Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)

Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans
Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves
Directed by Marc Webb
Rated PG-13 - Language, superhero violence
Running Time: 136 Minutes

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenager at Midtown High School, where he lives a fairly anonymous life.  He has few friends, is practically invisible to women, and occasionally suffers humiliation at the hands of jock bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka).  He has a crush on hottie science nerd Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) but lacks the guts to ask her out.  Peter lives with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), a kindly blue-collar couple in Queens, after his parents mysteriously disappeared years earlier.

One evening, while cleaning out the basement, Peter finds an old briefcase that belonged to his father.  Hidden inside is a revolutionary formula for combining the genetics of two species of animal.  Determined to find out more about his father and what he was working on, Peter sneaks into OsCorp to meet his father's old colleague Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).  He finds that Connors is still working on genetic combinations in order to regrow his amputated right arm.  While sneaking around Oscorp, Peter breaks into a high security lab where he is bitten by a genetically-engineered spider created as part of his father's and Connors' project.

The spider imbues Peter with a host of incredible super powers.  He can stick to walls, has enhanced agility and speed, and a "spider-sense" that allows him to sense danger and be more aware of his surroundings.  Despite his excitement over this new development, his relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May begins to fray.  One night after a fight, Peter runs out of the house.  Uncle Ben goes to follow him.  After Peter declines to stop a convenience store robbery, Uncle Ben steps in, and is shot by the perp.

Peter decides to use his new powers to track down the man who murdered Ben.  After his first attempt goes disastrously wrong, Peter realizes he'll need to hide his identity in order to continue his search, and fashions a mask.  Soon enough, he's created an entire costume and an identity, and continues trying to track down the criminal with the unique tattoo who killed his uncle.

Connors, meanwhile, is under a great deal of pressure.  His boss, Rajit Ratha (Irrfat Khan), is pressing him to make progress on his projects in order to save the life of Oscorp's owner, Norman Osborn.  When Ratha tells Connors he intends to test his new serum on unwitting patients at a nearby veteran's hospital, Connors tries to beat him to the punch by testing it on himself.  The results are, at first, incredible, but soon enough the terrifying truth emerges: Connors' new serum intermittently turns him into a huge lizard-like beast with incredible regenerative powers.  As Connors behavior grows more and more obsessive and out of control, Peter realizes that he must put aside his own vendetta, embrace his responsibility, and become a true hero.

I was hesitant approaching "The Amazing Spider-Man."  The trailers and TV spots were not super impressive.  I'm a big fan of the first two Sam Raimi films (the third is... not good), so I wondered how this reboot only a decade later would hold up.  Luckily, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a pretty dang good film.

One of my fears watching the trailers and spots was that it looked like the film was pretty light on action, and while it turns out that this is true, it's not the drawback I feared.  "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a slow burn.  Almost all the action in the film is in the back half, and the majority of that at the climax.  This film is almost a drama masquerading as a superhero film.  Much screentime is spent on Peter and his relationships, the decaying relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May that leads to tragedy, his budding romance with Gwen Stacy, his attempts to understand what happened to his parents with Connors.  There are a number of storylines going on here, though they are all balanced pretty well by the script.

Peter's sense of obligation and responsibility that will drive him to become a hero instead of a vigilante bent on revenge builds slowly, with several things contributing.  Uncle Ben is a major influence on him, often trying to impart some kind of fatherly wisdom whenever Peter goes astray and screws something up.  To this end, Martin Sheen does a wonderful job in the role.  He's capable of projecting anger while never coming across as uncaring.  Problematically, Sally Field as Aunt May doesn't have much to do in this film.  She has fine chemistry with both Sheen and Garfield, but other than supporting Ben and being a source of guilt and worry for Peter as things get more dangerous in the back half of the film, she's really just a warm presence rather than an important character.

Andrew Garfield is great as Peter Parker.  He's smart, funny, but awkward at all the right times.  Of special note must be his scenes with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy, which are fantastic.  Their flirtations are awkward and sweet and extremely entertaining.  The scene where he asks her out "to do ... or... something else" is hilarious.  And there's an intensity to a scene in her bedroom that's wonderful to behold.

Rhys Ifans does fine as Dr. Curt Connors.  He's sympathetic enough, though he doesn't quite match the effort given by Alfred Molina in "Spider-Man 2."  Part of the problem is that he's not quite a villain for much of the film's running time.  The Lizard itself is, obviously, an antagonist, but it doesn't begin to affect Connors' behavior until later.  Indeed, in its initial appearance, the Lizard is actually trying to stop  Ratha from experimenting on innocents.  But as his transformations grow more frequent and out of control, Connors' personality begins to change and he becomes more villainous.

Denis Leary appears as Gwen Stacy's father, a police captain.  He's a no-nonsense cop and father.  And while he tries his best to arrest Spider-Man, the script allows both him and Spider-Man to learn something from each other.  Captain Stacy is integral to the story in several ways, and Leary plays him earnestly.

The most problematic thing about the Lizard is the effects used to bring him to life.  While the CG effects work is mostly first rate, having him speak ruins the effect.  The movements of his mouth when he talks are pretty bad, and pulled me right out of the film.  The special effects in general, however, are pretty good.  Much of "The Amazing Spider-Man" takes place at night, so there are lots of shots of Spidey swinging amongst the brilliant New York skyline, and it all looks great.  There are a number of first-person shots sprinkled through the film that are exhilarating, but are over far too quickly.  The action sequences focus a great deal on Spider-Man's agility.  The way he moves in this film is fantastic, flipping off of buildings, around various obstacles, scurrying on all fours.  He seems faster and more agile than ever before.

What truly separates "The Amazing Spider-Man" from its predecessors is its tone.  Sam Raimi's three "Spider-Man" films are brightly-colored live-action cartoons, with lots of silliness and comedy sprinkled throughout, as well as Raimi's own particular energetic style.  "The Amazing Spider-Man" on the other hand is a more serious and down-to-earth picture, with a slicker look and more natural color scheme.  While there's humor in the film, especially when Spider-Man starts to get mouthy with criminals, there's very little overt silliness.  If anything, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is the "Batman Begins" of this franchise - a more serious, thoughtful take on the material.

Does that make "The Amazing Spider-Man" better than its predecessors?  Honestly, it's different enough that it can stand on its own.  I will always enjoy the first two Sam Raimi films, because they are fun, exciting, and well-made Spider-Man films.  But "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a fine film all on its own, albeit one that is very different, despite hitting a number of the same plot beats.  I can see how this slower, more considered film might seem boring to some, but with a fine cast working from a dramatic script, some thrilling and fun action sequences, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a surprising winner.