Thursday, July 5, 2012
The Amazing Spider-Man
I love Spider-Man. LOVE him. Spidey cartoons hold a prominent and beloved place in my childhood memories. So it was with a curious mixture of excitement and trepidation that I approached The Amazing Spider-Man. After all, it was just ten years ago that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire brought the webslinger to the big screen, and I was hooked. People, I ADORE those three movies so very much. I mean I saw the first one -- in theaters -- something like seven times the summer it released. That movie is romance and heartbreak, breath-taking action and pure, unadulterated joy for me. So the way I see it, my challenge is to discuss The Amazing Spider-Man on its own merits as much as possible. Though some comparisons are unavoidable, because this is, after all, essentially the same film as the predecessor that launched the Raimi/Maguire trilogy. After all, when you're exploring Peter Parker's origin story, certain things just have to happen, you know?
In trying to summarize why I love the Peter Parker character so much, I keep coming back to how wonderfully ordinary he is. Peter is SUCH a deliciously flawed human being. I love watching him explore his powers, his potential, learning to look outside himself to how he can help others, and yes, all of those times he falls flat on his face (literally and metaphorically) -- because he's arguably one of the most human of the comic book heroes. I relish watching Peter navigate the tragedies and triumphs of life, and those moments when he's able to soar emotionally and physically over any given obstacle, well when played right on-screen, those moments can bring me to the best kind of tears. I suppose the point here is that I feel very personally INVESTED in this chap. :)
The film opens with a young Peter (played by an absolutely ADORABLE Max Charles) playing a game of hide-and-seek with his father. All seems well until Peter enters his father's study and discovers a broken window and his father's just-rifled through desk. Peter's father, Richard (Campbell Scott), is apparently a scientist of some repute -- so he comes by his scientific aptitude naturally. :) Just before his father finds Peter in his office, the boy is captivated by a spider under glass (OOH!!!! Foreshadowing!), his reverie interrupted when his father abruptly enters, removes a hidden file from a secret desk drawer compartment, and spirits Peter and his mother Mary (Embeth Davidtz) away. Richard and Mary leave their young son with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) with no word of explanation -- just a "be good," and then they are on the run, and poor Peter is left behind, little realizing that he was never to see his parents again. (This is tragic in any scenario, but triply tragic when you're looking at the face of Max Charles!)
Peter's legacy from his parents, particularly his scientist father, come into play throughout the film, and it's all very obviously a set-up for the over-arching theme of this batch of Spider-Man films (at this point a trilogy is planned). I'm curious to see how this plays out, as sometimes I wish movies and TV shows were not quite as concerned with mythology and destiny as is the current trend -- one of Peter's charms is that he is such an ordinary fellow. So this idea that somehow Peter's was "destined" or became Spidey because of his father's work...well, IF that is the direction the filmmakers are going, I suppose all I can say at this point is that I'm very curious to see how it plays out.
Andrew Garfield was surprisingly good as Peter (is it weird that I wish he could've kept his accent? LOL). I've only seen him in The Social Network and a two-part season three Doctor Who storyline, so I wasn't terribly familiar with his work, but oh was he good. Interestingly enough he's actually older by two years (29) than Tobey Maguire was when he first became Spider-Man. Garfield's youthful face and lanky body type really work in his favor when attempting to capture the demeanor of an angst-ridden teenager -- and that is something this Peter Parker is in spades. After only one viewing I'd say he starts out a tick more self-centered than his filmic predecessor, and understandably so given the parental abandonment issues, etc. Garfield feels very much like a teenager in his angst and responses to everything from falling in love with classmate Gwen Stacy to the heady rush of his first successes as Spider-Man. Also, I LOVE the fact that in this film Peter designs and builds his own webslingers -- not only does that hearken back to the character's comic book origins, but it reinstates Spider-Man's ability to be hurt in his fights, reinforcing the idea that he is a very human, relatable hero.
Speaking of Gwen...this film goes back to Peter Parker's first love, and though that doesn't end well (eventually) one hopes that if this film franchise continues they stick with the Garfield/Emma Stone romantic pairing, because these two are absolutely ADORABLE. Garfield and Stone are a real-life couple since meeting on the set of this film, and it's no stretch to say that part of the reason they work so well on-screen is because there is such genuine feeling between the two of them in real life. I loved the palpable on-screen chemistry! The only other film I've seen Stone in is The Help, and based on that and her work here needless to say I have been incredibly impressed. Gwen Stacy is whip-smart and funny and game, and I loved watching her slowly pull Peter out of his shell (though I think her reaction to the reveal of Peter's alter-ego was a bit understated -- though funny!).
I was incredibly attached to Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris's portrayals of Uncle Ben and Aunt May in the Raimi trilogy, so Martin Sheen and Sally Field had a LOT to live up to. I was particularly impressed with Sheen's turn as Uncle Ben -- he's very blue collar and straightforward, and the suggestion of a history of tension between himself and Peter's more academic-minded father was nicely handled. He may not have Peter's intellectual smarts, but he captures the most critical thing -- Ben is a good man, and that foundation is essential to Peter's growth as a person and Spider-Man. The one point where this film falters is in Uncle Ben's death -- the Robertson version of that turning point in Peter's life emotionally eviscerates me EVERY SINGLE TIME. And this version, while horrible and tragic to be sure, to my mind it lacked something of the emotional punch the Raimi film's script brought to the scene. This script leaves Garfield curiously detached -- the realization of his role in events leading to the shooting, and what Ben was trying so hard to teach him, it doesn't seem to hit Peter this go-around with the power I wanted to see until the final third of the film. That said, by this film's conclusion I loved Sally Field as Aunt May -- she's a bit more energetic, perhaps, than Harris, and she and Garfield seem to complement each other nicely. (Peter was WAY obvious about not hiding his secret identity from May, though! It was actually pretty funny by the end of the movie.)
The villain this go-around is Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an OsCorp scientist and a former colleague of Peter's father. Connors and Parker were pioneers in the field of interspecies-genetics, with a lofty goal of eradicating weakness and illness -- of particularly interest to Connors as he is lacking one arm and would love to regain it. The Spidey fangirl in me loved the OsCorp and Norman Osborn name-dropping -- the groundwork has been set here for a franchise rich in Spider-Man lore. It's during a visit to the Connors lab that Peter is bitten by a genetically modified spider, identical to the one he saw under glass in his father's office. In an attempt to find out more about his father and his work, Peter shares his discovery of a decay-rate algorithm which is the missing link in Connors' genetic research. Ifans turns in a very solid performance as the struggling, conscientious scientist whose thirst for knowledge and scientific advancement overrides his better judgment, leading him to experiment on himself and turning him into the iconic Lizard.
I thought the special effects that brought the Lizard to life were incredibly well-done. I loved the sequence where Peter tracks the Lizard to his lair in the NYC sewers -- the tension and the subsequent fight sequence were top-notch! I have one minor complaint though -- by the time the "final battle" arrives, the Lizard becomes a bit too cartoonish for me when he starts talking. I realize there is no good way to get around this issue (unless there was less of the Lizard wearing Connors' torn lab coat), but I needed to just get this out there -- the talking Lizard just negated a huge part of the character's "fright factor."
A couple of other casting shout-outs -- I love the way this script brings in the character of Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), Peter's school enemy and later friend. I was just really impressed with the way the film handles their initial animosity towards each other, and the subtle pivot we start to see following Ben's death. And Flash wearing a Spidey shirt at the end of the film? PRICELESS. I also loved seeing Denis Leary as Gwen's father, Captain Stacy. Not only are the Stacys the second strong emphasis this script places on family, but the Captain is a nice foil as a very by-the-books cop for Peter's more angsty, envelope-pushing personality. :) Also, Stan Lee's cameo appearance was perhaps one of his best yet in the recent slate of Marvel films -- absolutely hilarious!
The special effects throughout the film were for the most part remarkably well-done, building on the ground-breaking work from the Raimi trilogy. This movie has a darker color palette that took some getting used to, but it is very much in keeping with the trend for "grittier" superhero films (I have a strong bias for the bright color palette Raimi employed, though!). One of the things I love most about Spider-Man are the requisite flying through New York scenes -- and in this movie the result is a bit of a mixed bag. There were way too many scenes for my taste from Spider-Man's perspective, where we see his hands slinging webs -- and those just felt very fake to me. It's when the camera pulls back, and lets me watch Spider-Man sail breathlessly through the skyline of New York that I can really lose myself in those moments -- and this go-around, I didn't really get that sense of pure, unadulterated wonder until the film's final act. But it was a powerful moment, worth the wait -- because it is the first time we see an average guy step up to help Spider-Man, and those moments -- when the people he has helped rise up to help him, those moments are priceless for me.
As you can tell I've had a hard time refraining from some comparisons to the first Raimi film -- it's tough because this is, essentially, the same story with a few rearranged playing pieces. It's a very solid start to a new franchise -- the leads are extraordinarily well-cast and play off each other beautifully. Garfield's performance is thoroughly enjoyable and leaves me with more than confidence -- anticipation! -- that his subsequent outings as Peter Parker have the potential to be even more spectacular than his first. The script is packed with genuine humor, and with a bit better pacing (this movie was, I think, about fifteen minutes or so too long) the next outing could really shine -- especially with the promise during the credits scene that there is much Connors knows about Peter's father that is still shrouded in secrecy. And since I'm such a film score junkie, I have to give James Horner a shout-out for his work here -- he is perhaps one of the last composers I'd think of to associate with a comic-book action movie like this, but I was incredibly impressed with his work here, particularly during the movie's climatic battle and closing scenes.
From my perspective, there are a few tonal mis-steps in The Amazing Spider-Man, but overall director Marc Webb and his team have more than risen to the challenge of launching a fresh take on the webslinger's franchise. With Raimi film script veteran Alvin Sargent supporting Harry Potter vet Steve Kloves and James Vanderbilt, the pieces are in place for what has the promise of being a truly great sequel -- and one to which I'm now very much anticipating. Well done for winning me over, Andrew! :)