Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a thoroughly frustrating reboot of the beloved Spidey franchise, simply because two key elements are accounted for -- a phenomenal cast of actors, and a director more interested in emotional resonance than explosions and effects. What could've proved a refreshing combination to launch this reimagining of the Spider-Man mythos is interrupted by a cobbled-together and imbalanced story, lackluster CGI and a distractingly off-kilter musical score. We're left with that still-hungry feeling at the end of it all -- as if we've spent two hours scrounging for satisfactory morsels among the box of kernel-heavy, over-buttered popcorn in our hands. This movie could chip a tooth.
Sure, director Marc Webb was a controversial pick for the reboot, but I liked the idea that his indie flair could've flipped the Spider-Man universe on its head with a smaller, tighter story and strong performances to carry it. I especially enjoyed the fact that Webb voiced his partiality to Peter Parker from the beginning -- it made sense considering the origin story re-boot route the studio seemed to be taking. And "The Amazing Spider-Man" very much travels down that road -- the story you're all familiar with thanks to the Maguire trilogy is vehemently rehashed, seen through decidedly non-Raimi eyes.
The lack of risk in the reboot narrative isn't solely where to take issue, though -- there are glimpses at the fact that Webb indeed could've breathed fresh new life into the same old material. The first half of the film is enjoyable at times, thanks to the fact that it fixates more on the intricacies of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) than his alter-ego, allowing the quite excellent Garfield to fully embody Peter in all his gangly, awkwardly appealing splendor. We're treated to Peter as a young child, which includes pre and post-parental loss, all of which ends in an (albeit conveniently-placed) inciting incident embodied by his father's old briefcase, leading him to his dad's old colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).
We're with Peter through his bullying at Midtown Science High School, as well as his sulking about Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May's (Sally Field) house. Garfield is an Old Hollywood version of the angsty teenager, which somewhat justifies the fact that he goes from invisible in the popular Gwen Stacy's (Emma Stone) eyes to climbing through her window and dinnering with her family within a handful of frictionless scenes. Amid all this languid character development, Peter lies his way into Oscorp headquarters, meets Connors, impresses him with his scientific know-how and gets bit by a radioactive spider -- all in the same day! Once Uncle Ben is offed by a robber and a good 20-minute chunk of time is spent on Peter's search for the assailant, we're concurrently treated to his creation of mechanical web-shooters, as well as the sewing of the Spidey suit (which miraculously goes from prototype to final version in one fell swoop). This is about the time it becomes clear that the pacing of the film directly correlates to the director's comfort zone, and things officially unravel faster than the contents of a faulty web-shooter.
That's because Webb clearly isn't able to reconcile emotion and action. He grips us with the quiet, tangible stuff and the build-up, but had he taken the liberty to explore his villain in similar form, it's possible the movie would've had a fighting chance in the second half. After all, Dr. Connors -- by all counts a simpatico guy tethered to Peter's past -- undergoes his own transformation, but the opportunity to juxtapose Connors' and Peter's reconciliation of their newfound powers is squandered. Partly because -- from the very start -- Connors isn't rendered even remotely as faceted as Peter, and partly because logic flies out the window the moment Connors is fired from Oscorp but given the evening to clean up -- as opposed to what would really happen, being escorted out of the building immediately -- thereby allowing him the opportunity to inject himself with his unfinished serum in an eleventh-hour act of distress. He regrows his lost limb (along with various other unexpected scaly appendages) and rampages New York City as something of a glorified, green, reptilian guinea pig, attempting to harness his Lizard half's wrath while continually testing and perfecting his serum.
Connors' Lizard is badly underdeveloped (and lamely designed, to boot) to the point of confusion -- the genetic catastrophe is born of a guy we know to be an ally of Peter's father, we see Connors lament the loss of his arm in myriad ways as he spouts to Peter about his humanitarian efforts to restore missing limbs via his serum, but we don't receive any back story regarding the loss of Connors' limb. A few glimpses do not a plight make, which is why his transformation into The Lizard (resulting in something of a Jekyll & Hyde-like push and pull between the scientist and his reptilian alter ego) underwhelms, and his plight to transform the citizens of New York in his image baffles. Is he plotting city-wide domination because the lingering animosity of his previously one-armed personification desires to see everyone on an even playing field? Or should we just accept the fact that seemingly soulless villains will do as seemingly soulless villains do, climbing to the tops of tall buildings in an attempt to detonate WMDs, simply so that heroes can pursue them and foil their attempts?
I should also mention that I was shocked to learn this movie was shot in 3D. While viewing, I presumed it was post-converted -- so flat is the landscape and underwhelming are the web-slinging effects. To boot, its CGI (specifically The Lizard's design) is poorly rendered (Connors' half-lizard moments, with bits of reptilia stuck to his face, are almost kitschy in their artistry). There's not much budget to be bragged of on display.
But before I'm swung away on a thread of negativity, allow me to backtrack to one of my original comments -- the cast of this film is first-rate, and they milk every possible ounce out of their written characters and screen time. Garfield and Stone's chemistry is crackling -- every cut away from their scenes together felt wrenching. Respectively, the young actors are incredibly talented in their roles -- clearly able to improvise, displaying a sense of depth and understanding that spills beyond their written characters through mannerisms and expressions (though this makes it all the more disappointing that Stone -- convincing as the smartest girl in class, and a promising Oscorp intern -- is relegated to being Spidey's sidekick for the majority of the movie). Sheen does due justice to Uncle Ben -- the relationship between him and Peter is one of the strongest in the film, served to a point by the fact that we're treated to glimpses of Peter's life before May and Ben, but undeniably helped along by Sheen's intellect in the role. Field is solid, as always, displaying grace and confidence in allowing herself to grow decidedly more distraught (in look and feel) as the film rolls on. Even Ifans -- known to most as an unpredictable rock 'n roll personality -- is proper casting for Connors, striking the right balance between not-so-everyman scientist and off-the-handle roid-reptile. It's not his fault he's wrapped in the garb of a questionable motive and less-than-menacing make-up.
Frankly, I would've been all too happy to see Webb unapologetically in his element throughout "The Amazing Spider-Man." Since we're to expect another Spider-Man trilogy, why not take the time to re-tell it? Focus the first film solely on Peter's transformation to Spider-Man -- let Webb work within all that teenage angst, allow the relationship with Gwen to breathe a bit -- throw in some obstacles for them to overcome, lending their ultimate pairing more of a triumphant feeling. Once Peter is bit, allow the honing of his newfound skills and the creation of his web-shooters and garb to take on a less harried, more realistically frustrating trial-and-error air. Juxtapose some fun revenge scenes with petty criminals and bullies at school, sure, but then give the official reveal of his powers the reverence it deserves -- in taking down Ben's murderer. No need for a half-baked super-villain or epic shots of web-slinging -- just a tight character study that opens the door for a more superhero-centric second film.
But perhaps that's my wistful way of making lemonade out of "The Amazing Spider-Man's" many lemons. There's a compelling character drama buried somewhere within all the poorly rendered effects and slapped-together action sequences. But as much as I wanted to switch off the Reason Meter and enjoy the ride, even the strongest yarn needs to be secured to something sturdy. Despite the best efforts of its cast, "The Amazing Spider-Man" leaves us hanging.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" opens nationwide on July 3.