In discussing remakes I usually try to avoid discussing the film in relation to its original. I am generally not interested in what the film does the same or differently, so long as it does those things well. Remakes are hardly ever necessary, but that doesn’t devalue them in my eyes. I’ve loved plenty of remakes, from The Thing to The Fly to Let Me In. Is it nice to see when one of these films ventures on its own path away from its inspiration? Sure, but I don’t see that as a strict necessity, and so I don’t like to even bring up the original. It’s always about the film at hand.
Well, almost always. Though The Amazing Spider-Man is not a remake, and though I prefer to look only at the film I’m reviewing, in this case I can’t help but compare the film to its brother from 2002. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is not a film beloved in my neck of the woods. I think it handles the origin story of a super-powered hero better than any other film in the modern era of comic book films, but I also find the film visually unappealing, poorly acted, overly silly and paced pretty unevenly. I also think these problems got worse with the sequel. But at its core, Spider-Man did the origin right. In terms of story beats I’d almost be willing to say it did Spidey’s origin perfectly. I’m not opposed to the idea of The Amazing Spider-Man being another origin story, but by being one so half-heartedly, and by sticking too closely to the one in the 2002 film, it forces the audience to recall a much better telling of the same basic story.
Before I start sounding too negative on The Amazing Spider-Man, I’d like to talk about its good qualities. I liked the film. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I was entertained the whole way through, and though the movie is well over two hours long, it didn’t actually feel that long to me. So a big win in that basic department. If you want simple summer escapism, The Amazing Spider-Man will do the trick fairly well, with about as consistent a level of basic entertainment as something like The Avengers, though on a smaller scale.
The film’s direction is also pretty darn great. Marc Webb, director of (500) Days of Summer, helms this Spidey outing, and he brings with him the fresh, clean and energetic style of that earlier film. Particularly enjoyable are the action sequences, which, even when occasionally too cheesy, are a pleasure to watch. Webb’s approach during these sequences is essentially to untether the camera. It’s always pointed at Spider-Man, which makes things very easy to follow, but the camera itself flies and jumps and spins all over the place, putting the audience in the perspective of the web-slinger. As the shots spin upsides down and shift perspective the sense of exhilaration is palpable. The 3D only adds to this. It’s certainly the best action ever done in a Spider-Man film, and with solid effects to back things up.
The casting is equally strong. Emma Stone is wonderful and charming as always, bringing chemistry to every interaction she has with any other actor. It’s an amazing talent. Dennis Leary, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field and Martin Sheen all bring their A-game to the supporting roles. And then, of course, there’s Spider-Man himself, Andrew Garfield. The kid is a major talent. He knows how to play just the right level of cocky teenager and awkward nerd. This isn’t your regular stuttering teenager performance—the kind you’d see from Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg—but a more natural, relatable kind of teen. Garfield does a great job as Peter Parker, and I hope this is the beginning of even bigger and better things for the young actor.
Unfortunately, here’s where we need to talk about the story. Basically, it’s another origin. It follows well-tread territory and adds in a conspiracy involving Peter Parker’s missing parents. It also introduces a new villain to the film series, with Rhys Ifans turning himself into The Lizard. In terms of structure, though, it’s pretty same-y. And not just to the original Spider-Man, but to most other origins. Parker is a normal kid with some problems, gets his powers, learns how to use them while also getting entangled with a villain, must defeat said villain and then look forward to the future. We know how this goes. We’ve seen it many times before. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what makes it problematic in this case is how closely it resembles the first Spider-Man, as well as the slight differences.
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS BEGIN HERE*
There was no particular reason, except maybe to appease comic book nerds, for The Amazing Spider-Man to stick so closely to some of the beats of the original story. A spider bite and learning to use some powers would have been enough. The film makes two serious missteps, though. Clearly the makers understand that they’re doing a bit of a re-tread, and so they attempt to speed things up. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take away some of the awe in discovering the powers. Worse than that, though, is the decision to once again kill Uncle Ben. As the scene began I could feel the audience groaning internally. “Oh, they’re doing this again. They’re going to kill him. Again.” It’s the “again” part that’s key. Had we not already gotten a very emotionally heavy section of the 2002 film dedicated to this plot point it might have carried more weight. But it’s not just that we’ve seen it before, it’s that this new film tries ever so hard to appear different. Ben gives the “with great power comes great responsibility” speech, but the words are changed and that exact line is never spoken. The makers are far too conscious of the fact that audiences will sense similarity. The scene in which Ben is shot also happens under slightly different circumstances. Ultimately, though, once the scene starts, it’s clear where it’s going, and the only the only emotion in it is exasperation with a film that felt the need to go there even though it really didn’t. In the 2002 film, that death is basically THE major event of the film. It informs everything. In The Amazing Spider-Man it’s just a story beat the film needed to hit.
The need to hit story beats is what brings the film down, and what calls to mind comparisons to the original film. Here is all feels dictated by necessity, not borne out of true story and character motivation. So many points in the plot feel like they exist only because the studio felt it necessary to go back to the beginning if they were going to have a new cast for the series. In Raimi’s film, though I didn’t care for the filmmaking or the acting, the way the story played out always felt like it had weight, both thematically and emotionally. I didn’t like Dunst in the film, but the idea of Maguire’s Parker longing for the girl next door since childhood lent a lot to their relationship. The way Uncle Ben’s death sparked an incredible soul-search for Parker had a huge impact on the film. The script was sometimes cheesy, but then so is the new film. Basically, the new film has the same story, with some big and small changes so that it feels a bit different, but ultimately not quite as fulfilling a journey for the character.
It’s really too bad considering the talent involved. By constantly reminding me of what was done better in the original film’s story, I couldn’t help wishing that the original film had never been made, but that its script had been used by Marc Webb and his fantastic cast and crew. What I wouldn’t give to see Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man facing off against Green Goblin shot Marc Webb’s wonderfully acrobatic camera. This is one of those cases where, if a good script is written and if Marc Webb comes back, a sequel might be fantastic. Certainly this film sets up a sequel, and in a manner a bit more natural than some other recent franchise-starters. Until that sequel comes out, though, what we’ve got is this film. The Amazing Spider-Man is fine. It’s a decent summer action spectacle. It’s well shot and well acted and has some nice thrills. Sad that the studio and the filmmakers chose to hamper it with an overly familiar and overall less effective origin story that audience already know so well. The talent present in this film clearly could have given us something so much more… amazing*.
*I’m so, so sorry. I couldn’t resist.