I didn’t have any intention of seeing The Amazing Spider-Man. To be perfectly honest, I was tired of superheroes and wanted to see the family drama People Like Us starring Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, but the theater in Florida where I was vacationing with my family had broken projectors affecting only that screen two days in a row. So Spider-Man it was. Turns out, it was not a terrible trade-off.
The Amazing Spider-Man tells the origin story of Spider-Man, beginning with Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) youth with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). When he discovers his father’s briefcase in the basement, it leads him to Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), his father’s old partner, who is working on trans-species genetic therapy. Richard Parker and Conners had been developing the radical idea to treat degenerative diseases with the genes of animals such as salamanders who regenerate their own cells. Conners is further motivated by the desire to grow back his own missing arm. While visiting the lab, Peter wanders into a secret room filled with genetically engineered spiders spinning super-strong webs. One of the spiders stows-away in his collar and bites him, causing him to develop super-strength, speed, and sticky palms. Keeping the secret of his new skills and dealing with his abandonment issues (and assorted teen angst) causes increasing conflict between Peter and Uncle Ben, until Peter storms out of the house. When Ben follows, he gets in the middle of an armed robbery and is killed. Fraught with grief and the desire for revenge, Peter uses his new powers to pursue criminals around the city. Quickly, however, the quest shifts to using his gifts to protect rather than avenge, especially when Dr. Connors tests a new treatment on himself with violent and disastrous results, turning himself into a power-hungry monster. Meanwhile, a romance continues to develop between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Connor’s mentee and daughter of NYPD Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary) who is determined to catch the masked vigilante swinging around the city.
The writers of this adaptation of the Spider-Man comic books did an outstanding job of developing tension and personal stakes. Not only did I feel invested in Peter and his family, it felt like the problems really mattered. The excellent development of stakes also lead to compelling interpersonal dynamics as individual characters’ desires and battles bumped into each other. One scene in particular was the tensest I’ve felt in a theater since the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. Dr. Conners’s descent into madness was a bit abrupt, so that it wasn’t clear if his insanity was caused by medicine or the power he strives for. This ambiguity was partly productive and partly just the product of hurried writing.
As Peter Parker, Garfield does a wonderful job bringing a youthful innocence to the character while also portraying the heartache and struggle that motivate him to become the Spider-Man. Many of his best scenes are with Martin Sheen, who plays a quintessential surrogate father-figure, as their conflict sets up the moral compass for the rest of the film. Sally Field is the loveable mom we’ve come to know her as. I felt like Emma Stone was wasted in this movie. Eventually she has a pretty awesome scene in the third act, but for the most part her talent is squandered on sidelong glances and throw-away bits of dialogue. As Dr. Conners, Rhys Ifans is sympathetic enough that I felt torn about him as the villain. He was able to maintain a kernel of the sad scientist he was before so that even as he attacked Peter, part of me was concerned about the man beneath the monster.
I am not usually a fan of 3D films, but I saw this one in 3D and thought it was the best use of the technology I had seen. Some of the scenes were like looking through a viewfinder at the top of the Empire State Building. Gimmicky 3D shots were kept to a minimum and instead the technology actually enhanced the visuals related to the Spider-Man plot. It was really cool.
For strong writing, a playful approach, and excellent craftsmanship, I rate The Amazing Spider-Man 4/5 stars.
The Amazing Spider-Man was directed by Marc Webb and written by James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent, based on the comic book by Stan Lee. It runs 2 hours and 16 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.
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