By Guest Writer, Donald Gori
Title: The Amazing Spiderman
Film length: 136 minutes
Average online rating: 7.0-8.0
You all know the story: a teenager gets bitten by a spider, giving him super powers, which he then uses to protect New York City from the various villains constantly threatening the populace. Through a long comic series, several animated shows, and three movies, we have absorbed the mythos of Peter Parker to the point where it may seem like any attempt to retell his tale should, theoretically, fall flat. Nobody likes hearing the same story over and over, after all: we get it, move on.
The Amazing Spiderman, directed by Mark Webb, written by James Vanderbilt, and starring Andrew Garfield in the titular role, doesn’t try to hide the fact that yes, this is another Spiderman movie. What it does do is remind you precisely why Spiderman is as popular now as always. Especially after the (in my opinion) disaster that was Spiderman 3, the series needed a fresh start, a fresh face. There were things that worked in the Tobey Maguire trilogy, and there were things that did not. Amazing chiseled down the expansive tale of Peter to deliver an experience that is as every bit as satisfactory as one could hope, removing rather cliched aspects of the old trilogy while embracing classic Spiderman aspects into a blend that is refreshing, tasteful, and, most importantly, just damn fun.
The story opens with a young Peter, only four years old, being left with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May by his parents, whom are biological researchers for Oscorp. Where they went, and what happened to them, is left rather vague and open ended for the entirety of the movie, though there are clues as to their possible whereabouts and fate. Flash forward to present day where Parker is just another teenager in high school where he is often ridiculed and picked on. His entire personality is exemplified by his awkwardness: Peter is very shy, withdrawn, and, ultimately, alone. It’s not hard to sympathize with him as he is subjected to a vicious beating by jock/bully Flash simply for doing the right thing, with nobody coming to his aid. Aside from Gwen Stacy, giving our hero an early crush even though it seems unlikely that a guy like him could ever have a chance with the lovely Emma Stone, but I’ll get to that later.
His early trials set him up as the Peter Parker that most know him as: ultimately he’s just another nerdy kid getting stepped on left and right, though one can’t help but smile a bit as he takes it all in stride. Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Peter, however, really sets this apart from the older trilogy. Many times Peter does not say much, and what he does manage to get out is often stammered and hushed. There’s very little confidence in him, though his home life does provide a bit of support.
Uncle Ben and Aunt May are well portrayed: a loving family that has raised Peter like he was their own son. Ben is strict, May is more accommodating, but both clearly care for Peter’s well-being and it is here that Peter seems to belong. That is, until a fateful trip to Oscorp. It’s here that we meet the movie’s main antagonist, Dr. Curt Connors. A man well-known for his work on “cross-species genetics”, particularly with lizards, Peter is led to him as he may have information on what happened to his parents. From there, you know what happens next: the bite of a spider and Peter’s life is forever changed.
I won’t give too much in the way of plot, because you already know the plot: Spiderman fights bad guy, saves the day. What I will delve into are the directions that Amazing goes in portraying its stars, and damn do they shine.
Spiderman has been unique in the idea that is has often never truly focused on Spiderman himself. Bruce Wayne is Batman, that’s who we care about. Clark Kent is Superman, Steve Rogers is Captain America, and so on. The difference here is that Spiderman is Peter Parker, not the other way around. This is not the story of a superhero, this is the story of a kid coming into his own as a man and rising up to do the right thing. Uncle Ben’s death is still shown (you knew it would be), but the impact it has is profound. There is no more of the “With great power comes great responsibility” gimmick; it’s cheesy, overplayed, and just groan-worthy by this point. The movie does still capture the idea that Peter should push himself to the moral high ground, but it leaves it all in a rather grey area for the majority of the film as Spiderman relentlessly hunts down his Uncle’s murderer. Even when Peter tries to defend Spiderman’s (re: his) actions to Gwen Stacy’s father, George Stacy, Captain in the NYPD, it quickly gets thrown back in his face: the Webslinger had spent weeks hunting down a particular individual, profiling the people he goes after, leading Captain Stacy to remark that Spiderman appeared to be less about fighting for good and more on a quest of vengeance, if anything.
This isn’t to say that Peter is necessarily bad, however. There is a clear progression in his actions and persona once he begins to become Spiderman, though. Geeky, quiet Peter quickly becomes a wise-cracking badass once the hood comes on. The duality between these two portrayals is clear and flows seamlessly throughout the movie. In one moment Peter is failing miserably at trying to ask Gwen out; In the next he’s berating a thief holding a knife to him for his “work uniform”. We get to see Peter’s power grow and how he adapts to it, how he makes it work for him. Some of the best scenes, to me, are simply watching Peter figure out how everything works when being Spiderman, including watching him clumsily swinging on steel chains in an abandoned dock warehouse, inspiring him to build his iconic web-shooters. The audience gets to feel that growth, experience that sensation of discovering something for the first time.
The shift in Peter’s dynamic from rogue vigilante to true hero is shortly after his first encounter with Dr. Connors in his new form as Lizardman. Whilst trying to rescue a young boy from a burning car, Peter tells the child to put his mask in; “It’ll make you strong,” he tells him. It’s easy to see that this is exactly how Peter, himself, sees it. As his teenage self he is weak and flawed: his Uncle chased him out into the midnight of Queens after a fight, leading to Ben’s death. He handed over the equation necessary for Dr. Connors to complete his work and undergo his change into a murderous monster, an equation his father had apparently kept secret for good reason. With the mask on, however, he faces down gangster and supervillain alike with no fear, protecting Gwen and keeping New York safe. The change in posture, in dialogue, it’s incredible to view: one gets a far better sense of Peter owning up to who he is and what he can do by watching him evolve through situation after fight after defeat, rather than hearing a constant voice over in Maguire’s head reminding him, “Hey, by the way, you’re a superhero: Might want to act like one.”
The rest of the cast does their job splendidly. Emma Stone gives Gwen Stacy, Peter’s love interest, a smart, sharp, and sassy opposite to Peter’s gawky and bumbling nature. Their relationship isn’t all sunshine, and her fears and concerns are both entirely valid and believable. Her father wears a gun and badge, she reasons: she isn’t sure he’ll come home every night, just as she begins to worry that Peter might not after he reveals his secret life to her. Likewise, Dennis Leary puts Peter in his place as Gwen’s father, reminding him (and the audience) that there are plenty of men and women getting paid to risk their lives on a daily basis to protect the streets: their heroics should not be overlooked just because of some goon in spandex, after all.
Rhys Ifans brings a unique side to the villain of this movie in his role as Dr. Connors. His work in biology is meant to help people, including himself: as he assures a group of prospective interns at Oscorp staring at his amputated right arm, “Don’t worry: I’m a Southpaw”. His research on cross-species genetics (combining dna and traits of animals with those of other animals [such as humans]) is to produce a cure for maladies that plague mankind. He is, in effect, a hero himself, trying to better all humans through his research. His descent into the animalistic Lizardman is well documented, leaving him a villain that is not so comically evil as has been done-to-death. Connors is trying to better humanity, heal humanity through his work, only to have Oscorp take it from him with the intent to inject untested serum into unwilling participants. He becomes Lizardman not just to heal his damaged arm, but to protect his life’s work, to see that it is used for good. It is his methods that are vile, not his prospective goals.
Moving away from the characters, the actual filming itself deserves some praise. The cinematography is exceedingly well done: no more choppy fight scenes where you can’t tell what the hell is going on. What I also initially thought was going to be just a cheap trick turned out to be wildly cool: the first-person view point of seeing Spiderman in action. For the very first time, we get to see what it’s like to swing from skycrapers, to crawl up glass windows sixty stories up and plummet to the streets below. It’s not overdone at all, being used at only a few points, but it’s certainly a new experience.
The musical score as well is worthy of attention. It’s neither overpowering nor low-key, and each piece is designed to fit the moment at hand, rather than scenes being built around musical arrangements. After all, the music is simply there to add to the film, not overwhelm it (you hear me, Dark Knight?). From triumphant strings as Parker outwits foes while soaring through the city streets of Manhattan to jarring, eerie strikes of the piano as Lizardman is stalking Gwen inside the Oscorp tower, it’s good to hear a moment being set right from the first note. As a musician myself, it’s truly appreciated.
Now, the film does have a few problems worth mentioning. For one, pacing issues: it’s rather slow to start: Peter Parker is Peter Parker for a long time before we ever first see him in the red-and-blue, and some scenes are, perhaps, a bit unnecessary. Two, while Dr. Connors is a well-done villain, Oscorp itself does have a bit of that “comically-evil” side to it. Come on, a billion-dollar corporation that can’t afford to pay a few human test subjects and instead tries to draw them out of a Veteran’s Hospital? Have a heart, Norm, soulless as it may be. Three, there are a few plots that are not tied up by film’s end. Now, it’s entirely clear that this is meant to be an extended series, though, so such answers most likely will come with time.
Aside from such minor concerns though … It’s Spiderman. Spiderman as he was meant to be. You wanted it, I wanted it, what more is there to complain about when you’ve got Peter thwipping someone’s mouth shut just for kicks?
We’ve been getting slammed with superhero movies left and right. I myself am still riding off of the high that was The Avengers. Maybe there’s just a few too many superhero movies being released and being worked on. But, these are stories we grew up on. These are stories we love and cherish. The reason we keep shoveling out money to see Christian Bale growl at extras and Robert Downey Jr. play Robert Downey Jr. in a robot suit is because we want to. We enjoy doing so. Yes, we’ve heard the same tale a hundred times before. But when it’s taken from such a refreshing angle, with a cast that clearly wants to be there are much as we want to see it, I’ve got no problem sitting there in that seat to hear it for the hundred and first time.
The Amazing Spiderman is the story of Peter Parker, the one you already know. It’s about a teenage boy going from awkward geek to super hero. It’s about coming of age, of accepting who you are and what you are supposed to do. It’s about love, and loss, and the powers that can motivate us to become extraordinary.
And it’s truly deserving of its name.
Plus, seriously, just web-shoots a guy in the face. Hilarious.
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