With only five years since the last Spiderman blockbuster, it might have seemed too soon to reboot the franchise, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, however, puts such worries to rest. The screenwriter is Steve Kloves, who has a keen understanding of character and story as evidence in his scripts for the Harry Potter films. Hes working up the story idea from James Vanderbilt, who understands action and knows how to have a good time, as evidence by, among others, THE RUNDOWN. The result is a film that has the requisite third-act orgy of CGI, but also has a fine sensitivity to the emotional lives of the characters. Plus, Andrew Garfield as the new incarnation of Peter Parker, brings a dash of rakishness to the quintessential high-school nerd, while Emma Stone as his lady love, Gwen Stacy, has the dazzle of star quality and the warmth of the girl next door.
As a re-imagining of the Spiderman origin story, this is a fine grafting of Cold War paranoia about the atom onto the current paranoia about gene splicing. The spider that bites Peter isnt irradiated, rather it hasbeen genetically modified as part of an experiment by Peters father and his one-armed colleague, Dr. Curtis Conner (Rhys Ifans). Their hope is to remove physical ailments from the human experience. Oscorp, the mega-corporation for whom they toil, however, may have other motives, specifically those of the shadowy owner of said corporation. A character never seen, but whose cold-blooded drive to finish the experiment no matter what the cost in money or in safety is perfectly represented by his smooth factotum (Irrfan Khan).
That cold-blooded drive may or may not have had anything to do with the mysterious deaths of Peters parents shortly after they dropped him of with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Fields) on a dark and stormy night, never to be seen again. Its a mystery never spoken of until a basement flood reveals a new twist to the old mystery that spurs Peter to investigate it with the resulting spider bite that changes his life. It also makes Gwen take notice of him like never before.
This is certainly not a perfect film. The leads are obviously older than the 17-year-olds in the story, a nod, perhaps, to the planned sequels, but they have a bouncy sort of verve and a capacity for the emotional depth necessary to make their story work, particularly Garfield, with sleepy eyes and an unruly field of dark hair, finding the exact note of wide-eyed terror and joy to Peters discovery of his new skill set, as well as to the inner turmoil of re-aligning his moral compass. Less successful is Ifans, who makes for a droopy sort of villain, all but immobilized by melancholy with his sad eyes and hang-dog expression, he is an inert element in an otherwise delightfully kinetic exercise. One that may have Peter using a film, not digital, camera, but one that offers up the sort of mega-cool uber-tech that cutting edge enterprise such as Oscorp ought to have.
The action is fast, clever, and includes a dizzyingly fabulous Spiderman-view of flying via web-slinging through the dark New York City night. That Garfield also looks very good in the suit doesnt hurt. The plotting is also clever, with the right mix of suspense, nefarious doings, stirring heroics, first love, final goodbyes, and the dignity that every human being deserves as an obligation from his or her fellows. Casting Sheen, who has been a human-rights activist since before much the audience was born, and dressing Fields in a union t-shirt that recalls her Oscar-winning turn as a union organizer leaves no doubt about where the filmmakers rank the working man and woman in the grand scheme of things, either. One would not, at some point, be surprised to hear Copelands Fanfare for the Common Man burst into the soundtrack. (NB Other subtle meta-references abound beyond that of Spiderman co-creator Stan Lee’s cameo turn. Note, for example, the title of a book displayed in Gwen’s room: Seabiscuit, a reference to the film co-starring the previous Spidey, Tobey Magiuire.)
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is a terrific first installment of a rejuvenated franchise that aspires to be more than an excuse for action and very tight superhero outfits. Never pedantic, but always on message, its the best sort of summer popcorn flick.