“Amazing” might be overselling things a bit.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a benign entry in the superhero genre, unnecessary but inoffensive, leaving one wish that such movies were special, anticipated events rather than bimonthly appointments. I would be less inclined to hold the quick turnaround of this franchise installment against it if there seemed to be something behind the project besides a studio’s production schedule. But alas, it appears to have arisen out of the need for a comic-book property on Columbia’s summer 2012 release slate, not out of a particular vision or artistic urge.
That’s what director Sam Raimi brought to the previous Spider-Man films, which began as a pop-art play on adolescent angst before offering diminishing returns by the third installment. Yet rather than a clearly defined, drastically different direction for this familiar narrative – of the sort Christopher Nolan brought to the Batman franchise – director Marc Webb seems to have made The Amazing Spider-Man because … he was hired.
There was hope that new leads Andrew Garfield, as Spider-Man alter ego Peter Parker, and Emma Stone, as his high-school crush Gwen Stacy, would be able to pick up some of the slack. Not so. I don’t know what happened to the very talented Garfield – perhaps the pressure of such a high-profile part was too much – but he’s a jumpy distraction here, repeating lines as if he’s grasping at them for comfort and otherwise letting moist eyes do most of the emotional work. Stone’s Gwen, meanwhile, seems way ahead of Garfield’s Peter Parker – in maturity and intelligence – and there are times where you can almost detect the actress’ impatience with the part. (And who can blame her? She’s well beyond these rote supporting roles.)
This is an origin story, so we see the lab accident that makes Peter so amazing and watch as he grows into a superhero (while trying to figure out exactly what that means, a thematic thread also familiar from the original trilogy). There is nothing exactly wrong here, yet there’s nothing newly thrilling either.
What works best? There is a fantastic rescue sequence, in which Spider-Man convinces a kid caught in a car dangling from a bridge to climb out by giving him his mask (“It’ll make you strong”). I also liked Rhys Ifans as the one-armed villain, a well-meaning genetic scientist whose experiments replicating reptilian regeneration turn him into a giant lizard. Webb deserves credit for pausing this franchise behemoth for the moment in which Ifans stands before a window, looking longingly as the reflection makes it appear as if he has two full arms rather than one.
Such delicacy is rare, however. Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man is broad and juvenile. The humor is jokey and obvious, including at least 10 visual gags riffing on Peter’s super strength and sticky hands. A school bully is the sort of cartoon that only exists in formulaic high-school comedies. That cutesy romance – including an unfortunate web-shooting moment – is never sold by the two leads. Worst of all, a scene in which Peter uses his powers to fly through the gym and dunk a basketball reminded me of Twilight‘s infamous vampire baseball.
Wait, I think I just figured out why The Amazing Spider-Man was made: to capitalize on this month’s generation of tweens.