The Amazing Spider-Man will inevitably be compared to and perhaps even attacked by diehard adherents of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, most prominently the original 2002 film. True enough, this reboot directed by Marc Webb is pretty much telling the exact same story: A high school science geek with no parents is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, is slightly mutated in the process, and ultimately becomes a masked vigilante that shoots webs from his wrists and swings over and around the skyscrapers of New York City. My fear is that audiences will be so wrapped up in noticing the similarities that they will fail to see all the ways in which this version is different. Yes, there are the technical details – plot, character, setting, casting, etc. – but it has more to do with atmosphere and style than anything else.
Raimi’s approach was much more escapist, loading the story with action, special effects, and a great deal of humor. There was nothing particularly heavy about it; it was made with the sole intention of being entertaining, and so it was. By contrast, Webb’s approach is more introspective and symbolic. The plot is a bit less straightforward, the tone is a little darker, the characters are easier to invest in emotionally, the humor is subtler, and there’s less action choreography to gawk at helplessly. Having said all that, never once does Webb lose sight of the fact that his movie is based on a comic book. The slick special effects, the over-the-top fight sequences, the preposterous plot, the now-mandatory cameo appearance by Stan Lee, and even its presentation in 3D ensure that a fun time will be had by all.
What really surprised me is that this film is a triumph of casting. Andrew Garfield takes the reins from Tobey Maguire in the role of Peter Parker, who’s once again a high school kid and whose genesis into Spider-Man is reexamined. I initially didn’t think I would be convinced, given the fact that Garfield is in his late twenties. How wrong I was. Apart from the fact that he still believably looks seventeen years old, he accurately evokes youthful thoughts and behaviors, like riding a skateboard, occasionally being defiant of authority, and making rash decisions without completely thinking them through. Flashback sequences reveal that Parker’s parents were forced to go into hiding after his father’s office was unsuccessfully ransacked for an elusive research folder; raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), part of the plot involves Parker accessing his father’s research files in the hopes of understanding the reason for his disappearance.
Parker’s classmate and love interest has changed from Mary Jane Watson to Gwen Stacy. She’s played by Emma Stone, who somehow has gotten more magnetic with each new role she accepts. Gwen learns fairly early on that Parker is the masked vigilante Spider-Man, who has taken to the streets on a dangerous quest to find the man who murdered Uncle Ben in cold blood; she finds herself torn between Parker and her father, George Stacy (Denis Leary), a perpetually suspicious NYPD Captain who’s out to arrest Spider-Man, believing him to be more of a menace than a hero. Like Parker, Gwen has a passion for science and currently serves as an intern for a one-armed scientist named Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who’s being pressured by his superior (Irrfan Khan) to devise a cure for the unseen but apparently dying head of his corporation.
As it so happens, Connors once worked with Parker’s father, their research involving genetic splicing and the regeneration of limbs. It was all, according to Connors, in the name of putting an end to weakness, of allowing humanity a chance to improve. But then he uses himself as a guinea pig for a serum containing reptile DNA; although he does successfully grow a new right arm, he also mutates into a gigantic lizard creature and develops a superiority complex. Humanity, he eventually reasons, cannot be improved and should therefore be eliminated – or, in true comic book fashion, genetically transformed. It’s up to Parker to convince Captain Stacy that his target should be Dr. Connors and not Spider-Man. In the meantime, Parker and Gwen must stop Connors before it’s too late.
As well-crafted as all the scenes were, three in particular stand out as the film’s best. One is an action sequence in which Parker, dressed as Spider-Man, has to save a child from a car dangling perilously off a bridge. Another is a quieter moment in which we see the redemption of the school bully, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka). The last is an incredibly sweet moment between Parker, Aunt May, one that involves a carton of eggs. Are these scenes consistent with the original comic book? How about with Sam Raimi’s 2002 film? To be perfectly honest, I believe a debate over which version is “better” is utterly pointless. I think of The Amazing Spider-Man as I would a fairy tale; it’s not about the originality of the story so much as the differences in technique and interpretation.