The spider becomes a man and a joy in The Amazing Spider-Man

Jul 5, 2012 at 4:00 am
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield star in The Amazing Spider-Man.
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield star in The Amazing Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man, an inexcusably good reboot-thing from director Marc Webb, celebrates the heartwarming arachno-genetic bar mitzvah in which a boy becomes a spider and a spider becomes a man, a rite of passage last observed in Sam Raimi's uneven but often pretty great trilogy in the oh's.

And there's definitely no getting around the film's resemblance to Raimi's version, partly because both directors made only minor deviations from the original comics. Additionally, the screenplay is by venerable old Alvin Sargent, who worked on Raimi's films, this time with James Vanderbilt and Steve Kloves.

In the first 45 minutes of any superhero's origin movie, nobody is super, and a bunch of busy plot threads converge toward a moment everyone already anticipates. It's kind of a formality at this point, like a graduation commencement address, and it's generally relieved only by anomalies like Robert Downey Jr.'s charisma or General Zod inside that hoop thing.

Boy genius Peter Parker, played charmingly by Chia-haired Andrew Garfield, tours the Oscorp lab of his missing father's former science buddy, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a kindly, non-mad scientist recklessly tampering with the fundamental forces of nature, as one does. Dr. Connors' facility includes a large, sealed room full of genetically altered spiders into which Peter sneaks while everyone else is distracted by unlikely Hollywood computer interfaces and unlikelier 24-year-old high school students. Reader, the spider bites him.

Dr. C. is exploring animal-to-human gene transplants, hoping one day to regenerate his missing right arm with reptile DNA, which, in accordance with the Frankensteinian method, goes badly. His mutagen transforms him into a giant lizard, though his arm does grow back, so that whole thing has to be seen as a partial success, science-wise.

The Amazing Spider-Man does deviate interestingly from past adaptations. The organic web glands Peter develops in the older films were a clever innovation, but in keeping with strict Marvel comics Spider-Man orthodoxy, he builds his own web-shooting wrist-wear this time, in his bedroom, using his giant brain and some math. The spider costume is rougher around the edges, stretching and wrinkling at the joints, more plausibly the homemade jumpsuit of a kid. It's one of many details grounding the action scenes with a note of realism, contrasting with the improbable, floaty kinetics of Raimi's films. Oh, and the total number of upside-down kisses: zero.

The film is also faithful to the smartassery of the Spider-Man of the comics, and Garfield's spindly physicality evokes the Marvel illustrations of the 1960s. It's all sharp-of-wit and sweetly sentimental for lots of reasons, including Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Peter's Uncle Ben and Aunt May, and a peroxide-haired, superbad Emma Stone as a gently ironic Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's first girlfriend.

A bit — how do you say — boring in the comic books, Gwen is retrofitted here with personality and independence, a damsel in only moderate distress. Denis Leary, as Captain Stacy, father of Gwen and an it's-a-small-world antagonist of Spider-Man's, evinces his signature growly sarcasm, snarling at Peter's romantic advances toward his daughter, barking about costumed vigilantes disrupting police investigations. Leary's unexpectedly sweet note of paternal affection also foreshadows some late-in-the-film heroics.

Remaking such a recent film is a weird undertaking, best explained by a 2011 New York magazine article, which blamed the successively higher salaries commanded by the director and principal actors for each film in a franchise. After film three, it's more cost-effective to hire a new, cheaper creative team and start from scratch. Credit Sony with making an unconventional choice in Webb, whose great (500) Days of Summer was not the obvious debut for the director of a high-profile, big-budget action film. The Amazing Spider-Man was already going to appeal to a genre crowd. But Webb, with his twitchy, comic sensibility and — let's face it — more nuanced sentimentality than that of the often ham-fisted Raimi, invites a potentially wider audience.

Spider-Man co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had the generative insight to cast their own teenage readers as the story's hero. Coming of age means dealing with guilt and loss and taking responsibility for your actions, but here, it's also punching guys and jumping off buildings. There's a fine line between a classic bildungsroman and a straight-up adolescent power fantasy, like the line between a fancy restaurant and a Cinnabon. But there are no gourmets in the airport terminal when those yummy little bitches are fresh out of the oven. Spider-Man's story is some primal-ass teenage wish-fulfillment: nerds beating jocks, astonishing the old people, romancing hot girls, skipping class without permission, dangling criminals from rooftops, fighting awesome monsters and, for god's sake, people, we're not made of stone, here.