This is your kinder, gentler Spider-Man. That’s neither a compliment nor a complaint. It’s just a quick description of the reboot.
There’s nothing really new here except the emphasis. This Spider-Man film is more down-to-earth, closer to its protagonists, lighter in tone, and slower in pace. Its weaknesses are its inevitable sense of déja vu (we’ve seen him get bitten and seen Uncle Ben die before), its lack of the original’s visual appeal, and its occasional tendency to drag. It’s also too long.
What makes it work to the extent that it does are its two leads. Andrew Garfield (Mark Zuckerberg’s best friend Eduardo in The Social Network and a Tony nominee for Broadway’s Death of a Saleman) gives a star-making turn as Peter Parker that turns Tobey Maguire’s Peter inside out. Maguire took Peter’s life events and turned them inward, artfully exhibiting Peter’s angst and existential pain. Garfield is as bright as Maguire was dark. Garfield’s Peter has his own pain, but it’s a more recognizable and individual adolescent awkwardness. Garfield is all puppy-dog eyes and a killer smile that’s used both genuinely and as his character’s attempt to make people think everything’s OK. Either way, it works, and completely lacks the creepiness of the smiles of some other Hollywood stars that might be getting a third divorce. Every mom will want to take this boy home and feed him.
Garfield, like Maguire, is years too old to play Peter, but he moves like a high-schooler trying to make his way awkwardly into adulthood. He nails down a believable self-consciousness in his speech (especially with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy) and head movements that’s both charming and familiar to anyone who has passed through the teenage years. Garfield’s scene of asking Gwen for a date without either one of them being specific about it could become a classic in the “how to dance around a subject without ever mentioning it” category.
Stone is every bit Garfield’s equal. The actress (also too old to play her character) brings her normal delightful persona to the character, but unlike the earlier Mary Jane, this girl is smart and assertive and indispensable. She learns early on who Peter really is, and becomes something of an active partner with him—an improvement as well as something of a relief over the original. Garfield may use his eyes and smile to nail down his character. Stone doesn’t have to try; her eyes are already as big as a Keane painting, and director Marc Webb (nope, not going there) gives her the tender close-ups that help keep the film so deeply connected to the emotional lives of its two leads. As others have noted, the chemistry between the two leads is the best special effect of the film. You can’t help but root for them as individuals and as a couple, and the greatest enjoyment of the film is just that. (But that short skirt on a science intern—seriously?)
Webb, who has only previously directed (500) Days of Summer, certainly seemed a strange choice for director of an action series reboot. He brings in some fresh air in his eschewing of too many CGI effects, sticking to more old-fashioned action choreography that helps keep the film closer to the real world. But his pace is far too slow far too often, especially in the non-action, non-two-leads scenes. But the action scenes are at least clear and generally not confusing, and he is wise to give the scenes between Garfield and Stone all the time they need. Perhaps it was this more personal character connection seen in his previous film that won him the directing job.
One of the changes that works is Peter’s more gradual embracing of his new “talents” after he’s bitten. We get to see the hesitant first explorations of his new arachnoid powers, which are both more humorous and down-to-earth (pun intended). And instead of seeing Peter move from being gravity-bound to high-flying so quickly, we get to see the steps in-between–and the joy that Peter experiences as he gains ability and experience.
One of the changes that doesn’t work is how quickly Garfield’s Peter recovers from Uncle Ben’s death. Tobey Macquire’s angst in the first film of the trilogy worked because the film gave him ample time to suffer. This film, less concerned with dark feelings of regret and anguish, moves too quickly and a little unrealistically to the next step. This Peter arrives at the same point of answering his call to responsibility, but it’s less deeply personal commitment here.
Webb’s overall style is sweet comparied to Sam Raimi’s dark. Raimi, the previous trilogy’s director, had a sleek visual style and energy that Webb can’t come close to. Raimi’s films pondered the big issues, and his characters suffered physically and emotionally, the leads pulling away from one another as they internalized. Webb’s characters here do the opposite. Problems are personal and physical, not existential. Spider-Man may get hurt physically, but either Aunt May or Gwen provide the necessary comfort, and both male and female leads here turn to one another instead of isolating and drawing inward. Webb has a few nice visual moments, but his canvas comes most alive with four young eyes and two sweet smiles.
Martin Sheen and Sally Field had huge shoes to fill playing Uncle Ben and Aunt May, following the indelible performances of Cliff Robertson and, especially, Rosemary Harris. Sheen brings his paternal authority and strength in his time on–screen, and Field surprises by covering her brittle sweetness with tough and touching mother-bear concern and care. Yes, she’s a well-known star, but here she’s an actress first.
Rhys Ifans is probably best known as Hugh Grant’s roommate in Notting Hill, where he gave one of the great supporting comedy performances of recent years. He’s fine in the central serious role here, but his character is a confusing one, ricocheting between good guy and villain, and raising more questions than answers in terms of his relationship with Peter’s father. Again, in terms of the villain, nothing really new here.
For a summertime movie, The Amazing Spider-Man is solid entertainment and is a showcase for two young actors that have stellar careers ahead of them. If a viewer is into the comics and the “real” backstory, there may be some disappointments and been-there-seen-that. For the rest of us, it’s a pleasant ride.