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Thursday, 12 February 2015

REVIEW - THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans
Music by: James Horner
Release date: July 3, 2012


Things are a bit backwards seeing as I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man's sequel first as it was a fairly new release back then, but this review has always been in the works and in light of recent events, it seems there's never been a better time. 

On February 10, 2015, nerd heads exploded, the internet went into meltdown, and I went to bed drained of energy due to sheer excitement as Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures announced that they had come to a truce of some sorts regarding the character of Spider-Man. As of right now the details are still a bit sketchy, but essentially both companies have struck a deal where Spider-Man's rights would technically still belong to Sony, but Marvel would: 1) be able to utilise the webslinger in their own cinematic universe and 2) from the looks of things, give Sony some kind of guidance regarding their solo Spider-Man films that they would also be producing (a joint effort, if you will). It's now looking very likely that Spider-Man will appear in Marvel's Captain America: Civil War next year - which means there's now even more for fans to salivate over in a year already bursting at the seams with comicbook insanity - and then he'll appear in his next solo film slated for June 2017, and almost definitely an Avengers movie or two down the line. For years, the fanboy dream was to have Spidey's rights given back to Marvel Studios completely, and while we're not quite there, this is the next best thing and still undoubtedly a roaring triumph for webheads everywhere. But what this also means is that Andrew Garfield is out, and that the Amazing Spider-Man franchise is effectively dead. 

The Amazing Spider-Man had a troubled production and was born out of corporate greed. A fourth Spider-Man movie by original director Sam Raimi was set to be released on May 5, 2011, starring John Malkovich as the main villain. But Raimi was highly disappointed with the final product of Spider-Man 3, and wanted a year's extension to refine his script for Spider-Man 4 to ensure that he ended the series on a high note. Sony denied him the extension and they ended up going their separate ways. Then, to the chagrin of many including myself, Sony announced that Spider-Man would be rebooted with a new (cheaper) cast and crew, and the next film was slated for a 2012 release, just five years after the release of Raimi's last film (which means that this reboot turned out to be completely unnecessary as it was released during the exact year that Sony were unwilling to release Spider-Man 4 in. Logic, guys. Use it). With Marc Webb in the director's chair - whose prior filmography was comprised only of romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer at the time - The Amazing Spider-Man was originally conceived to be a more low-key and character-driven entry into the franchise. But it eventually became a mess behind-the-scenes due to the script being unfinished during the start of filming leading to certain scenes being improvised, a fairly large number of scenes were cut, and, because Sony seem to be quite fond of giving Spider-Man movies the most enourmous budgets possible, it was made to be larger in scale and more in line with your typical superhero blockbuster. The final product was somewhat overshadowed by its peers as 2012 was a huge year for comicbook films with releases like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but The Amazing Spider-Man was met with box office success (although at the time it was the lowest grossing entry in the franchise at $757 million) along with a mixed-to-positive critical response, and ended up being a kind of halfway point between the two conceptual ideas that the film bounced between. Now, after its sequel's disappointing reception and failure to reach the one billion mark that Sony needed, we've seen the last of the Amazing Spider-Man franchise. Let's take a look at what we've lost.


In terms of basic story, The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't deviate much from what you would expect. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a nerdy and socially awkward high school kid who lives at home with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), following the sudden departure of his parents. On a science trip Peter is bitten by a (genetically altered this time) spider, and is given the abilities to perform death-defying stunts such as wallcrawling and webslinging, along with super strength and the ability to sense impending danger (sometimes). After the death of his Uncle, Peter must use these newfound abilities to become a hero. He has to put a stop to the plans of his mentor-gone-bad, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), win the heart of his classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and (kind of) attempt to solve the mystery of his parents. 

One of the first things that you'll realise about The Amazing Spider-Man is that it's quite different in tone when compared to its predecessors. Gone is the light-heartedness and - at times - cheesy comicbook dialogue. During this film's production, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight had taken audiences by storm and, along with its predecessor, Batman Begins, started a still-ongoing trend of realistic and gritty re-imaginings. The realism here isn't taken to Nolan-levels of extreme, but The Amazing Spider-Man actually shares quite a bit with Begins in terms of aesthetics, and it's grittier (not gritty, grittier), plus most of its memorable scenes are set at night. There's also a bit of an urban feel to it, and at times there are even some horror undertones. This tone probably isn't ideal for Spidey and his universe, and it's very clear that the film is following a trend. But at the same time, our previous exposure to a more colourful tone makes this one feel fairly fresh, and it's a shame that it was completely abandoned in the sequel, if only because its removal was one of the many things that eventually derailed the franchise.

Spider-Man himself is also somewhat more grounded in reality - he's slightly more practical and tech-based, with his eyes being lenses from Peter's sunglasses and having the convenience of self-made mechanical webshooters, which can either be destroyed or run out of webbing (this duped fans into singing the film's praises pre-release, as Raimi's interpretation of Spider-Man used organic webbing, which is inaccurate to the source material). Spider-Man's body language has also been refined - he moves and feels like a spider more than ever - and practical effects are used as much as possible. This was also a priority in Raimi's films but The Amazing Spider-Man benefits from updated technology, making sure that practical and visual effects blend seamlessly, as opposed to the sometimes noticeably heavy CGI use and slightly too-fluid movements of the original trilogy. The webhead's new suit also feels fresh and looks beautiful most of the time, especially when it's in motion and glistening in the night sky. In certain shots the mask does look like a cheap red basketball with stuck-on eye lenses soaked in urine, but thankfully these are few and far between, and it looks much better on camera than it does in some promotional images. As far as the Spidey action goes, there's nothing that even comes close to some of the phenomenal sequences that we've seen in previous films, but they're generally solid across the board, and the high school fight with The Lizard is complimented by a particularly rousing piece by James Horner.


The Amazing Spider-Man is the first Spider-Man film that really depicts Peter Parker as a teenager. This has its pros, and it has its cons. Garfield's Peter is fitting for this film's universe and somewhat realistic, as opposed to Maguire's hilariously dorky interpretation who got smacked around and beaten up for lunch money on a daily basis. But the problem with this Peter's character is that he's inconsistent. Sometimes he's your everyday average teenager: he doesn't seem to be particularly awkward with anybody other than Gwen, he sits at the back of the class and keeps to himself, and he merely exists like most high school kids do. But at others he's swinging around on chains and doing skateboarding stunts like he's in a Nike commercial, and what's more jarring is that there are moments where he literally sweeps Gwen off her feet and comes off as a bit too smooth, or "cool", than most would like Peter Parker to be.

Some of his actions are probably more inline with reality here as when he's imbued with his spider-powers, he doesn't immediately start fighting for truth and justice. For a while this Peter operates in a kind of grey area, running from the police and humiliating criminals and classmates while loving every second of it (from very early on we see that he has no problem with standing up to bullies). But occasionally Peter's personality traits can make some of his decisions come off as a bit questionable. They're realistic, sure, but they can also make for an unlikable protagonist. Fortunately, just like in the sequel, Andrew Garfield does everything he can to cover up the faults of the screenplay, and is Peter Parker's saving grace. He makes Peter endearing despite his faults, and he proves that he's both a very capable dramatic and comedic actor. His interpretation also addresses the (somewhat unwarranted) complaint from fans that Maguire's Spider-Man never cracked any jokes, which is a usual personality trait of the webslinger as he uses constant wisecracks to disguise his fear as he fights his enemies. None of his quips here are going to make you howl with laughter and he's no better or worse than Maguire's version when you take everything into account, but this Spidey has a more colourful personality and that's definitely a step in the right direction. It has to be said, however, that Andrew Garfield was not only consistently great despite the varying faults of the suits and screenwriters across both Amazing movies, but he had a genuine passion for the character, and should not be punished because those people screwed up. Now the public will have to get used to the third Spider-Man in less than fifteen years, and it's a real shame to see him go.

Back on topic, the more youthful aspect means also means that the romantic side of things is somewhat more prevalent here. "Somewhat" being the operative word, because technically there isn't more romance than there was in the original films. But this is an undeniable improvement over Raimi's attempts with Peter and Mary Jane. Gwen Stacy is likeable and one of the better love interests out there (she also proves to be an important asset to Peter when it comes to saving the day). Compare this to Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, who was one of the weakest points of the Raimi trilogy. When Mary Jane wasn't being self-centred, she was busy getting kidnapped in all three movies and screaming so much that they had to use stock audio. Unlike that relationship, things between Gwen and Peter never drag on, and despite the fact that they don't really seem to be together for any reason other than to suck face, the chemistry between the two leads makes it feel like there's a basis to their relationship. And while some scenes are so laced with sexual tension that you might start to feel like a third wheel on a date or a wide-eyed creep watching as he hides in a nearby bush, Webb handles their scenes with finesse and many of them feel impactful instead of obligatory. On the subject of Webb's direction, there are some brilliant shots of Spider-Man doing his Spider-Manny things that are shown from a first-person point of view. His style isn't particularly distinctive, but there's some fantastic cinematography, some fairly creative camerawork, and considering that Webb went from one romantic comedy to friggin' Spider-Man, he actually handles the facets of a big-budget blockbuster quite well.


For all the things The Amazing Spider-Man does right, there's a pretty sizeable amount of things that it does wrong. One of the biggest areas where Webb and crew have stumbled is with their main villain, The Lizard. Rhys Ifans is serviceable but the character is a waste. The screenwriters had the opportunity here to tell the audience that The Lizard is the villain, but Curt Connors isn't. Yes, there's already an abundance of sympathetic villains in Spider-Man films but if they were going to use this character, that is the best way you can go about it. Strongly state that Spider-Man needs to take out The Lizard without harming Connors, and give him a son or a wife or some other kind of emotional anchor and it could've not only upped the stakes, but it also could've done wonders in regards to fleshing out the character and given us some potentially great dramatic material. For some bizarre reason, a scene featuring Connors and his son was actually removed from the final cut, that would've helped to make him feel like an actual human being. By how much, we'll never know, but its omission is puzzling to say the least. Instead, from the very beginning you know that Connors is the villain, and not after long he's traded in the white coat for a black one, he gets voices in his head like every other Spider-Man movie villain, and he develops incoherent motivations along with a goofy plan to turn everyone in New York into giant lizards for some reason. There are still some brief attempts to humanise Connors, but they're all ineffective and have no weight to them, therefore he just ends up being a big visually unappealing CGI creation for Spider-Man to fight. An arbitrary villain if there ever was one.

Spider-Man's journey and development into a hero is also missing one crucial aspect: the influence of Uncle Ben. Once again, we see the poor guy's blood cover the pavement, but his death and its build-up are both rushed. Put that together with the fact that we know his days are limited and that we've seen it happen before, and it just ends up feeling so inconsequential, not only for the audience, but from the looks of things, for Spider-Man himself. Uncle Ben is never brought up again until a brief voiceover during the film's final moments, and the supposedly crucial aspect of Peter hunting down his uncle's killer has absolutely no resolution. Spider-Man never truly learns that "with great power comes great responsibility" (although this line is spoken through some kind of odd rewording), and unlike previous entries, you can never feel Uncle Ben's presence throughout the rest of the story. If it wasn't for the aforementioned voiceover, chances are you would forget that he was in the film in the first place, which really shouldn't happen. The death of Uncle Ben should've been the defining moment that moulded Peter into his heroic alter-ego, but his actual reasons for becoming Spider-Man are never delved into and it feels hollow. We're never given a chance to get into his head. 

The absence of Peter's parents was never addressed in the original trilogy, but the utilisation of this subplot here is the definition of unnecessary. Mary and Richard Parker just swan off during the film's opening scene and it's treated like some big conspiracy that we're supposed to care about, but there's barely anything to it and there are no tangible hints to capture the audience's interest. This is only there to trick audiences into thinking that the advertised "untold story" exists here, when it actuality The Amazing Spider-Man's biggest change is in its tone, and we've seen just about everything else before. In the second half of the film, this subplot completely disappears and is never resolved. When we actually do see the resolution to it in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it's completely baffling as to why it was dragged out across two movies for such an anticlimax. Was there ever a plan to actually go anywhere with this?


It's fairly hard for me to rate The Amazing Spider-Man and I want to give it a slightly better score because there are things about it that I love, but there are just too many ingredients in the mix that stop the film from living up to its title. It's solid nonetheless and it would have been intriguing to see where the franchise would've gone from here if it didn't try to practically reinvent itself, but looking at Spider-Man's cinematic history today, there still hasn't been a truly great Spider-Man film since 2004. For that, we have both studio interference and creative incompetence to thank. However, now that this film's sequel sits in the same category as Batman and Robin and Superman IV as a franchise killer, the future is looking fairly bright for the webhead. As aforementioned, the finer details of the Marvel/Sony deal are unknown at this time, but the former have a lengthy and very solid track record, even if they don't continuously pump out classics like some would have you believe. Obviously we can't look into the future, but it's highly unlikely that a studio as smart as Marvel would let any products involving their flagship character fail. For all the varying levels of pain and suffering that Spidey fans have had to endure over the past few years, that should at least be a bit of consolation.