The Amazing Spider-Man is amazingly similar to 2002’s Spider-Man. But it’s a perfectly enjoyable and competent summer blockbuster, and though I’d estimate about two-thirds of this film’s DNA comes from the earlier one, it’s fun to notice the small differences between the two Spideys.
This time it’s UK-bred actor Andrew Garfield (whose American accent is, as far as I could tell, flawless) who plays high school loser Peter Parker, a dorky photographer constantly bullied by cooler classmates but who attracts the notice of pretty Gwen Stacy (The Help star Emma Stone, blonde this time). Peter pursues the unfinished genetic experiments of his scientist father (Campbell Scott), who disappeared one night and left him in the permanent care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, slightly overdoing the doddering act) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Those experiments take Peter to the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (veteran Brit actor Rhys Ifans, still best known for playing Hugh Grant’s wacky roommate in Notting Hill), where, in one of the film’s many groan-inducing coincidences, Gwen also works. Despite heavy security at the super-secret lab, Peter sneaks into the unguarded inner sanctum where he learns more about experiments meant to regrow human limbs — Dr. Connors is missing an arm. It’s here that he’s bitten by a genetically altered spider.
The usual sequences of discovery of super-powers follow, and there’s even a scene with Peter getting the idea of wearing a costume from accidentally falling into a wrestling ring that features masked combatants. But to me Spidey 2.0 is more interesting than the likeable goody-goody played by the mild Tobey Maguire. First, Peter Parker has been picked on for a long time, and turning the tables on his tormentors gives him a license to act like a jerk himself for a while, for instance in a scene with the bully Flash (Chris Zylka) on a basketball court, where Parker’s arachnid grip and reflexes are simply used to humiliate the other boy. Peter is even unforgivably rude to his guardians. Making Peter less sweet and innocent makes him seem more human and real, and I think we’ve all seen that teens are fully capable of being arrogant and obnoxious.
The new film also features several scenes that have a moody, quiet, indie quality to them, which isn’t that surprising given that this film’s director, Marc Webb, previously did (500) Days of Summer. Spider-Man director Sam Raimi started in independent films too but he cut his teeth on shocking genre pictures, and his film had some campy aspects (notably Willem Dafoe’s cackling performance as the Green Goblin and that of J.K. Simmons as the newspaper editor, a character absent from this film). The earlier film was a more conventional blockbuster but this one has some earthiness to it, a little more soul, and it takes its time getting to the expensive action set pieces, which are fine but don’t really serve up anything you haven’t seen before.
A welcome change to the arachnid antics, though, is that Spidey’s ability to shoot filaments out of his wrists is inorganic — it depends on a little gadget he puts together. This device can be taken away or broken, effectively grounding Spider-Man. That extra point of vulnerability also makes Spider-Man more like a regular person — more like Batman. (Also like Batman, Peter Parker takes some serious beatings in the new movie. And instead of a newspaper editor chasing Spidey, this time it’s a cop played by Denis Leary who calls Spider-Man “a vigilante” and an “anarchist,” suggesting the superior resonance of the Winged One has not been lost on the makers of the new film). Maguire’s Spider-Man, by contrast, has so many powers that at times he’s a little boring. What can’t he do?
The Amazing Spider-Man is perhaps slightly harder to like than its predecessor because it’s less about exhilarating escapism (though there is plenty of web-slinging spectacle, particularly in the final act) and more about a teen trying to quiet his demons and develop into a young man of character. Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are also better, more endearing performers than their successors, though Stone is as reliably cute and perky as ever and towards the end the pouting, tortured Garfield bears some resemblance to James Dean. Still, neither film can compare with Christopher Nolan’s Batman series for visceral impact and intellectual depth. But Peter Parker, unlike Bruce Wayne, is a boy, and the Spidey films are for kids.