In theory, I don’t really have a problem with a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise. It’s true that it’s only been five years since the last one ended and that the reasons for making this movie now were clearly financial, but that doesn’t doom it to creative failure. Sequels and remakes are so ubiquitous now that there’s no real point in waiting if you have a fresh take on an old idea.
The problem with The Amazing Spider-Man is that there really is no fresh take at all. The story is virtually identical to the one told in the 2002 version: Peter Parker is a nerd, then he gets bitten by a spider, then his Uncle Ben gets killed, then he fights crime, then he gets the girl, then he fights a Major Bad Guy who has endangered the girl. You could argue that there’s no way to do the story without those major beats, but this movie does absolutely nothing to enliven them. It just goes through the already-familiar motions.
One major problem with the film is Andrew Garfield as Peter. I liked Garfield a lot in The Social Network, and he’s not bad here—he’s just miscast. It is simply impossible to buy Garfield as the socially awkward science geek he’s playing. Tobey Maguire looked like the average, in-over-his-head kid that Peter Parker is supposed to be; Garfield looks polished and urbane and tall. It’s very hard to believe that he would have trouble getting Emma Stone to notice him—after all, Garfield and Stone are a couple in real life.
There are aspects of Parker that Garfield does do better than Maguire, specifically his wise-ass side. The brief bits when Parker seems to be having fun as Spider-Man—when he mocks a criminal’s poor planning or tells a cop how to do his job—show that there is a version of Spider-Man that Garfield could have excelled at. But not the generally humorless story this movie tells.
Though this year’s version repeats most of the 2002 story, it drains almost all the fun out of it. Ten years ago, the story had J.K. Simmons as the cartoonish editor providing levity. It had James Franco as Parker’s friend to offer a sense of camaraderie. It took time to depict Parker’s maturation into his abilities. This film drains away all of that. In one scene, Parker is accidentally destroying a subway car with his powers; minutes later, he’s doing stunts in his high school gym with ease.
This is probably the film’s greatest sin: Not only is it familiar, it actually relies on that familiarity to gloss over certain key plot points. We only know Garfield is playing a nerd because we already know Peter Parker is supposed to be a nerd. We only really understand his powers because we know Spider-Man’s powers, and not because of how they are illustrated.* We only know that the Oscorp scientist is evil because the Oscorp scientist is supposed to be evil. The villain’s motivation is never even clear until he explicitly announces it in the clunkiest way—and even then it’s kind of a stretch.
*Although the film does have some excellently shot swinging scenes.
In many ways, superhero movies are only as good as the villain, and in this case The Lizard, as played by Rhys Ifans, severely disappoints. His motives are unclear, his powers are boring, and his moral descent is generic. There is a convoluted backstory involving The Lizard’s alter ego, Dr. Curt Connors, and Peter’s father, but there’s no payoff for it—it’s clearly in there for future sequels. For the first half of the movie, Connors is a noble good guy, helping Parker understand genetics; in the second half, he is completely evil for no real reason except that the plot needs to move forward.
Ifans is one of many actors whose talents are totally wasted in supporting roles in this film: Martin Sheen, Sally Field, and Denis Leary all add heft to the cast list, but the story doesn’t do much with any of them. Even Stone, as Parker’s love interest Gwen Stacy, doesn’t amount to much. Stacy is a different character than Mary Jane Watson, who Kirsten Dunst played in the last trilogy, but the movie makes nothing of these differences. Besides having blonde hair and being good at science (in no way that advances the plot), Stone might as well be playing Mary Jane.
Buried underneath all its problems, the film contains the makings of a good reboot. Garfield and Stone have far more chemistry than Maguire and Dunst ever did, and Garfield could probably play a good Parker in a non-origin story, when you don’t have to fully believe him as a nerd. Leary could bring a gruffer, more realistic version of what Simmons brought to the last franchise. Overall, this reboot could be a less cartoonish, grittier version of the Spider-Man story. According to Wikipedia, Spider-Man has appeared in almost 700 comics. There ought to be more than enough material there to make four compelling movies. So it’s pretty disappointing that they would make the same one twice.