Pop culture icons don't get much bigger or better than Spider-Man. It's particularly frustrating, then, that he hasn't been in a great movie since 2004.
Despite its shortcomings, The Amazing Spider-Man clears its most basic hurdle with ease — it justifies its existence. Just 10 years on from Sam Raimi's classic Spider-Man, even the most diehard Spidey fans had doubts about the need for a reboot. After all, it's not like Raimi botched it the first time around (he saved that for Spider-Man 3). Fortunately, Andrew Garfield's performance allays those fears.
His Peter Parker is a 21st century geek, a rebellious hipster that contrasts sharply with Tobey Maguire's terminally awkward wallflower. Maguire's caricature was incredibly entertaining, of course, but Garfield's take feels real. He has a believable edge that never feels forced (even when he's riding that skateboard). Paradoxically, Maguire's lovable dork felt like he belonged in the '60s, but it's Garfield's smart-arse loner that feels closer to the character Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in that decade.
The cast is strong across the board. Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is a feisty, relatively independent romantic lead, who has a real (very real, as it turns out) chemistry with Garfield. Their interactions never fail to charm, and go a long way towards giving the film an emotional anchor.
Martin Sheen and Sally Field imbue Aunt May and Uncle Ben with the mix of authority and vulnerability their roles require, living up to the standard set by Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris in Raimi's trilogy, if not surpassing it. Denis Leary was an unorthodox choice to play Gwen's father, Captain George Stacy, but ultimately an inspired one. Even Rhys Ifans does the best he can as conflicted scientist Curt Connors.
So if the cast shines, and director Marc Webb understands the heart of these characters, where does The Amazing Spider-Man go wrong? For this reviewer, it's a death by a thousand small cuts. It's hard not to get the impression that this is a poor man's blockbuster.
It's not that any of the effects look bad, exactly, it's just that none of them particularly impress, and they tend to be used in the service of fairly pedestrian action sequences. The Lizard, for example, is a more convincing CGI creation than expected, but none of his clashes with Spider-Man leave a strong impression. It doesn't help that the character's motivations are so muddled.
By the end of the film, his backstory is still unnecessarily murky, and much like Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, it's never completely clear whether he's inherently evil or whether science is entirely to blame. If a superhero film is only as good as its villain, The Amazing Spider-Man won't go down as a classic.
Webb's revised origin for the webslinger makes sense at its core — rather than the spider bite being a random occurrence, it's presented here as an inevitable confluence of events — but falls apart fairly quickly. In an attempt to undo one unlikely coincidence, Webb (and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves) creates a whole string of them, some of which are more conspicuous and harder to accept than anything in the original film.
At each turn of the rebooted origin, the shadow of Raimi's film looms large, usually to the new take's detriment. Peter's tragic lesson in power and responsibility isn't handled as well here as it was there, and Raimi's wrestling sequence is replaced with a ludicrous scene that would be rightly laughed out of any film, not just one going head-to-head with a colossus.
While Garfield does a stellar job of portraying our hero, the same can't be said of Webb's attempt to lay out that hero's journey. This Spider-Man goes from a YouTube phenomenon to a public menace virtually overnight. J Jonah Jameson doesn't feature in this film, presumably because his over-the-top persona wouldn't fit into Webb's more 'realistic' milieu (or because he's being saved for a sequel), but in the process we lose the valuable plot function that Jameson and his Daily Bugle served.
The absence of the Bugle is also indicative of the emptiness of Webb's New York. There are almost certainly more speaking parts in this film than there were in Raimi's, but it feels strangely claustrophobic and hermetically sealed. This world doesn't feel lived in, a letdown made even more disappointing by comparison with the way Webb was able to utilise Los Angeles as a character in 500 Days Of Summer (indeed, any fans of that film hoping to see the next entry in an auteur's canon should probably back away slowly).
Reviews will almost certainly compare elements of The Amazing Spider-Man to a video game, but it's not really a fair comparison. A sandbox environment in a good video game would be more fleshed out, the hero's journey would be more substantial, and the plot would take a few more turns. It might even have a better soundtrack (as it stands, James Horner's score is a generic, intrusive mess). If The Amazing Spider-Man was really like a video game, it'd be a better film.
Superhero fans will still find a lot to savour here, and it's easy to believe a sequel will expand on the things that worked. But The Amazing Spider-Man just doesn't have the magic of the OG Spider-Man, and with 10 years to study that blueprint, it's more than a little disappointing they couldn't improve on it.
The Amazing Spider-Man is released on Wednesday July 4.