Silver Screen: The Amazing Spider-Man **1/2
It's difficult to not constantly compare The Amazing Spider-Man to 2002's (adjectiveless) Spider-Man, for obvious reasons. Sam Raimi's 2002 film remains one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and seems like it was just released; the credits might still be rolling on it at a second-run theater somewhere in West Hollywood. If there's still a Blockbuster Video left on this Netflix-scorched earth, that Blockbuster probably still has a copy of the DVD in its new-release section. (Two-night rental just $6.99!)
But it's not just a matter of chronological proximity. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man consistently recalls Raimi's version because they cover the same material, with mostly cosmetic changes.
Meet, yet again, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), a lonely nerd who lives with his kindly Aunt May (Sally Field) and wise Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Marvel, once more, at the changes that befall him when he's bitten by a genetically altered spider on a school trip to Oscorp, granting him powers that you might recall include sticking to walls, hyper-agility, and super-strength.
This time around the mad science is overseen by Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a one-armed genius who decides to test his new formula on himself when it appears funding will be lost. That's not to be confused with Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn testing his new formula on himself when it appears the military will pull its funding. Osborn became the Green Goblin, while Connors transforms into a big green lizard.
For no discernible reason, the newly Lizard-ified Connors decides to disperse a gas throughout New York City that will turn all of its citizens into fellow lizard people. (Perhaps he's acting out some kind of literalized Jim Morrison fantasy?) This particular twist is not borrowed from the first Spider-Man, although it was used in the first Batman movie-- both Christopher Nolan's and Tim Burton's.
That unfortunate overlap highlights the interchangeable nature not just of various iterations of Spider-Man, but superhero movies at large. That's not prohibitive; they're only supposed to be big, dumb rides, after all. The real trouble is that Webb's ride is so uninspired. It takes a solid hour to get to zippy Spider-Man fight sequences, and when at last they do arrive, they lack zip. Spider-Man does most of his fighting at night, in the sewers, lending no sense of grandeur or scope to the run-of-the-mill effects. His battles with the expressionless, somewhat silly-looking Lizard play like cut scenes in a videogame, an overly familiar aesthetic that extends to the first-person-perspective shots of Spider-Man swinging around the city.
Webb's version does have its strengths. The dialogue is smoother and more naturalistic, and delivered by superior performers. Garfield's Peter Parker is vastly warmer than Tobey Maguire's wide-eyed weirdo, and though the girlfriend character is wildly underwritten, Emma Stone's moxie makes up for the deficiencies in the screenplay even if she and counterpart Kirsten Dunst were both doomed to mere damselhood anyway. Webb does a good job with cute young people bantering, as evidenced in his hipster rom-com (Five-hundred) Days of Summer, and as a consequence he adds a certain verisimilitude to the movie. You care more about Peter, who still retains some humanity when he puts on the spandex suit.
But once the suit is on, Webb lapses into action-movie formula. He not only lacks any sense of innovation in cinematic superheroics, he seems to lack enthusiasm for it entirely. He'd be much better suited to a Lizardless, genetically altered spider-free movie in which Garfield and Stone hook up. There's nothing wrong with that-- unless you're spending $150 million to make an effects movie.
The template for the modern superhero movie has been set, and unlike some strange potion injected by a power-mad scientist, it's widely available. No movie as benign as The Amazing Spider-Man would dare deviate from it, and so of course after the presumed ending (complete with a funeral and a breakup, just as in Raimi's version) we get the now-inevitable post-credits sequel tease. It unsurprisingly addresses the one novel aspect of this new origin story: Peter's parents, who also worked for Oscorp, departed in haste and then died in a mysterious plane crash. The subplot isn't mentioned again until we learn, in the final seconds, that this plane crash might not have been an accident. Shock of shocks! Either Webb hasn't seen enough superhero movies, or the rest of us have seen too many.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.