Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man - Theatrical Review


Release Date: July 3, 2012

Is it a sequel? Is it a reboot? Is it a remake? Those are just some of the perplexing questions facing spider-fans everywhere this month as the webbed crusader takes flight in the newly polished and somewhat more serious look at the boy who was bitten by a spider.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC Universal City Walk IMAX
Time: 10:00 pm March 13, 2011
Projector Type: IMAX 3D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 17 min
Studio: Sony

Loves: Spider-Man 2, Emma Stone
Likes: Spider-Man 1, director Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield, Denis Leary
Neutral: Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben
Hates: That this series had to be requeled at all, Spider-Man 3
Real life romance: Garfield and Stone apparently hit it off while making the movie

We have just recently entered a whole new world of comic book super hero movies. Just two months ago the behemoth known as The Avengers broke all kinds of records, but it also changed the super hero movie forever by smashing peoples expectations for what they wanted out of their super hero flick. The Amazing Spider-Man (known as ASM from hence forth), is the first super hero movie to be released in a post-Avengers world. ASM must not only deal with its own tangled film history but it must also create an identity all its own while also still trying to prove that you don't need half a dozen super heroes in your movie to make it worthwhile. My biggest question going into ASM wasn't so much if it was going to hit all those points or not, but more about whether I or anyone really wanted a brand new Spider-Man movie series just five short years after the last series ended? ASM surprised me in a lot of ways though, but with each surprise came with it an often baffling series of events and character motivations that ultimately made this new Spidey more of a mess than the satisfying reboot it was striving to be.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is your normal teenage boy, he lost his parents when he was little, was raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), has a crush on the school hottie Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and gets picked on or beat up by the school bully on multiple occasions. What makes him standout however is during a harmless tour of the OzCorp building where he meets Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist who specializes on cross species genetics, he is bitten by a strange spider that transforms him into a super human with the powers of a common spider. After a tragic incident, Peter is determined to use his unique gift to rid the city of all evil and thus becomes Spider-Man, the masked vigilante who is the only person capable of stopping the evil menace known as The Lizard from causing chaos all over New York.

Peter makes a house call to Gwen Stacy's room.

I do not envy the position director Marc Webb was put in here. With only one other feature film under his belt, a romantic comedy at that, he must have been put under an incredible amount of scrutiny and pressure when given this opportunity to reboot one of the most successful film franchises of all time. While it is clear that he was hired for his talents first and foremost, he was also brought on as a hired gun more or less where he was given the seemingly impossible task of wiping the slate clean and starting over from scratch, something that is made much more difficult due to one of those films (Spider-man 2) being widely considered one of the best super hero movies of all time. His job was to essentially make people forget the last three films and lay enough groundwork to keep the series going. Now, before we get into exactly why this had to be done in the first place, let us talk a little bit about what needed to change to help this new spin on the Spidey legend take shape, starting with the casting.

I like Andrew Garfield, he is a very talented actor however, his fit as Peter Parker is questionable though. When I think of Peter Parker I think of a weak, low self-esteem school nerd who gets pushed around a lot. Garfield never really felt weak and seemed to have an extremely high amount of self-esteem. Instead of being picked on by the school bully, he tries to come to the rescue of the kid being picked on, although he still gets beat up over it. Garfield's Peter Parker just seemed a bit off and not very compelling or even interesting for that matter. I suppose part of my indifference has a small amount to do with how I still have that 2002 film stuck in my head which gives me the unfortunate opportunity to liberally compare the two films since they are essentially telling the same story and by comparison, Tobey Maguire made a better Peter Parker in my eyes. Even with my issues with Garfield as Parker, his performance as Spider-Man was often times the highlight of the film. He showed just the right amount of teen/adolescent cockiness to his actions, which coupled with all his wisecracks helped make this my favorite big screen version of the webbed crusader to date.

Spider-Man is a little more unleashed than he has been in the past.

There was one other instance where I felt Garfield shined and that was every single scene he shared with Emma Stone. Their on screen chemistry together was just mesmerizing at times which helped solidify their attraction to one another in a much more believable fashion than Maguire's Parker and Dunst's Mary Jane ever did. You could chalk it up to Emma Stone being America's current cinematic sweetheart and that infectious energetic personality of hers but I believe some of their off-screen romance helped a little as well, but regardless, their relationship was without a doubt the emotional high point of ASM and one of the very few things this new Spider-Man improved on over the original.

The rest of the cast was hit or miss. Rhys Ifans was more than just a victim of irony playing a one armed professor who specializes in reptilian DNA and accidentally transforms himself into a giant lizard, his character Dr. Curt Connors was also a victim of some really bizarre editorial choices that left his character as more of a side story than something truly integral to Peter Parker's story. Denis Leary as Captain Stacy was fine, but was given so little screen time that he hardly made an impression. Martin Sheen and Sally Field took over as Peter's guardians and while I didn't have any real feelings towards Field as Aunt May one way or the other, I did have a strange reaction to Sheen in the pivotal role of Peter's only real father figure, Uncle Ben. Uncle Ben is an important figure in the Spider-Man mythos, not only for how his eventual fate shapes Peter's life, but for giving Peter the proper guidance needed to become the best man he can be so that he can use his powers responsibly. My problem with Sheen in the role is that he just can't measure up to what Cliff Robertson brought to the same role a decade ago. Sheen just seems to be a bit too naive and dim witted compared to how Robertson portrayed him with a more noble and troubled facade. That may be unfair to compare the two but since it is the same role, under the same circumstances and the two performances are only 10 years apart, it makes it kind of impossible not to compare the two.

Dr. Connors makes for a suitable, if very forgettable villain.

Which leads me to my biggest gripe of all with ASM, its unfocused and completely disjointed story. This was billed as "The Untold Story" about Peter Parker's life before High School and indeed it starts down that path rather well. We first meet Peter as a very young boy who is swept off his feet and forced to leave his home with his mother and father. They then drop Peter off with Uncle Ben and Aunt May and vanish from Peter's life forever. We are then thrust forward a number of years where we find Peter not exactly the poster child for a balanced life as the mystery to what happened to his parents still eats away at him. That set up was more or less adequate and it set the stage well enough for a follow up to those events where we suspect Peter will learn some of the dirty secrets behind his father's work that lead to their possible murder. That never really happens though, Peter finds a briefcase which stirs some curiosity in him but just as soon as he starts his detective work to find out if that plane crash his parents died in was an accident or not, that storyline is derailed and completely forgotten about.

You see, Peter keeps getting what I guess one would call, distractions. Just as he starts down one path of discovery he quickly starts down another one and then another one until there are multiple unresolved stories that just get discarded. After only a few scenes with Peter getting upset about his parents deaths and his frustrations with how his life turned out, the movie suddenly becomes this story about Peter and Dr. Connors attempting to unravel the mysteries behind Peter's fathers equations. He no longer yearns to know anything about his parents, they are forgotten for the most part which doesn't make any sense, especially for a movie that had promised to show us a deeper and more substantial origin story than ever before. Peter's short term memory problems pop up all over the place though because later when he goes on a personal crusade to locate one particular criminal, he eventually lets that go by the wayside as well without even a scene showing us why he stops his search. Sure, one could conjecture that the Lizard is far more dangerous than this low level thug he has been after, but considering how deeply he felt about capturing this guy it just felt odd for him to drop that crusade without a second thought.

In a surprise twist, Gwen Stacy knows who Spider-Man is almost from the beginning.

This entire film is laden with plot holes and bizarre omissions. The sudden disappearance of a somewhat important character near the middle of the film was particularly jarring and the idea that anyone could potentially become a Spider-Man by walking into that room and get bitten also feels very sloppy as does how the Lizard figures out the secret identity of Spider-Man which felt like a page ripped right out of bad television. There have been reports all over the net that there were a number of last minute cuts made to the film in regards to many of these issues which helps explain away a lot of these nagging inconsistencies and some clearly baffling character motivations, but that doesn't change how the film functions as is, which is barely. For all the problems starting with how closely related this films origin story is to the original, disappearing characters, dropped story lines and unclear character motivations, it is telling just how strong its second half is that it makes up for almost all of that with some truly spectacular action sequences and an ending that doesn't end with a bang but a very foreboding tone.

When Spider-Man is being a super hero and the Lizard is being a villain and there are people in peril that must be saved, that is when ASM is at its best. Seeing Spidey swing around the city without abandon is just as thrilling today as it was over 10 years ago and the scene that takes place in the sewers where we see Spidey set up a network of webs was not only visually striking but also the first time I ever felt any sort of real tension from a Spider-Man movie. Even the effects for the Lizard were done fairly well, although he is definitely not a benchmark for technology the same way The Sandman was for the third film, his interactions with the environment and subsequent entanglements with Spidey showed off some real skill with melding CG and practical effects together. ASM does a good enough job of giving what most fans of Spidey always wanted, well executed action sequences and a plenty of Spider-Man fan service, that I think they will be more than willing to look beyond many of its narrative hiccups in favor of the superior action heavy scenes and impressive 3D effects.

The Lizard is a formidable foe but not a very wise one.

Probably the biggest mistake anyone made when putting this new Spider-Man together though is by confusing the issue as to what it was they were making exactly. Up until the minute it was released I was still being bombarded by questions about whether or not it was a sequel, a reboot or a remake. Blame it on the marketing team or blame it on the idea that perhaps even the filmmakers didn't know themselves, but either way I don't think it helped anyone by having this film be released under a veil of confusion. I understand that Sony wanted to distance themselves as far as possible from that atrocious third film (which they were mostly responsible for by the way), but with the pressure of possibly losing the franchise due to stipulations in their contract with Marvel, they were forced to put a new film out as soon as possible and the result of that rush job is a film that feels artistically compromised due to all the variables that were at play when making it and something that just doesn't feel genuine in the end. ASM is a frustrating experience because you can tell there is a good film in there that was most likely cannibalized to serve all the different purposes that it was intended for. It was made to give Sony and Spidey a blank slate, nothing more, the fact that it was competently made is just a bonus.

ASM is a product of a studio trying to keep a firm grasp on a franchise that has made them a ton of money and that's it. It is sad to think about it in those terms but when you see just how broken and barely functioning ASM actually is, the only thing you have to cling to is that it could have turned out much worse given those incredibly ridiculous circumstances. It is a miracle that it is as cohesive a movie experience as it is which I have to credit Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone for mostly. All the other bits and pieces work fine, but it is the relationship between their two characters that gives any sort of weight to anything in the film and the only thing that left me satisfied when it was all over. Action junkies will get their fill but I don't think this film will have the lasting power of other super hero movies or even the first two Spider-Man movies. It lacks any real identity of its own which makes it seem more like a cheap cash-in than a movie made with any sort of vision behind it. The visual treats and surprising emotional resonance between Garfield and Stone help make this entertaining mess of a movie more than tolerable though. If you are just a casual fan of Spidey then its a safe bet to just hold off and wait for it to get released for rental, otherwise I suggest that if you are a fan of Spider-Man and are curious to see what this new take on the super hero is like, that you swing on over to your local theater and...




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