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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

** SPOILERS **

The Amazing Spider-Man takes a song everyone knows by heart and self-consciously rearranges the notes. It's the same song but with different cadences and crescendos. Rebooting Spider-Man back to his most fertile ground as a teenager who leads a double life as a misunderstood web-slinging superhero, director Marc Webb's Amazing mines the sticky emotional issues of childhood abandonment, young love, guilt, angst, and teenage rebellion for its drama, eschewing the cheery, day-glo derring-do of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy still fondly fresh in audiences' memories (except for 3). In some respects, Amazing is better than the Raimi movies. In other respects, it's just different for the sake of being different. At its best moments, Amazing could be [500] Days of Spider but with thrilling superhero action and heightened emotional stakes. 

Our new Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, plays Peter Parker like a raw, open wound. It's a powerful, visceral performance filled with anguish and heart. We all know Peter Parker, a bright science nerd who gets bitten by a radioactive spider, tragically loses his Uncle Ben via his own negligence, dons a red and blue unitard, and fights crime as Spider-Man. At school, Peter is bullied by Flash Thompson, who later gets awfully bro-mantic with Peter after newly Spider-empowered Peter has stood up to him. Amazing makes it a point to 'modernize' Spider-Man so that Peter Parker has Internet access, a cell phone, and his web-swinging is captured on YouTube. And yet, for the amount of time Peter is in the Spidey suit sans mask (or letting little kids wear his mask), he sure is unbelievably lucky his face never ends up streaming to millions of followers.

Beginning with a flashback to a dark and stormy night, elementary school-age Peter is abandoned by his grim scientist father Richard (Campbell Scott) and mother and left with his kindly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Richard Parker was working on something Top Secret and Important (not a Supertrain in Seattle - get that reference, kids?), important enough to run from his son and never look back. Years later, teenage Peter discovers the satchel his father left behind, conveniently containing the Top Secret and Important Files his father wanted hidden. Luckily, Peter is a chip off the old block in the brilliant scientist department and has the know-how to decipher the math. 

At Oscorp, the company owned by Norman Osborn (who we're told is dying off-screen), Peter is bitten by the fateful radioactive spider, as he must, and gains its proportionate strength, speed, and agility. His powers don't manifest overnight; a quick nap on the subway before being accosted by strangers is all the time Peter's body needs to transform him into something Amazing. An ongoing runner of Peter not being able to control his super strength draws consistent laughs. Peter discovering and developing his spider-abilities is handled in a thrilling series of trial and error, often in first person POV. Some lip service is even paid to how Peter Parker acquires his Spider-Man costume. ("Spandex! Everything's spandex!") There's a neat nod to the famous wrestling scene in his comic and Raimi origin where Peter crashes into a wrestling ring; his Spider-Man mask is inspired by the masks of luchadores. Spider-Man has always owned a surprising amount of his very conception to pro-wrestling.

Garfield's Peter Parker, taller, lankier, is more spider-like than his predecessor in the role, Tobey Maguire. He more strongly evokes the Spider-Man depicted in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's classic Marvel Comics, though Amazing draws most of its inspiration from the modern Ultimate Spider-Man line of comics. Unlike Maguire's Peter, who manifested organic web shooters, this Peter uses his scientific acumen to design mechanical web shooters ("biocable") he wears on his wrists, though the classic comic book bit of Spider-Man occasionally running out of web fluid when he needs it most still isn't utilized. Garfield's Peter is established early on as a photographer but Amazing does away with the side story of Peter working part time at the Daily Bugle, which is fleetingly mentioned. J. Jonah Jameson barking at Peter with cigar in hand is not missed. High school is one of Amazing's key settings, so much so that the villainous Lizard even brings his beef with Spider-Man right to its hallways and classrooms. This is fitting as the Lee and Ditko Spider-Man in the comics was often attacked in his high school.

The hot button issue of cross-species genetics is the cause of all the trouble in Amazing. Richard Parker was allies with Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), a misguided genius trying to use reptilian DNA to re-grow his missing right arm. Conners was a minor character throughout the Raimi trilogy fans waited in vain to see transform into the villainous Lizard. In Amazing, the Lizard takes center stage, though it's interesting that the serum that turns Conners into an eight-foot, prehensile-tailed "dinosaur man" was meant to restore the mysteriously dying Norman Osborn back to health. Conners becomes Peter Parker's mentor, someone he can talk science-y stuff with that's beyond the understanding of his working class aunt and uncle. Peter is quick on the uptake when Conners becomes The Lizard, but it takes Conners seeing "Property of Peter Parker" stamped on his camera via label maker (a hilarious nod to when Bart Simpson fell down the well), for The Lizard to realize his teen protege is really his arch foe Spider-Man.

When Conners becomes The Lizard, he looks and sounds curiously like Lord Voldemort. He also starts hearing voices in his head (much like how Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin helmet spoke to him in Raimi's Spider-Man) but the voices sound just like Lord Voldemort. (No surprise that Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves is one of Amazing's credited writers.) Later, Conners decides he wants to turn his Lizard serum into a gas cloud that will make everyone in New York City Lizards like him. Curt Conners loves being the Lizard so much! Why wouldn't everyone else love it too? (This scheme is the same as Magneto's plan in Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie, where Magneto wanted to turn everyone in New York into mutants.) 

There's always a girl in Peter Parker's life, and this time, it's blonde, knee-high go go boot-wearing Gwen Stacy, played fetchingly by Emma Stone. Mary Jane Watson who? In a fictional comic book movie featuring wall-crawling superheroes and sewer-dwelling lizard men, Gwen Stacy is Amazing's most fanciful creation: a beautiful, stylish, high school knockout who is patient, understanding, also a scientist who is smart-but-not-as-smart-as our hero, and acerbically witty. Much of Gwen's appeal is owed entirely to Stone's own considerable charms as the character isn't much more on the page than a collection of conveniences, such as how Gwen is conveniently an intern at Dr. Curt Conners' lab in Oscorp, which allows her to be a convenient plot device in helping to manufacture the Lizard antidote when Spider-Man is otherwise preoccupied hunting the Lizard and getting shot at by the NYPD. When on screen together, Garfield and Stone crackle with bristling chemistry. They have moments together in their high school and in Gwen's bedroom (Peter prefers coming in through the window, like that other Peter, Pan) that could have been the heart of a sharp, winning teen rom com if this weren't a Spider-Man movie.

Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben Parker steals scenes early on as he tries to comprehend his moody nephew's comings and goings. He tries to impart wisdom to Peter about power and moral responsibility but avoids repeating the hoary "with great power comes great responsibility" line that was driven to the ground by Raimi and Maguire. There's a palpable sense of real loss when Sheen is gunned down on the street by a common criminal. Later, Sally Field's teary-eyed Aunt May has to weather Peter's nocturnal excursions, never fully comprehending why he returns battered and bleeding when he was supposed to be out buying a dozen eggs. The tragedy of Uncle Ben's death pushes Peter into thrill-seeking vigilante-ism, where, as the smack-talking Spider-Man, he stalks the streets of New York hunting for his uncle's killer, a man with a star tattoo on his left wrist (whom Spider-Man never does locate and capture.) One of the strongest cues Amazing takes from the mega-successful Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy is the idea of Spider-Man being a public menace hunted by the police. 

Amazing's best character might be Denis Leary as Gwen's father, police Captain Stacy, a no-nonsense, honest cop who makes arresting Spider-Man his personal mission. (How much do New York City police captains earn, anyway? The Stacys live 20 stories up in a midtown Manhattan apartment with a gigantic wrap-around balcony that must cost millions.) One of Amazing's best scenes involves Peter having an awkward dinner with the Stacy family and defending Spider-Man's vigilantism, before getting schooled by Captain Stacy that Spider-Man doesn't understand the greater consequences of his actions and is impeding months of important police work. Even when The Lizard is rampaging through the streets of New York, Stacy makes apprehending Spider-Man his top priority. Later, after discovering her daughter's boyfriend is the vigilante he's been after, Stacy is damned heroic fighting side by side with Spider-Man and blasting away at The Lizard with a shotgun. When Stacy is killed by The Lizard, it brings the tally to Peter losing two fathers and Gwen losing one. Curious though that Captain Stacy got a funeral scene but Uncle Ben did not.

The Amazing Spider-Man reboot is kind of amazing. It's overall a success, though a modest one; calculated and pleasing but a few webs short of outright exhilarating. Amazing does boast some marvelous superhero beats like Spider-Man saving a boy from a car falling off the Williamsburg Bridge and the blue collar construction operators in New York lining up their cranes to give their injured hero Spider-Man a clear path to web-sling to Oscorp Tower. More of Garfield and Stone in the inevitable sequels will draw no quarrel from me. Ultimately, Amazing takes great pains and its sweet time to inform us that we don't know all we think we know about Peter Parker, and neither does he. Did we really need to know anything more about Peter Parker? Are whatever 'new' revelations Amazing offers worth knowing? That's for you to determine, true believer. 

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