While filming Superman, director Richard Donner stressed verisimilitude — the quality of imbuing its fantastical story with realism and believability. While the finished movie felt like it sprouted up from our known world, Superman nevertheless retained engaging comic-book surrealism — and it’s this combination that made Donner’s film one of the best ever in the superhero genre. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, particularly the first two excellent entries, followed in that spirit.
Now comes The Amazing Spider-Man, a gritty reboot of the franchise that lost some of its luster after Raimi’s misguided, overstuffed third entry. Tobey Maguire’s wide-eyed, dorky Peter Parker is given an edgy interpretation by Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), who portrays the teenager as a sulky loner. He’s the kind of kid who isn’t afraid to stand up to the school bully, even before he’s bitten by the radioactive bug.
The love bug bites as well, this time in the form of fellow classmate Gwen Stacy (a radiant Emma Stone). The chemistry between the two seems plausible, but on no less than three occasions, Garfield and Stone play out stammering encounters that, while intended to convey the sweet awkwardness of courtship, are overwrought and distracting.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), Garfield and the film’s screenwriters collectively strike a tone that, if not necessarily more “real” than Raimi’s version, is darker — dwelling more on Peter Parker’s reclusive nature and anguish at losing those he loves. In this telling, we get to see Parker’s father and mother (played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) in an enigmatic prologue that finds them fleeing their home and leaving their son in the care of the reliable Aunt May and Uncle Ben. This tone is reflected in the performances as well as the film’s art direction, even as the outsized comic-book scenarios remain (the villain’s subway laboratory/hideout).
Garfield’s Parker exhibits a taste for revenge and cruelty once he gains his powers in the Oscorp headquarters, where his father worked and where Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is seeking to find a cure for life’s imperfections — including his own. Unfortunately, the monstrous creation Connors becomes — the Lizard — is a boring villain saddled with the suspect motivation to turn all of Manhattan into giant reptiles like himself.
As Uncle Ben, Martin Sheen is full of tough love and good advice, but he doesn’t get the critical face-to-face that Cliff Robertson shared with Maguire in Raimi’s film. That moment is relegated to a voicemail message. (It also doesn’t make sense in context.) Sally Field’s Aunt May doesn’t register as strong a presence as her precursor, and her role is also considerably less relevant to this telling.
Over the course of its two-hour-plus running time, The Amazing Spider-Man is less a reimagining than a retread, with scenes that recall the 2002 version but pale by comparison, from the inspiration for Spider-Man’s costume to a predictably staged rescue. Parker’s discovery of his new powers is appropriately awkward, but it strains credulity to think he can’t touch anything without breaking it or getting his webby fingers stuck to it.
In one rousing albeit corny moment, crane operators team up to help out the web slinger. The scene recalls the spirit of the first two Spider-Man entries, a rare sign of heart in a movie that doesn’t need to push for verisimilitude because it never dares to be fantastic in the first place.