Movie Review – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012.

Directed by Marc Webb.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field.


Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically altered spider, which gives him a few of its attributes.

So… how’s this one different from the last three? It’s more “amazing”. You can tell that already by the title. Like how the Hulk is “incredible” and the X-Men “uncanny.”

You’ve got to be pretty ballsy throwing adjectives in titles like that – or a freak show promoter – because most of the time it falls short. Bearded ladies wear false face wigs more often than not. The Amazing Spider-Man simply opts for one made of CGI.

But besides from the title’s “amazing”, what has changed? Most effectively, Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker. Nobody does scatty quite like him, and he has a broken, mumbled way of delivering lines that will resonate strongly with the socially awkward. He’s convincing, and has a fair go at the physicality. The director, Marc Webb, has remarked how Garfield would study actual spiders, trying to replicate their movement.

There’s Emma Stone (as the romantic interest, Gwen Stacy), Rhys Ifans (the antagonist mad scientist, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard) and Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), too; but I saw Ifans play a far more believable and creepy professor in The Five-Year Engagement just a few weeks ago. He’s limited by the ‘bad guy’ role here, who, despite a rich back-story, can’t raise himself from two dimensionality. Also, when Uncle Ben dies (which is as much as a spoiler as “Darth’s ya dad”), you feel sad because it’s Martin Sheen, not because it’s Uncle Ben. Try suppressing a guffaw when they shoehorn a photo of a young Sheen in near the end. It looks like a production still from Badlands.

This is harsh, though. The cast are actually quite tremendous. Instead the film is ruined by its direction, writing and special effects.

Webb’s previous and debut film was (500) Days of Summer. From there he was plucked by Sony to direct their Spider-Man reboot. Quite the jump in both genre and budget.

He’s clearly a talented director, and the majority of the one-on-one relationship scenes are superb. In one moment, Parker and Stacy seem to awkwardly mumble forever whilst trying to ask each other out. It’s tender, funny and wonderfully observed – as are the other scenes in this vein. It’s where Webb appears most comfortable, on his (500) Days turf.

Unfortunately, this sentimentality becomes overbearing when scaled to blockbuster size. Any attempts at emotion during the action scenes come off as forced, their staging bland and boring against Raimi’s looming spectre.

The film is almost split in two, as Before-Ben and After-Ben. The two are quite separate in terms of Parker’s development, and little is done to fuse them together. The first half is mainly Parker bumbling around, the second focused on Spider-Man’s conflict with Connors/Lizard – which is fine, but there’s not much of a transition period. There is not one scene of Parker comforting Aunt May (Sally Field) after Ben’s death. Instead he plays with his new powers. It devalues the film’s pivotal event, and Ben didn’t even utter his immortal line: With great power comes great responsibility. They went for a bastardised form instead, because, you know, we’re distancing ourselves from the last trilogy. Strange, because they rip off every other device from those initial films.

The Spiderman Spider-Man mythology has also been altered, delving deeper into Peter’s parents’ past. They died when he was a child, that’s why he now lives with his uncle and aunt. His father used to work with Connors too, on genetic splicing algorithms (how Peter became Spider-Man). Although this is closer to the comics (where Peter’s parents are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents), it takes away the romance. The absent parents are more tragic when without reason, as is the way in which Peter is first bitten by a spider. The revolutionary aspect of the Spider-Man comics were that Peter is just a normal kid. He’s pretty damn smart, sure, but he’s still like anyone else. As soon as his past is made extraordinary, my sympathy is diminished. What are the chances of a radioactive spider ever biting me now? I was never born into a family of super scientist secret agents.

Mr and Mrs Parker are used as the film’s mystery element, which isn’t properly resolved. Instead there’s a brief scene teasing a sequel after the end credits because, you know, that’s what Marvel-licensed characters do (note: this is a Sony film, not a Marvel Studios).

The Amazing Spider-Man’s approach to CGI can be summed up in one argument: use real lizards. Whenever the Lizard/Connors is near, the walls or street or whatever are shown crawling with lizards. Not real lizards, mind. CGI ones.

They look terribly ropey, despite probably being the best money can buy. CGI operates best when used subtely or in half glances. Curt Connors’ amputated right arm, for instance, looks real, just as Gary Sinise’s legs do in Forrest Gump; whereas the lizards look like they’ve wandered from a PlayStation 2 cut-scene.

But animals are difficult to shoot. They either scurry when they shouldn’t or don’t move on cue. How could we be expected to use loads of real lizards?

Use less. Or maybe even one. That’s how Raimi would do it. Have Parker occasionally notice a lizard on the floor, Werner Herzog style. Eventually, he’ll follow one down the rabbit hole. Sure, you lose the impact of hundreds of lizards crawling around, but they don’t mean anything. They’re worth less than the pixels they expensively and unconvincingly consume.

Raimi’s stock in trade is disguising bad effects. CGI is meant to be a subtle trick – to fool the imagination rather than supplant it. That’s why the hospital scene in Spider-Man 2, where Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) murders an entire medical team with his metallic arms, is so terrifying. His claws were shown in brief cuts and low lighting. The Amazing Spider-Man knows no such restraint.

Ultimately, everything in this film was done far better in Raimi’s first two. The horribly forced crane scene is a weak echo of Parker being carried in the tram carriage of Spider-Man 2. The voices in Connors’ head are ripped directly from Norman Osborn’s (Willem Dafoe) Green Goblin.

A lot of people seem to forget that Spider-Man 2 is one of the great superhero films. When it was released, it was the best of all time. Was 3 so bad? I never minded it. X-Men: The Last Stand was far more deserving of scorn.

Just as Prometheus was inevitably compared with Alien, The Amazing Spider-Man will be haunted by Raimi. Webb’s film is a pale imitation, and it reeks of rip-off. He can’t be blamed, though. You’d be a fool to turn down a Spider-Man film. Instead, blame the studios.

They’ve rebooted a franchise barely five years fresh in the grave, hardly a decade after the first film’s release. And it’s not like it’s Fantastic Four or anything – it’s one many people grew up with, who loved Tobey Maguire’s awkward face, and loved Kirsten Dunst even more. Who first encountered James Franco there, and think Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock rivals Heath Ledger’s Joker. Who craned their necks for Bruce Campbell’s cameo, and pop big for Randy Savage’s Bone Saw McGraw (“BONESAW IS READY!”). Who were genuinely scared of Willem Dafoe and his green serum. Who still laugh just as loud at J.K. Simmons’ J.J. Jameson, one of the most aptly cast parts from comics to screen.

No, don’t blame the director; he was merely a deer in headlights. Nor the cast, for they’re very good. Blame the studios. They’ve cannibalised the superhero genre.

The Amazing Spider-Man is released in UK cinemas on July 3rd.

Flickering Myth Rating Film ★ / Movie ★ ★

Oliver Davis

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