The Amazing Spider-man

Fri, Jun 29, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Marc Webb. Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Dennis Leary, Campbell Scott, Chris Zylka, Embeth Davidtz 12A cert, general release, 136 min

It’s a little early, but this re-booted Spider-Man turns out to be surprisingly good fun, especially in its origin story, writes DONALD CLARKE

MANY OF US have become a little exhausted by the need for contemporary superhero films to address philosophical conundrums. But the makers of the vaingloriously titled The Amazing Spider-Man are undoubtedly faced with a very real existential crisis.

Why is this film here? What is its purpose? It was, after all, only a decade ago that Sam Raimi kicked off the continuing super-person mania with his gorgeous, exuberant take on the vintage Marvel comic. Raimi’s somewhat overstuffed Spider-Man 3 emerged as recently as 2007. It does seem a little soon to be recycling the franchise.

Well, first things first. Marc Webb’s film works nicely on its own terms. Andrew Garfield is vulnerable as Peter Parker. Emma Stone swells with personality as a more than usually independent- minded Gwen Stacy. Playing Peter’s elderly Aunt May, Sally Field reminds us (rather terrifyingly) that “little old ladies” now spring from the baby boomer generation. It rattles along. Had the film arrived 10 years ago, we would be celebrating it as a very decent translation of a venerable source. But there really aren’t any radical swerves on display.

Mind you, the picture does begin by offering us rare and surprising footage of young Peter’s parents. Following mysterious developments, Mr and Mrs Parker send Peter to live with Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a humble brownstone.

Most of what follows is as familiar as the story of Christ’s Nativity. Peter gets bullied at school. Something happens to Uncle Ben. Peter gets bitten by a super-spider and develops the ability to walk up walls and gains enough strength to fling a grand piano over the Chrysler Building.

Spider-Man veterans will be interested to hear what’s in and what’s out. The original chronology has been re-established and the frisky, blonde Gwen Stacy, rather than the quieter Mary Jane Watson (who does not appear), emerges as Peter’s first love. There are mentions of the Daily Bugle, but J Jonah Jameson is absent and Peter doesn’t secure a job there. (Perhaps print journalism is now regarded as too insignificant a job for a super-being.) The villain of choice, the never-particularly- interesting Lizard, is played by Rhys Ifans and, later, by a collection of agitated pixels.

So, we are tweaking at the narrative rather than reinventing it. Director Marc Webb does, however, make something genuinely moving of the high-school sequences. Webb has previously shown a grasp of teenage emotional dynamics with his (500) Days of Summer. Whereas Tobey Maguire came across as an oddball in Raimi’s film, Garfield exhibits a less eccentric, more commonplace class of angst. This is a Peter Parker to believe in.

Indeed, the first two-thirds of the film have genuine emotional purchase. As the first Aunt May to escape ageist stereotyping, Field is allowed to create a damaged human being rather than just fuss about like the supporting player in a Wether’s Original commercial. Stone shows some depth. Even Flash (Chris Zylka), the school bully, is allowed a degree of colour.

When, however, the movie escapes the origin story and moves on to the requisite hero-vs-maniac action, much of the wind saps from its sails. Part of the problem lies with the choice of The Lizard as an antagonist. Who wants to watch Spider-Man battle a combination of the Toxic Avenger and a rubber-suited monster from 1957?

More seriously, Webb fails to make the action sequences buzz. If there is one conspicuous distinction between his vision and Raimi’s, it concerns the decision to reject the bold visuals that (in the first picture, at least) recalled the primary-coloured simplicity of the original comics. The film doesn’t quite sink into Dark Knight gloom. But a terrible drabness does take over in the final half hour.

Oh well. They can address that issue in the next reinvention. The way things are going, we should see that in about six months.