Review: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

The complete reboot of the Spider-Man series is unsatisfying and the clear product of a completely different view of the comics that inspired it. This will not sit well with older fans of the Marvel property but may capture those audience members who have endorsed the Ultimate Spider-Man universe.

There is no connection between “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the box office behemoth trilogy helmed by Sam Raimi that ended in 2007. In fact, this new reboot completely changes the origin story. And because I am unfamiliar with the Ultimate comic book re-imaging by writer Brian Michael Bendis, I’m not sure whether that version of the character is what we are seeing on screen here. The writing credits for “The Amazing Spider-Man” make no mention of Bendis from what is listed on IMDB.

Centering on Peter Parker and his eventual transformation into the title character, “The Amazing Spider-Man” builds an origin story that has Peter’s mother and father on the run and leaving him at a very young age with his aunt May and uncle Ben. Apparently, Peter’s father is some kind of genetic genius scientist whose work is in great demand by dark forces. Peter’s parents disappear and years later Peter decides to investigate. That investigation leads him to Dr. Curt Connors, who works for Oscorp.

Meanwhile, Peter has trouble in high school but is befriended by the fetching Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who also conveniently works as an intern at Oscorp for none-other-than Dr. Connors. In time, Connors will make a terrible decision to test one of his experiments on himself and become the maniacal Lizard. It will be up to Peter once he has been bitten by a special spider to leap into the fray and protect the city of New York.

It is important to mention that the spider who bites Peter does not appear to be radioactive in this reboot. And his web fluid is some kind of invention by the scientists at Oscorp. One wonders how much the writers of this version read the comics upon which this film is allegedly based. It has been a long time since I’ve read the book so maybe the new Ultimate universe version includes some of these elements. Either way, I found the changes to the Spider-Man mythology troubling and completely unnecessary. In fact, in order to pull all the elements together so much credibility had to be thrown to the winds that I found myself shaking my head while watching the movie.

For example, Peter is able to literally stumble his way into the venerable Oscorp and once inside, walks around and enters secure locations with ease going completely undetected. This is how he comes into contact with the spider that is key to his transformation. Apparently, at Oscorp teenagers can gain access to all their dark secrets, and while they are capable of genetically altering spiders and other animals, they have nothing left in the budget for security cameras. Or is this all part of some dark conspiracy? This kind of thing was handled much better in the Raimi version, and it is impossible to examine this new “Amazing” reboot without drawing such comparisons.

It is amazing that the Raimi original film back in 2002 is actually superior to this one. Think about all the naysayers back then that weren’t satisfied until Raimi brought it all home with the sequel. And if “The Amazing Spider-Man” fails to make huge money, I seriously doubt that talented director Mark Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) will get the luxury of helming the follow up Spidey tale. And this is quite a pity because as Webb showed with his previous feature, he’s capable of capturing youth angst in a very special way.

But everything about “The Amazing Spider-Man” seems rushed and heavily edited. Just when it seems the film is going to have fun with the teenage story that makes the Peter Parker character so interesting and endearing, the narrative moves in a completely different direction. Gone is the fun that made the Raimi version campy and ultimately with the sequel so darned good.

What little comic relief we get is in the form of Denis Leary who plays Captain Stacy. Leary’s casting is a good one, but unlike J. K. Simmons’ delicious turn as the iconic J. Jonah Jameson, Leary is never given enough screen time for viewers to engage meaningfully with his character. And the lack of engagement damages the message of the film as it reaches its action-packed and dramatic conclusion ending with a fairly emotionless thud. Spider-Man fanboys might weep.

Wasted is the inspired casting of Andrew Garfield (from “The Social Network”) who is certainly up to the tricky challenges of the role. He’s arguably better than Tobey Maguire, but the script around him is more concerned with advancing action plot points than making us believe he’s the tormented Peter Parker. And part of the problem is that instead of streamlining the origin story, this “Amazing” script wants to improve and modernize the facts. So, for example, the Flash Thompson story is truncated as that character goes from vicious bully to Peter’s best friend with little meaningful explanation. It comes off as contrived and lazy. The script wants to abandon and “improve” on the source material, but also trade on the shorthand from the comic books without spending time to let the dramatic elements breathe. And because this is meant as a reboot, the film introduces so many characters and plot points that it is no surprise that it ultimately adds up to very little.

There is fun to be had here as Garfield explores his new powers (especially the way his Spidey sense is handled), but I never felt much for the beloved character. The classic death of Uncle Ben is a perfunctory exercise and in this version does not act as the central motivating factor for Spider-Man’s crime fighting efforts. Chief in Peter mind here is getting answers to his parents’ disappearance, and that mystery is teased and not answered. It will certainly be explored in the sequel, which will hopefully slow down and let viewers more fully appreciate the pain of Peter Parker.

Even the film’s slam-bang conclusion lacks depth. Listen closely to news reports, and pay attention to a character played by C. Thomas Howell. In a film about a high schooler who gets bitten by a spider and develops superpowers, the events that bring the movie to a close fail to ring the least bit credible from which my disbelief could be suspended.

Sadly, just about the only thing amazing about “The Amazing Spider-Man” is the word in its title.

About Jonathan W. Hickman

Jonathan W. Hickman is a filmmaker, writer, and attorney living in metro Atlanta. His first novel, THE TASTER, is available in bookstores and online.