Spider-Man Redux

In the years and months before The Amazing Spider-Man, the question wasn’t, as it has been with so many comic book movies in the past, “Will it be good?” Instead, the question was the much more daunting “Why?”

We live in an age where successful media is almost immediately cannibalized and turned into other, derivative media, but even so, the reboot of the Spider-Man franchise seemed rather artistically crass. Though it in effect aped the Hulk franchise in rebooting the story five years after the last movie (10 years after the first movie for Spider-Man), it did so with a much-loved film series, essentially not pausing to take a breath when plans for original trilogy director Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 4” fell through.

It’s only been in the last couple of weeks, as advance looks began rolling in for the film, that the discussion teetered back over toward the film’s quality, rather than the need for its existence.

In a way, those two discussions are necessarily intertwined. Since “Amazing” retells the origin story of our friendly neighborhood wallcrawler, it’s nigh impossible not to draw comparisons between the 2012 and 2002 flicks (and, by extension, the 2002 film’s sequels).

But before we get to that, how was the movie on its own merits? Pretty good, I think. Though this is only the second film I’ve seen with Andrew Garfield in it, you could put this on display along with “The Social Network” as an example of a young star on the rise. Garfield embodies the teenaged-again Peter Parker with a nerd chic and slight social misanthropy that’s very believably high school, firmly positioning the movie as a coming-of-age story that’s perhaps a little more realistic than the first movie’s more faithful origin retelling.

But there it is; I’ve already compared it to the originals. OK, I’ll keep forging ahead here.

Parker’s “Amazing” origin involves secret scientific research that ties in with his now-dead (or are they?) parents, his father’s former employer Oscorp (owned by Green-Goblin-to-be Norman Osborn) and the latest film’s villain: Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), aka the Lizard, a former colleague of Peter’s dad whose experiments to regrow his amputated arm go awry.

Though rounded out by solid writing and a winning cast (including Emma Stone, Dennis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field), the film’s beginnings are a bit slow, perhaps because we saw a story hitting many of these perfunctory beats 10 years ago (boy bit by spider, boy embarrassingly learns he has spider powers, boy learns that jumping off skyscrapers is freaking awesome). However, the film really starts cooking in the second hour, when Peter finally puts on the suit and starts cracking wise like his comic book counterpart. The fight dialogue is snappy, the actors have good chemistry, and the fight scenes have a unique parkour (and sometimes first person) sensibility that looks pretty good in 3D. A highlight of the movie is the romance between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Stone), which is played as a sweet infatuation that could develop into something more.

At this point, I can’t keep “Amazing’s” predecessors out of the picture any longer. The original films’ specters loom large over the production, largely because they themselves created such an indelible vision and influenced much of the genre that has come out since.

By and large, “Amazing” has a better cast, better dialogue, and much less annoying angst and hysterical screaming. I might also give the edge to its action scenes, though the original trilogy had great ones in spades as well (see: “S2’s” bank robbery/train stopping sequence). “Amazing’s” villain isn’t as good as most of the trilogy’s rogues, with far less nuance than characters like Doc Ock or Sandman and with perhaps a less talented actor than Willem Dafoe or Alfred Molina, though Ifans does his level best with the material.

Perhaps the greatest advantage “Amazing” has is the aforementioned Gwen/Peter relationship, which is much more natural and less tortured than the myriad of too-serious encounters between Tobey Maguire’s Peter and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson. When the movie was over, I wanted to see more of them as they attempted to navigate the trials of Spider-Man together.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen much of this before. As the film’s origin story played out, I kept waiting for the story beats I knew to be coming, wondering how different they’d be from their predecessors. When the Lizard engages in some inner dialogue in his underground lab, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Green Goblin’s similar scenes in the original film. It’s not “Amazing’s” fault that it’s adapting from the same source material as the original movies, but to make that adaptation so soon after a well-known cinematic offering of the same material can only do it harm.

In the end, “Amazing Spider-Man” is a very good comic book movie. I liked it, and if you like comic book movies, you’ll probably like it too. As a movie, it’s not as good as Raimi’s masterful “Spider-Man 2,” a brighter film that makes great use of the dorky and put-upon Maguire and the monster with a heart of gold that is Doc Ock, but it ranks well above the trilogy’s final entry, where the cast and angst got too bloated for anyone’s good.

On its own merits, “Amazing” is probably about as good ­or maybe a little better than Spidey’s first cinematic origin story. That puts it in good company, but it may not be enough. While the current incarnation of the Spider-Man franchise will almost assuredly live on, its first film’s release date means it may take several more years before it can be seen without the shadow of its cinematic forebears. That’s too bad, but Sony Pictures has no one to blame but itself.


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