Why do we love Spider-Man? What is it about this wall-crawling superhero that has been so universally embraced by audiences for nearly fifty years now? Is it his spectacular superpowers, which capture the imagination more strongly than any other comic-book hero? Is it the stylish and iconic costume? Is it the dazzling rogues gallery he’s amassed over the decades? Is it the lighthearted, sarcastic quips he aims at his enemies? Those are all part of the equation, but none of them are the answer. In truth, they’re really just window dressing.
We love Spider-Man because underneath the mask, he’s Peter Parker, and whether we recognize it on an immediate or subconscious level, there’s a little Peter Parker in each of us. We’ve all felt out of place at one point or another; we’ve all been smitten and tortured by the enigma that is romance; we’ve all had to navigate the tricky emotional maze that is adolescence; we all struggle to find our place in a world that so often consumes us with doubt; and most importantly, we all, each and every one of us, carry pain and regret in our hearts on a daily basis. They are the emotions that shape who we are and who we will become.
These are the concepts that Peter Parker embodies, and they are the crux of Stan Lee’s genius. It was truly a bold move to create a character who errs so close to our own emotional realities, but 50 years ago, he did so, and for 50 years, Peter Parker – with the help of his friendly neighborhood alter ego – has captured the hearts of readers and viewers with his profound universality. When a character is this powerful, relatable, and malleable, he can be interpreted, imagined, altered and developed in a variety of ways; as long as the fundamental truths of Lee’s creation are respected, the sky’s the limit.
This is why I have never taken issue with the idea of a Spider-Man reboot. Sam Raimi’s films – the first two, at least – were tremendous interpretations of the Spidey mythos, but they hardly hold definitive claim to that territory. Raimi gave us one take on the character, and now Marc Webb arrives to give his own, just as countless authors and artists have reimagined Spider-Man in the world of comic books. The highest praise I can lend The Amazing Spider-Man is that Webb’s vision is so strong, his take on the character and universe so different from what Raimi imagined ten years ago, that I spent almost no time whatsoever thinking about prior films while watching. The Amazing Spider-Man stands on its own, and it stands quite tall indeed.
The biggest perceived barrier to entry for most fans will be that, like the first Raimi film, The Amazing Spider-Man is another superhero origin story. Fear not. Though certain particulars are the same – Peter is bitten by a genetically enhanced Spider, a tragic loss spurs him to fight crime, etc. – Webb approaches the story from his own unique, insightful angle, quickly establishing why this story deserves to be told again.
On the surface, the biggest change is Peter’s curiosity about what happened to his parents, who disappeared when he was only a boy. It’s certainly not overplayed – Peter still has Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and loves them very dearly – but is more a subtle representation of all the complex emotions that come with being a teenager. Peter, like most adolescents, is vexed by feelings and doubts he can scarcely comprehend. He is very smart, and not without charm, but he’s reached an age where finding a sense of place and purpose is paramount to one’s emotional stability, and like many his age, that sense of solace escapes him. In short, Peter feels incomplete, and in trying to fill his emotional voids, he turns to mysteries of the past, hoping they will provide relief from his discontent.
It’s an interpretation I truly adore, because it makes Peter proactive and complex from the very beginning. Searching for clues about his parents’ disappearance leads him to Dr. Curt Connors and Oscorp, and eventually the run-in with the genetically-altered spider that changes his life. In this way, Peter is much more directly responsible for what happens to him; it’s one of the film’s most inspired choices. If becoming Spider-Man is how Peter finds his place in the world, then I find it extremely poignant that Spider-Man is born out of Peter’s emotional crisis.
That crisis continues even after Peter gains superpowers, of course, and Webb isn’t afraid to make this character extremely rough around the edges. For most of the movie, Peter is feeling his way out, often making mistakes, sometimes hurting those he loves most, and never truly ascending to ‘hero’ status until the end of the film. As I said before, Stan Lee created Spider-Man as one giant, heightened metaphor for the trials of adolescence, and Webb turns that allegorical dial up to 11; Peter’s life is chaotic, confusing, and immensely painful at all times. If the fantastical elements of this world seem unrealistic, the emotional state created is anything but. This is as honest and unflinching a look at the pain that comes with growing up as I’ve ever seen in blockbuster filmmaking.
Andrew Garfield is spectacular in lead role, vulnerable, nuanced, and three-dimensional to impossibly rich degrees. He imbues Peter with an awkward, damaged charisma I find fascinating, and is capable of taking the character to places both darker and lighter than ever before, all with total authenticity. I really do love what Tobey Maguire did with this role, so I can’t call Garfield the ‘definitive’ Peter Parker, but he’s at least as good as his predecessor, and is in some ways given even more to do. If the Oscars ever recognized work in superhero films, Garfield would be a strong contender. He’s that good.
Emma Stone is every bit his equal as love interest Gwen Stacy. In fact, I love this character and Stone’s irresistibly charming performance so much that I have no qualms in saying she’s crafted my favorite comic-book-movie girlfriend of all time. Smart, determined, and spirited, Stone just commands the screen whenever she appears, giving the role so much more depth and pathos than it would normally deserve. Best of all, her chemistry with Garfield is simply on fire; any time these two share the screen, sparks fly, laughs are had, and the heart is warmed. They are a joy to watch.
Rhys Ifans plays Dr. Curt Connors, the brilliant scientist and mentor to Gwen and Peter who ultimately turns into the villainous ‘Lizard.’ Positioning Connors as the antagonist for the origin story is an unorthodox but brilliant choice, one that offers several fascinating dramatic contrasts. Like Peter, Connors struggles with emotional voids; the difference is that his are represented physically, as he’s missing his right arm. Connors has spent his whole career searching for a way to regrow human limbs, and with Peter’s help he finds it. The cure, however, comes with a deadly cost, as it transforms Connors into a monster.
The depiction of the Lizard itself is fantastic, flawlessly brought to life through imaginative CGI and portrayed with the same over-the-top, comic-book sensibilities that define the creature. He even speaks and, on occasion, wears a lab coat! As always, though, it’s the human element that makes the villain compelling, and Ifans illustrates this in spades, defining Connors’ pain, longing, and hidden dark side in a relatively small amount of screen-time. The role Peter plays in Connors’ transformation, and the guilt he feels because of it, makes the Lizard one of Spider-Man’s most enthralling cinematic foes, on equal footing with Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus.
As pleasant a surprise as the Lizard turns out to be, Denis Leary’s depiction of Police Captain George Stacy – Gwen’s father – is even better. In the comics, Captain Stacy is one of Spider-Man’s fiercest advocates, but here, he’s established as a foe out to stop the hero’s vigilante antics. That’s a change that may initially bother some fans, but give Leary and the story some time to develop, and I promise you’ll walk out of the theatre singing his praises. Stacy has legitimate reasons to want Spider-Man stopped, and Peter has very crucial lessons he can learn from the lawman; watching their relationship develop, especially in the final act, is immensely satisfying.
I’m of two minds on how The Amazing Spider-Man approaches Aunt May and Uncle Ben. On one hand, Sally Field is woefully miscast as May. She can’t decide whether the character should be shrill, warm, or both, and I never felt the same sense of unconditional love Rosemary Harris so beautifully portrayed in the Raimi films. Alternately, you couldn’t ask for a better Uncle Ben than Martin Sheen, who brings every ounce of his trademark warmth to a character we simply can’t love enough. The way the film handles Uncle Ben’s iconic demise is undoubtedly clunky – the film’s lone instance of straying too far from what Raimi did – but Sheen is so perfect, and Garfield’s reactions so genuine, that I’m willing to overlook the issue.
On a technical level, the film is an unabashed triumph. I was fortunate enough to see the film on IMAX, and at that size, the gorgeous cinematography, stellar production design, and flawless special effects shine through loud and clear. Webb’s use of 3D isn’t necessarily essential, but the field of depth is clear, vast, and enveloping. Most impressive may be James Horner’s stirring musical score. Considering what iconic themes Danny Elfman wrote for the Raimi trilogy, Horner probably had the biggest shoes to fill for the reboot, and while I can’t say his work tops Elfman’s achievements, it’s still a triumph of composition that hugely fleshes out the emotional landscape of the film. This is easily the best work Horner has done since Titanic fifteen years ago.
Given Marc Webb’s lack of blockbuster experience, it would be easy to doubt his ability to stage big action set-pieces, but his vision of Spider-Man in action is tremendous. There’s actually not a lot of action in the movie, all things considered, but when it comes, it counts, and in a big way. Every fight sequence is breathtaking, imaginatively taking full use of what Spider-Man can do. The extended climax is an absolute work of art, but I was even more blown away by an earlier fight at Peter’s high-school, which sees him and the Lizard tearing through hallways and classrooms to spectacular effect. Webb certainly owes a lot to Raimi for cracking how Spider-Man’s powers should be depicted in live-action, but he adds his own visual flair to the choreography, distinguishing this from the earlier films and lending the web-slinging an even greater sense of scope.
But as I said at the very beginning, Spider-Man stories don’t excel because of the action, or the villains, or even the superpowers. They work because the central character is such a wonderfully universal creation, and the emotional possibilities are endless. This is what The Amazing Spider-Man captures best, and it’s why the film lingers in my mind days after seeing it. The film is a beautiful reminder of why we need characters like this in our media diet, and proof that even in Hollywood, hollow business decisions can lead to heartfelt creative triumphs. The Amazing Spider-Man is the rare blockbuster that ignites the emotions as much as it engages the senses, and for that, I’d place it in the highest echelon of superhero films.