-Man also throws in a police captain who wants to arrest the new vigilante in town, a school bully who randomly decides to change his ways, and a second villain who also has something to do with the corporate espionage. All of this might be interesting if any of these storylines were weaved together, but unfortunately for the aptly-named director, Webb never makes any of it stick.
The most egregious sin of all, however, is James Horner’s wretched, intrusive, and utterly tone-deaf score, which makes sure to punctuate comedic scenes like we’re in a Laurel and Hardy movie and sad scenes like it’s Terms Of Endearment. It constantly pulled me out of the movie, more often than I can remember of any other film score. It’s just atrocious.
The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a bad movie. It’s watchable, mostly thanks to Garfield and Stone and Field and Sheen. The CGI is convincing, and some of the action is fun if not exactly spell-binding. Surprisingly, it’s the light comedy that works best, mostly in the exchanges between Peter and Gwen; it’s a shame all that silly lizard business makes it hard to take the love story seriously. The script is credited to three screenwriters — I have a hunch at least one of them tried to make this a funnier, more subversive movie in the vein of Kick-Ass (though less violent and profane, obviously). Unfortunately, you can’t do that and tell a rather obtuse story about a one-armed mad scientist who’d rather change into a lizard than be unable to clap for life. So ultimately, none of it amounts to much — which is par for the course as far as Spider-Man movies go, if you ask me.
With Webb and Garfield and Stone on board, I really wanted The Amazing Spider-Man to be truly amazing. Instead, it’s fitfully amusing. I was more entertained by five minutes of Garfield and Stone’s ice cream drama than anything in the newest Spider-Man.
So then. Your move, Christopher Nolan.