After plans for a fourth Spider-Man film fell through following disputes between Sony and director Sam Raimi, news that the series was to receive a reboot came as a shock to many. After all, reboots have to this point been reserved largely for resuscitating flagging franchises such as Batman and James Bond rather than propping up a series the last film of which grossed $890m worldwide.
The blockbuster landscape changed considerably with the release of The Dark Knight, promoting a grittier, darker tone and aesthetic to comic book films, and so Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man reflects this, repurposing Raimi’s goofy style with something more mature and downcast. The change, however, is negligible; The Avengers proved that light and fun still works, and the overall motivation behind the project, to release another Spider-Man film before the rights reverted back to Marvel, makes the project seem cynical before the first frame has even been fed through the projector.
What scribes James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves should have realised from the outset is that if you’re going to reboot something that’s fresh in audience’s minds, it’s best not to rehash what has come before. The blueprint, in fact, should have followed 2008′s The Incredible Hulk, which breezed through a “Previously On…” restructuring montage during its opening credits. Rather, we get a discouraging – if slickly confident – slog through well-trodden territory.
If there’s anything this new take does right, it is to delve further into Peter Parker’s disconnect from his dead parents, as Parker (Andrew Garfield) discovers a mysterious briefcase belonging to his father, leading him to his old partner, Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). Parker, the same social outcast we know and love, pines for gorgeous science geek Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), before an encounter with a radioactive spider at Connors’ lab sends him on a collision course with the man himself who, while experimenting with regenerative limb technology, has accidentally transformed into a hulking Lizard.
The inherent problem with The Amazing Spider-Man is that it’s too front-loaded with everything we’ve already seen; the full first hour is a rehash of all the constituent elements, from his feud with Flash, to pining for the girl he likes, getting bitten, experiencing sensory oddities, getting used to his abilities, having Uncle Ben die after a grave mistake, realising his powers can be used for good, fighting criminals, and then after just minutes inside of an hour, finally donning the iconic suit. All these precursor moments, while indisputable comic touchstones, are recycled in dispassionate, unapologetic fashion. Only the transformative aspects of Spider-Man feel at all reworked, pertaining to the implementation of practical web-shooters (as opposed to Raimi’s organic ones), and a greater focus on Peter’s increased mental acuity.
However, if you thought the wait for the Spidey suit was something, it’s even longer before The Lizard shows up, and when he does, he simply follows the straight Raimi lineage of a sympathetic but boring mad scientist who destroys cities yet deep down isn’t all that bad. While this characterisation is fully in step with the source material, when it’s used for the fourth time in a row – within a decade, no less – it ends up feeling awfully rote. Also, goofy Lizard visual effects – particularly when Ifans’ down-pitched voice is plastered onto the monster’s moving mouth – don’t help much, especially when this more mature take aims to hew away from the series’ inherent silliness.
Compounding this, the screenwriters have fielded out more narrative, ahem, webs, than they can handle in the remaining hour, including but not limited to: the yin-and-yang of Spidey and Lizard, the disconnect between Peter and Aunt May (Sally Field), his relationship with Gwen, and the factor of her NYPD Captain father (Denis Leary) hunting Spider-Man as a vigilante. Elements such as Parker’s issues of identity and his romance with Gwen feel haphazardly rushed through, while The Daily Bugle is excised entirely.
It’s a shame the script has such a cynical contempt for originality, because Andrew Garfield makes a Hell of an effort in the iconic lead role. For better or for worse depending on who you’re talking to, Garfield’s Parker is not as stereotypically hopeless as Tobey Maguire’s camper, more two-dimensional take. Here, Parker is a keen skater, wears contact lenses, and is both obnoxious and often ill-tempered, particularly once Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) meets his inevitable demise. Furthermore, this is not the Peter Parker who is cripplingly inept with women – he’s still awkward for sure, but Garfield has an intoxicating sense of wit and charm that makes these scenes with the equally-enticing Stone a real hoot.
In fact, the whole cast is excellent, so it’s a shame they’re wasted on these warmed-up leftovers. Martin Sheen boasts an effortlessly endearing, grandfatherly appeal, and Field slips into these welcoming, salt-of-the-Earth-type roles with absolute ease. Denis Leary is also well-placed as Gwen’s disgruntled cop father, and Rhys Ifans tries hard with the little his character is in both forms limited to.
Sticking with the positives, it is also surprisingly well directed by (500) Days of Summer’s Marc Webb, who naturally nails the teen angst but also has an unexpectedly firm handle on the spectacle, too. It is a superficial compliment, though, because without a script reaching to do more, this is a lukewarm film we positively did not need. It is the sort of awkward “first” film that suggests a sequel will probably be better, that is until a post-credits stinger blows the promise completely by suggesting that the web-slinger’s next outing will deal with a foe Raimi already more-than-adequately covered. So it seems, the recycling will continue.
Simply put, it has the technical chops, and Garfield is a fine substitute for Maguire, but didn’t we already see this film ten years ago?
The Amazing Spider-Man is in cinemas Tuesday July 3rd, 2012.