Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is left with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) as a young child, after his parents have run away from an unspecified threat only to die in a mysterious plane crash. Haunted by the shadow of this terrible event, Peter finds an old briefcase belonging to his father. This leads him to Oscorp, where an encounter with a spider leaves him with powers which he learns to use for good, while at the same time starting a relationship with classmate Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).
It shows how long I’ve been writing for this site that I remember, in our rather more movie news focused days, writing up the post about Sam Raimi leaving the Spider-Man franchise when it was announced that Spider-Man 4 would not be happening; instead Peter would be going back to high school for a new series of films. At the time, this earned Sony a lot of flack – though likely not as much if Spider-Man 3 had actually been well received. This has somewhat tainted the production ever since, with the selection of Marc Webb as director causing some concern, given this is only his second film, reminding me of the awkward jump faced by Marc Forster when he was picked to direct Quantum of Solace. Casting seemed to go well though, with the “so hot right now” couple of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone being two fortunate choices in that they’ve both very much proven that they can actually act. In a post-Avengers, pre-Dark Knight Rises summer though, The Amazing Spider-Man remains a bit of an anomaly, and while there is much to like, unfortunately there is not enough here to make it all that close to amazing.
As mentioned earlier, the film has been marketed as the “untold story” of Peter Parker, which seemed to me to be trying to say that while this was going to tread some old ground, it was more concerned with telling a different origin – that there was more to the Spider bite than meets the eye. It’s odd then that the film feels as if this carrot has been dangled in front of the more cynical audience before pretty much forgetting it altogether. Early on, there is a huge focus on Peter’s parents and how Uncle Ben and Aunt May don’t seem to be telling Peter everything, but in the end it all seems like a means to an end, a way of getting Peter to Oscorp to get bitten and then have everything play out in a way which just feels way too similar to the 2002 Raimi film. Part of this is obviously to be expected, and while the specific events are all given a twist, the general framework feels at times almost beat-for-beat for the first film. Without wishing to spoil the actual events, everything you think is going to happen does, and that’s a damn shame. Here was a chance to see Spider-Man grow up in a somewhat alternate universe, but instead his journey feels very familiar. Even taking the film on its own merits and disregarding the previous entries, there is a sense of “been there, done that” to the general storytelling. This also extends to The Lizard, which despite sterling work from the visual effects department and Rhys Ifans who is far more conflicted, and therefore given a more fulfilling arc than expected, essentially plays out like a combination of the always-wanting-more, ego-fied excess of Green Goblin and the misguided genius of Doc Ock from Raimi’s second film.
All this being said though, there are individual qualities to the film which make it stand out and give it an identity of its own, which in the process certainly make it worth a watch on the big screen. After sleeping on it, I am firm in the belief that Andrew Garfield puts in the finest comic-book movie performance since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Michael Fassbender, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and the other relatively new guys are all cracking, but this is a performance by a guy who obviously has been waiting his whole life to specifically play this part and he imbues it with the warmth of spirit you always want Peter to have. Tobey Maguire rocked the hell out of his Peter but it’s a different performance, losing the “aw shucks” nature of his Peter and instead playing it more as the comics seem to suggest with a quippy and universally charming nature which never feels too broad or too clever-clever, instead being very naturalistic and at times incredibly funny. Garfield shows off great comic chops with his line delivery and a surprisingly expressive face; one shot of him perfecting his shooters is particularly memorable.
The choice of director Marc Webb also helps in serving up a slightly off-beat feel which at times does feel a bit “indie”, something not seen in these films yet. There are quieter moments within the action which you can’t ever imagine most blockbuster directors ever trying, one involving the rescue of a child being my standout scene of the film, played perfectly by Garfield, as his Peter shows a key part of what makes him wear the mask. To be honest, I could have done with more of this, the specific action beats serving well enough but not doing anything truly awe-inspiring, which with this material you hope for. Webb does infuse a streak of humour though, which is slightly at odds with the “untold story” aspect; unfortunately this is somewhat dropped as the films develops.
Also serving well is Emma Stone, who does the best she can with a surprisingly underwritten role. There is a quick jump from Peter and Gwen properly meeting for the first time to them starting a relationship, but thankfully the two actors have chemistry to spare and the slightly stalling beats in their dialogue are well played and make things feel that bit more real. Sally Field and Martin Sheen are also both solid, doing exactly what you expect them to do and perhaps uncharitably, not a lot more. Dennis Leary is also decent, but gets less screentime than I was hoping for.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a good time at the cinema – the cast put in sterling work, Garfield in particular, and there’s enough entertainment in here to make the thing a decent enough ride. But it does feel like a somewhat missed opportunity, and in a world where The Avengers can make the money it has, this plays too surprisingly safe. Not enough chances have been taken, and given what it could have been, The Amazing Spider-Man is in the end a mild disappointment .