Wednesday, July 4, 2012

WHILE NOT AMAZING, "THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" IS EXTREMELY HUMAN

Conceptual reboots are tricky propositions as they attempt to "reinvent the wheel"; even if it seems that the wheel isn't broken. Some reboots are welcome and serve as a shot in the arm to a franchise that is on the verge of falling into irrelevance. The "Batman," "Star Trek" and arguably "James Bond" franchises fall into this category. However, there are some that seem to be exercises in nostalgia that bring nothing new to the table, a la A Nightmare on Elm Street. But, when a concept is rebooted so close to its last cinematic outing, it begs the question "is it really necessary"? Moreover, can it remain entertaining and accepted in the face of any reverence that is held towards the previous incarnation?

In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb, the battle is not that hard won. Spider-Man 3, the last of Sam Raimi's outings, had proven to be a box office success but a critical disappointment; a study in excess: too many villains, too many sub-plots, and actors that practically slept through their performances. With Sam Raimi refusing further studio interference (having the villain "Venom" shoved down his throat), he left the franchise, with Toby Maquire (the original cinematic "Peter Parker") walking with him. Given Sony's current arrangement with Marvel, the rights to further "Spider-Man" film production would revert to Marvel if Sony did not produce one in a sufficient time frame. Hence, the creation of The Amazing Spider-Man.

In all honesty, to compare the Raimi and Webb films is like comparing apples to oranges. Both are fruits, but each has its own, distinct flavor. Whereas the former filmmaker focused mostly on the action and used the quite moments as simply set pieces to get to the next fight or special effects scene, TASM skirts on being an indie film (not surprising, given that his last film was 500 Days of Summer) that happens to take place in a world where super-heroes and monsters exist. Family relationships and raw emotion are the centerpoint in this new take on a very familiar story.

The bare bones remain the same: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network) is bitten by a radioactive spider and is given the proportional strength of a spider, the ability to walk on practically any surface, heightened spider-senses and extreme agility. However, unlike the dour, milquetoast version as previous portrayed by Maguire, this Parker is a smart-alecky whiz kid who loves to skateboard and is a nascent photographer for its own sake. The film focuses on his past more than any other, which includes the disappearance of his mother Mary and geneticist father Richard (Campbell Scott). It's the story of a teenager who is trying to find the truth about his parents' disappearance and, moreover, himself (a point Webb metatextually points out near the film's conclusion). In the meantime, Parker falls head over heels for blonde, assertive Gwen Stacy (played with a twinkle by Emma Stone) who so happens to be both the daughter of NYPD Captain Stacy (an authoratative Denis Leary) and lab assistant to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who was Richard Parker's scientific partner. He also lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) Parker, who try to raise the angst ridden teen as best they can. When Peter provides Dr. Connors, an amputee, with a formula that allows for cross-species spontaneous regeneration, circumstances cause Dr. Connors to use the formula on himself...with disasterous results.

The beats remain the same, only given a new coat of paint. For example, the circumstances surrounding the fateful spider bite that transforms Peter are completely changed. Uncle Ben's fate remains unchanged, but the events leading up to it doesn't (though the omission of a very important line from Spider-Man lore in especially egregious in this context). In terms of the story itself, there is nothing spectacular about it. But then, it is not the story that might make one forget the Raimi films; it's the performances.

As Peter Parker, Garfield is, put succinctly, amazing. One welcome change from the previous films is that Parker is a scientific genius in his own right; a point that is subtly made almost from the beginning. The first portion of the film is all about establishing the anguish and pent up frustration of young Peter. Garfield's Parker is a series of ticks and gestures hidden under a hoodie, but full of piss and vinegar in need of an outlet. He is an outcast but, incongruously and unlike his thespian predecessor, one that is wholly accessible, relatable and convincing as a teenager (Garfield is in his twenties). Garfield has previously extolled at press junkets about his love for the wall crawler, and it shows each time he suits up as Spider-Man. He's as snarky as the character is supposed to be and moves with grace and agility, with some poses and movements almost lifted from the comic panels. The suit, designed by Cirque Du Soleil, is a departure from the original in order to further cement the film's reboot nature. However, it's creation is much more organic than the space aged metal webbing that lined Maguire's suit. Also, this Spider-Man is not as experienced at the get go. He makes mistakes and leaves clues. Yet it is a natural progression for the character.

As Parker's first comic book girlfriend, Emma Stone shines as Gwen Stacy. She is more capable and assertive than the version played by Bryce Dallas Howard, yet despite her above average intellect, is portrayed as a vivacious, fun loving girl. Unlike the pairing of Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, Garfield and Stone crackle with an onscreen chemistry that is rare to find in cinema these days; and like all the acting greats, it is more of what is not said than said that carry the scene. It is easy to believe that these two would be lovers. Their relationship is eased and natural, not forced.

The film is bolstered by the veteran actors that support the leads. Sheen's Uncle Ben has only slightly more screen time than Cliff Robertson ever did, but he makes the most out of that time. He is the moral center of the erzatz Parker family and when his time comes, you feel it. Sally Field's slightly younger Aunt May is as doting as her comic counterpart but is by no means a wall flower. And in some of the quiet moments, her acting leaves one wondering whether she has figured out the truth of her nephews comings and goings, but it is left up to the viewer to decide. As Dr. Curt Connors, Ifans is both likable and threatening; a dichotomy that works. While purists may take umbrage at this version of "The Lizard" looking more like a background extra from "V" than the actual comic design, Ifans imbues him with a ferocity that almost makes up for the visual deviation (somewhere, Dylan Baker is gnashing his teeth). Leary's Captain Stacy is a principled law enforcer who is out to capture Spider-Man, a suitable albeit temporary substitute for J. Jonah Jameson. Leary has come a long way from the comic rapid-fire verbal stand-up who made his cinematic debut in Demolition Man over twenty years ago. Like Sheen and Fields, he helps to anchor the fanciful proceedings with humanity. 

The special effects are no revelation. They are similar to those of the previous Spider-Man films save for the majority of the web swinging work actually being performed by either Garfield or stunt men rather than an over-reliance on CGI, and it works. There are some inconsistencies in presentation, however (play close attention to a broken window that is miraculously repaired when circumstances dictate it shouldn't) but these are minor hiccups in a film that is extremely organic. I use that word because there is a flow to this film. The film clocks in at over two hours but it doesn't seem that way. Whatever slow spots it has is buoyed by the performances of the actors. Also, it borrows a couple of beats from Raimi's first Spider-Man (2001), including a scene near the climax where New Yorkers aid a wounded Spider-Man.

Webb's direction is tight and leaves little by way of filler. Every scene is advanced by the one before it and he deftly balances humor and pathos, tragedy and triumph. The mood is also heightened by composer James Horner, who foregoes both the quirkiness of Danny Elfman/Christopher Young's Spider-Man scores and goes for a more lyrical, yet quieter, heroic theme. Yet, despite the benchmark signatures of his previous scores, Horner's take is no more than servicable. It fits the proceedings quite nicely, yet nothing really stands out. But perhaps that is the point, given that the music is in service to the story and not vice versa. Regardless, his music is appropriately rousing when called for, and romantic when needed.

There are a couple of dangling sub-plots that are obviously meant to be developed in future films (this is the first of a planned trilogy). This would be annoying if this film were to underperform, thereby precluding the resolution of those plot threads. However, this film is in no danger of that. Whether future sequels will rise to the occasion remains to be seen. However, The Amazing Spider-Man is an auspicious re-do in this franchise and one that is well worth watching. Here is a Spider-Man you can root for and believe in.

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