Monday, July 9, 2012

Review - The Amazing Spider-Man

I went in to Marc Webb's 2012 reboot of Sony/Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man films not really knowing what to expect. The trailers showed what seemed to be a darker take on the character than seen in Sam Raimi's trilogy while simultaneously showing a jokier Spider-Man. Neither impression ended up being entirely accurate; while the film largely takes itself seriously, it thankfully avoids trying to produce a dark, gritty atmosphere, and while Spider-Man has several one-liners ranging from embarrassing to pretty funny, it's not a yuck-fest. In fact, the overall feel of the film (at least in its second half) isn't entirely dissimilar from what we got in Raimi's Spider-Man films, and while I would have liked to see it veer off in a more radical direction, I'm ok with that. I enjoyed Raimi's films, and I enjoyed this one, even if parts of it feel a bit repetitive. There will be story spoilers in this review, but this isn't a film reliant on plot twists. The most surprising plot points seem to have been excised from the film during late-stage post production.

The film opens with Peter Parker as a young boy playing hide and seek with his dad. He stumbles upon some manhandled paperwork, his parents panic, and he's rushed off to Aunt May and Uncle Ben's house. His parents leave him behind, never to be seen again. Peter's quest for answers and this untold backstory were a selling point of the film, making up a large part of its advertising campaign, but what we actually see of it is truncated and almost totally dropped midway through, apparently due to studio meddling. Whether Sony believed the plot involving Peter's parents would confuse audiences or whether they simply wanted to keep it on deck for a sequel, this is a major plot line that's largely left hanging.

Once we're in the present day, Peter goes snooping around for information on his missing parents, which leads him to Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father's former Partner in Science. Connors, who lost his right arm prior to the events of the film, laments his physical disability and longs for a "world without weakness," created via genetic manipulation.

After meeting Connors, Peter wanders into the least secured dangerous science room in the world, is bitten by a genetically engineered spider, and begins developing spider-related powers, such as the ability to weave a good looking costume. Uncle Ben imparts a lesson about responsibility, is killed as a result of Peter's inaction (though Peter is less responsible for what happens here than in Raimi's film), and Peter begins life as Spider-Man. To keep things interesting, Peter hands Connors a formula his father had written and hidden away before disappearing, Connors uses it, and, of course, becomes a giant humanoid lizard. Unlike Uncle Ben's death, this one actually is pretty much Peter's fault.

While Raimi's Spider-Man focuses on Peter Parker as a first year college student, Webb's shows us Parker as a high school junior, played by Andrew Garfield. While the awkwardness of a 28 year old playing a 17 year old is a bit off-putting, Garfield plays the part well, and gets his character's twitchiness down perfectly. Early on, he attracts the attention of Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, who looks even less like a teenager than Garfield. Both her look and her attitude, outside of her flirtatious scenes with Peter, come off more as a teacher than a student.

It is strange to see actors older than the original cast playing the characters even younger than they were in the previous films, but I guess that's largely to be expected. Aside from that, I've got no complaints about the acting here. While there are a few standouts (Martin Sheen is exceptionally good as Ben Parker), none of the actors give a performance as perfect as J.K. Simmons as Jameson in the previous three films (His character is not in this film, and probably for the best. No one could play him better than Simmons.) I've seen a lot of praise for Garfield's Peter Parker versus Tobey Maguire's in Raimi's films, but I feel they're pretty equal in their own ways. Garfield's given more jokey lines to read while he's in the Spider-Man suit, but as Peter Parker, both actors emote quite similarly at times, and Garfield's occasional awkward mumble is quite close to Maguire's. Where Garfield does shine is the physical nature of the character; his movement and poses lead to him feeling a lot more like a human spider than the hero of Raimi's films.

Emma Stone plays Gwen Stacy well. She's smart, determined, and attracted to Peter. We don't get much of a look at her own personal motivations outside of her interactions with Peter and the fact that she's an intern at the massive Evil Corporation Oscorp, but thankfully she never plays the Damsel in Distress role, something that Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane in the previous trilogy fell into too often. Through dialogue we're told that she's even smarter (or at least more academically driven) than the preposterously intelligent Peter Parker, but she's not really given an opportunity to show this. While she does help save the day and play a nice sidekick role to Peter in a couple of scenes, Gwen doesn't get to do a ton with her own ingenuity. Hopefully in the next film, she'll be given a chance to shine.

Rhys Ifans' Dr. Connors is played as a sympathetic villain, tortured at first by his determination to finish the work Richard Parker left behind and later by his addiction to the formula that transforms him into a giant green monster. My biggest problem here is that his character feels like a retread of the villains from Raimi's first two movies. Like the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus before him, science gone awry breaks Connors' mind and leads to him having a secondary voice in his head that tells him to go out and do mean things. Just as the Green Goblin did, The Lizard shows psychotic glee in combat and love of corny insults, most heavily apparent in his final confrontation with Spider-Man. Much like Dr. Octopus, Connors is a mentor and potential father figure to Peter before his transformation. It's also kind of hard to sympathize with the guy when he speaks like a hardcore eugenicist.

Dr. Connors' ultimate villainous plan is cartoonishly ridiculous, and I do find a certain charm in it. I've seen people praise this film for being less campy than Raimi's, but let's be serious; it's a film in which the villain's scheme is to launch an energy wave that turns everyone in New York into dinosaur people because dinosaurs are way better than humans and they don't get sick maybe. Peter ultimately foils it not by talking sense into him or by winning in a fight, but by switching out the ammo in his Lizard Transformation Ray so that we get an ending with a blue energy wave instead of a green one. Between this and the Godzilla references post-Lizard rampage, I feel that this film very consciously plays the up camp angle whenever The Lizard is on screen, and I enjoy that. I'd also like to add that I saw this film at a drive-in, which cultivated the absolute perfect environment for watching a giant green dinosaur guy cause mayhem.

While I feel this film's plotting and characters are largely equivalent to what we see in Raimi's Spider-Man, there are two aspects in which Amazing Spider-Man is clearly a weaker film; Its soundtrack and its editing.

The Raimi Spider-Man films don't have particularly spectacular scores, but they work well enough. Most importantly, they aren't distracting. Amazing Spider-Man features indie rock, traditional Hollywood super hero themes, and really bad horror stings. The vocal songs that appear aren't bad songs, but they never felt like they belonged in the film, and made the scenes they were in feel more like TV dramas. The film's score is more blunt than most regarding the whole "The music tells the audience how they should feel" thing, and Webb uses specific songs to say, "This is the 'Peter is a modern teenager' scene." It took me out of the movie a bit, but nowhere near as badly as the screechy piano stings that play as The Lizard stalks through his lab. I assume that this too was to play up the campy aspect of his character, but it's ridiculously hammy even compared to the fact that there's a giant lizard stalking through a lab.

A far bigger problem, and certainly the biggest in the film, is its editing. Important chunks of the movie were removed, likely very close to release since they still show up in the most recent trailers. The trailers have Dr. Connors taunting Peter with the truth about his parents and Oscorp bigwig Mr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan) confronting Connors post transformation and revealing information to Peter about his father's genetic experiments. All of these scenes are meant to occur late in the film, but none actually do. Webb clearly intended the truth about Peter's parents to be a driving force throughout the film, but references to it in the second half are almost entirely cut. Ratha's presence in the second half IS entirely cut; he never appears again after his first confrontation with The Lizard.

I don't blame Webb for what happened here. It stinks of studio meddling, and it turns an enjoyable film into a decidedly weaker one that loses track of its main story thrust midway through. Director's Cuts often feel like a cheap excuse to sell a movie twice and include a couple of needless scenes, but here, I actually want one. It's obvious that this film is not the entire story that Webb intended to tell, and I absolutely want to see what his original vision was. I'm generally not too concerned with plot holes, but when cut scenes are essential to the movie's driving themes, maybe they shouldn't have been cut. I'd love to know specifically which higher up to blame for this. I'd also love to know who inserted the brief shot of a newspaper headline stating "Richard and Mary Parker killed in plane crash," because clearly none of the characters in the film paid any attention to it since Peter is still asking where his father went.

A big reason I'd like to see what Webb had originally intended is that as it is, Amazing Spider-Man isn't about anything radically different than Raimi's Spider-Man was. Both films are about identity, responsibility, the wisdom of fathers, and Don't Mess With New York (Amazing Spider-Man's crane scene thematically replicates Raimi's Spider-Man's New Yorkers throwing trash at the Green Goblin scene, albeit in a less silly but still ridiculous way). Any Spider-Man story is going to be about responsibility, and any story about teenagers is going to be about identity, but this film is filled to the brim with Wise Fathers and I want to know whether Webb had possibly meant to subvert that theme. Uncle Ben is obvious, but Dr. Connors and Gwen Stacy's father, a police chief played by Denis Leary, both serve as surrogates for Peter's missing father at certain points in the film.

From what we can see, Peter's birth father was involved in genetic experiments involving spiders. The spiders that he and Dr. Connors birth approximately fifteen years prior to the events of the film are used to spin super strong webs for Oscorp, which it then sells on the open market, presumably at dirt cheap prices since even a high school kid like Peter Parker can afford to buy bulk quantities of the stuff. This film's Spider-Man uses artificial webbing as in the original comics, rather than organic webs as seen in Raimi's film. Unlike the comics, Peter purchases the webbing, and only invents the shooters used to aim it. Oscorp doesn't mind him buying it and causing trouble for them. It's mildly implied in the film, and heavily implied in the trailers, that Richard Parker performed experiments on Peter as a young child, thus allowing him to become Spider-Man when bitten by a Super Spider, rather than just dying like everyone else.

As a genius scientist who uses his own child unwillingly in a eugenics experiment, Richard Parker is clearly not a good guy. He's not someone for Peter to admire and long to be reunited with; he's a dark mirror to Uncle Ben. While Richard Parker is brilliant, cold, and willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals, Ben Parker is simpler, warm, and places doing what's morally good over what you personally desire at every turn. Connors tries to live up to Richard Parker's example, and in doing so completes his work and unleashes a monster. Richard Parker is the true villain in this film, or at least he would be if this truth were not watered down through editing. The little bit we learn about Peter's father subverts the Quest for a Father Figure theme that Peter falls into quite often in this movie and in the previous ones, but isn't allowed to fully blossom. Peter shouldn't be a child looking for his father when Amazing Spider-Man ends; he should be a creature angry at his creator.

In a way, this film feels like a Greatest Hits album of the early 2000's super hero films. It's obviously a Spider-Man film, but it specifically pays tribute to Sam Raimi's films through its campy villain. The Lizard's big plan is ultimately the same as Magneto's in the first X-Men film. The whole Richard Parker using his son in his bad science element is Ang Lee's Hulk. Amazing Spider-Man is a love letter to these films, the films that began the modern super hero film craze and are, to me, some of the better examples of the genre. I would rather see a film quote Spider-Man, Hulk, or X-Men than anything Marvel Studios has released. There's a human warmth to these films, and to Amazing Spider-Man, that is absent intentionally from darker films like The Dark Knight and Watchmen and unintentionally from dumber films like The Avengers and Captain America.

I've seen a lot of back and forth over whether or not this film is better than Raimi's and, most perplexing to me, a lot of really visceral hate from Raimi's films that I never saw back when they were first released. While I don't think Amazing Spider-Man is as strong as Spider-Man 2 or as stupid-funny as Spider-Man 3, at least it doesn't have any scenes are as bizarrely awkward as the Macy Gray scene in Spider-Man 1. It's impossible not to compare the films, but I feel that it would be hard to enjoy Webb's take on the character if you truly hated Raimi's and vice versa. Both are satisfying films, even if I really, really wanted to see Webb take a more radical approach to his material. There are hints of that with the Richard Parker plotline, but it's not nearly prevalent enough.

That brings me to my final point, which is that this movie ends on an absolutely horrible note. Not the pre-credits ending; I thought that its final moment between Peter and Gwen was pretty endearing. My problem is with the mid-credits stinger that tells us to "Tune in next time!" In it, Dr. Connors is confronted by a shadowy figure who asks him if he told Peter the truth about his parents. He says no, and the shadowy figure writhes cartoonishly or something. I hate this for two reasons; First, I don't like shoehorning in a scene to tell us to come back in two years for our answers. You can end on a cliffhanger, but a film must complete itself thematically. The Empire Strikes Back tells us all it needs to tell while still ending on a cliffhanger. Batman Begins ends on a teaser that if anything strengthens the film's themes by being there. Amazing Spider-Man's stinger does neither. Second, it feels like the studio rubbing in our faces the fact that they cut what would have likely been the most interesting plot thread in the film.

The lack of resolution to the questions about Peter's parents and to the theme of fatherhood wisdom annoys me pretty deeply since I know there was more to it in a previous cut. It's just made worse by the fact that the execution of this scene is really, really stupid. It didn't leave it feeling as thoroughly dead to me as, say, the endings of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 or Matrix Reloaded did, and it didn't leave me feeling as bored and annoyed as the stingers to every Marvel studios film did, but I still don't like it. I strongly believe that a good film can overcome a bad ending, but I'm very sick of super hero films that end with this kind of teaser. I don't want two more movies about Peter dealing with his missing dad; I want one solid film that tackles the themes found within such a plot. Not every story needs to be nine hours long.

1 comment:

  1. I don't understand why we needed a retelling of the Spider-Man origin story so soon after the last trilogy ended.

    My wife and I were debating this or Brave on Saturday and went with Brave. It was mediocre, but I no longer feel like I really missed out by not seeing this movie.