NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
On the day I’m writing up these notes, the IMDb tells me that it’s Tobey Maguire birthday and he’s just turned thirty-seven. Though Marvel’s Peter Parker, who aged in real time from 1963 to about 1969, has been frozen in his early twenties for forty years in comics, Maguire couldn’t realistically be playing him in any 2012 release Spider-Man 4. It still rankles somewhat that Sam Raimi took the blame for general dissatisfaction with Spider-Man 3 when the real problems with that (too many villains) were imposed on him … so this reboot has to get over a hump because of that lingering grumble, which is not the fault of through no fault of new director Marc Webb (whose only significant previous feature credit is the indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer). The options for another Spider-Man film were to parachute in a younger star and adopt the Raimi/Maguire continuity (you know, the thing that didn’t work for Val Kilmer and George Clooney when they played Michael Keaton’s Batman) or to roll back the whole thing and start again (like when Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale rebooted Batman).They went with the latter solution, though wisely opted not to try and make Spider-Man grittier, but to make him sweeter: which sounds off-base, but works surprisingly well thanks to sensitive performances (in the middle of this big effects film, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are very winning and relatable).
The script, which I suspect staples together multiple drafts, including leftovers from earlier projects, is by James Vanderbilt (The Losers, Zodiac – and, um, Darkness Falls and Basic), Steve Kloves (the Harry Potter films, but once writer-director of The Fabulous Baker Boys and the underrated Flesh and Bone) and veteran Alvin Sargent (who worked on the Raimi films, but has credits like Paper Moon, Straight Time and Ordinary People on his CV). The brief seems to be to take Peter back to high school, and those early Steve Ditko-Stan Lee issues, which the comics have tried several times (in the Untold Tales of Spider-Man series, which fills in gaps between old stories, and the Ultimate Spider-Man series, which rebooted the character in the wake of the first film). This means there’s a long stretch of the movie covering the origin (again), though it’s tweaked from the take we saw in Raimi’s Spider-Man. So … bullied yet sensitive orphan … crush on pretty girl in school (albeit, a different one) … visit to Oscorp HQ and blunder in the lab … bitten by an experimented-on spider … sudden onrush of spider-powers and no more need for specs … immature row with Uncle Ben and an attack of fairly justified-selfishness to let a crook escape (this modifies something from Raimi rather than goes back to the comics) … and Ben shot dead, prompting a career as vengeance-seeking vigilante superhero.
Overlaid, unhelpfully for the present film but setting up sequels, is an attempt to make Peter yet another superhero with unresolved absent father issues. There’s a mystery about what happened to his geneticist Dad (Campbell Scott) even before he gets the grief/responsibility jolt from the death of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Now, Peter wonders what his father was up to in collaboration with one-armed Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans, channelling David Warner). In the person of Dylan Baker with a pinned-up sleeve, Connors hunging about in three films waiting for his big freak-out: do Baker and Billy Dee Williams get together and lament being cheated out of the sequel monster roles their appearances in Spider-Man and Batman promised them, and will they let Mark Strong join in if Green Lantern 2 is scotched? Parker Senior and Connors specialise in cross-species mutation, and this is the mumbo-jumbo process which infuses Peter with the spider powers. It also turns Connors, who is obviously interested in regenerating limbs, into a giant dinosaur biped in a labcoat who plots to spread the gift to all of New York by pumping out a mutagen gas in the finale. It feels a little too much like stuff we’ve seen before: that mutagen bomb is a lot like the one in the climax of X-Men, the snoutless CGI lizard looks like the Abomination from The Incredible Hulk (in both cases, the comic character design is stronger than the films’ monster looks). It is also becoming apparent that the Spider-Man franchise goes with lab accidents far too often – all four films have taken this route, which makes you miss Spidey foes who just invented practical wings and robbed banks or put on a fish-bowl to create illusions. At this stage, I’d even take Village people refugee Kraven the Hunter.
Some key ingredients are shunted aside: we see a Daily Bugle headline, but no JJJ or freelance news snapper career for Peter (he is a photographer, though); and Aunt May (Sally Field – Norma Rae is Aunt May, complete with union sweatshirt!) isn’t a complete drip/plot device. Spider-Man’s wrestling/celebrity career is dropped, though a crucial scene in an abandoned luchador ring prompts Peter to design a mask. Instead of the newspaper business and the enmity of an envious editor, Peter’s feud with society comes because police captain Stacy (Denis Leary) disapproves of his vigilante actions and is out to bring him in (a lick from Batman Begins, though it was in the comics well before Nolan used it) despite a rising tide of public opinion in the hero’s favour. This climaxes with a post-9/11 display of New York solidarity (led by C. Thomas Howell, in a dignified bit-part which qualifies as his best role in years) as working stiffs (this film keeps giving nods to blue-collar heroes) align cranes so Spider-Man can make an acrobatic 3D swing across town to save the day. Norman Osborn is supposedly off somewhere being terminally ill, though I assume the sinister figure (Michael Massee, the only actor who could play the Joker without makeup) glimpsed in the coda is a potential goblin of some sort, and long-term support characters like Harry Osborn, Mary-Jane and Robbie Robertson sit this one out. Jock bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) is still aboard, being a hateful dick right up until the moment Peter turns on him for revenge only to find that he’s trying to be a decent guy for once (this is a perfect Marvel moment). Aside from having Peter design webshooter doohickeys rather than spurt organic webbing, the big back-to-the-comics shift is making Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) rather than Mary Jane the romantic lead. This is less radical than it might be, because Raimi a) made Kirsten Dunst’s MJ more like the comics’ Gwen than the party girl temptress she originally was and b) had Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard) show up Spider-Man 3 anyway.
However – and this is why for all its leftovers and repeats, I loved The Amazing Spider-Man – Stone and Garfield are a great screen couple, both in the semi-realist high school scenes and the high-flying science stuff. It may even be a radical advance over the now-ten-year-old Spider-Man that the heroine wants to grow up to be a scientist rather than an actress and nobody gives her a hard time about it. When, in the climax, Gwen is imperilled, it’s not because she’s too dumb to get out of the way, but because she has something vital and life-saving to do on her own and doesn’t let her boyfriend do it all. Garfield looks a lot like a young Anthony Perkins, in his pre-Psycho nervous charm period, and – as a Brit – takes the unusual approach of giving Peter a slight Queens accent. He manages Peter’s unattractive, pity-poor-me side but also a growing glee at his new abilities and that distinctive Stan Lee jokey patter (Lee has a funny cameo, as usual) as he mixes it with petty thugs and giant monsters. And Stone – as anyone who’s been paying attention to stuff like Easy A, The Rocker and The House Bunny knows – is sensational. The secret of crossover success in the superhero film is finding a way to make them appeal to women, either by casting hot guys like Christopher Reeve or Hugh Jackman or giving good parts to likeable female leads like Margot Kidder or Michelle Pfeiffer; this does both, and I predict that it’ll click with its intended audiences the way Avengers Assemble did, because it’s a blockbuster with a sense of fun. Webb handles the big fight scenes well and skyscrapers are swung from, but I’ll be back for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or The Spectacular Spider-Man or whatever they call it, because of Garfield and Stone and the readings of the characters. Excelsior.