SPOILER ALERT: It is not typically in my nature to spoil the contents or endings of movies through review, but this article does disclose some the movie’s contents. If you are someone who wants this particular portrayal of the story of Spider-Man to be preserved for your experience on the big screen, stop reading here!
What happened to Peter Parker’s parents? The opening scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man set up and present this question. And the final scene, mid-way though the credits, reminds you that after a 180-minute movie, it still hasn’t been answered. Truthfully, despite previews and buzz for the movie, I had no interest in answering this question. It never seemed to matter what happened to Peter’s parents. His character and upbringing by his aunt and uncle are what motivated him to take up the mantle of crime fighting once he was imbued with the ability to do so. His parents might as well have abandoned him or died of tragic but common diseases. But in this re-boot of the Spider-Man origin story, the question of what happened to Peter Parker’s parents remains as a weak thread that lazily teases the audience, hinting at a juicy revelation that never comes.
While the attempt to tell a new side of the Spider-Man story is ineffective, the execution of telling the Spider-Man story we all know and love in a new way has some emotional weight to it. Coming just ten years after the first blockbuster portrayal of Peter Parker’s story (and just five short years after its last installment), The Amazing Spider-Man makes Raimi’s Spider-Man look like a cartoon.
When director Marc Webb showcases the movie’s strengths instead of reaching for a new gimmick, it really shines. The majority of those strengths come from its character acting. Andrew Garfield not only rises to the task of getting underneath Spider-Man’s mask, he also accomplishes what may be the harder task of stepping into his teenage skin. Garfield doesn’t just act as the quipping web-slinger, but first thoroughly showcases the wallflower who learns the consequences of his actions. The most accurate portrayal of Peter today is just that–not a rebel, not a nerd, but a nobody who looks shocked every time he realizes he’s actually visible. Peter is never more extroverted and alive than when he has his mask on. Without it, he physically grasps for words; with it, jokes and insults practically fall out of his mouth (a mouth that ranges in dialect from mild teenage monotone to full New York accent).
In addition to Garfield, the rest of the cast pulls their weight. Emma Stone has moments of being a completely convincing teenager, though her infusion of massive adult confidence to Gwen Stacy ages the character beyond high school. Her saucer eyes widen under a fringe of light, blonde bangs time and time again with the other-worldliness of a cartoon character. Peter’s conventional secrecy and preservation of his identity are shattered uncharacteristically fast as he trusts Gwen with his secret early on. I don’t know if I’d trust another blonde with eyebrows so unnaturally dark as quickly as Peter did.
Martin Sheen and Sally Field become Uncle Ben and Aunt May in a satisfying way. Their familiar faces crease with apparent care for Peter (that thankfully doesn’t become saccharine) and worry as he begins to have secrets.
Finally, Rhys Ifans fills the role of the Dr. Curt Conners well, but completely disappears when it comes time to be the Lizard. The character and actor are eaten by the CG creation, from artificial voice to animated tail. While Conners has potential to be somewhat original as a character, the character of the Lizard unfortunately dulls to the level of every other delusional monster-villain.
While the Lizard’s visual effects are uninspiring, the majority of other effects in the movie bring the character of Spider-Man to a new level. You feel, like never before, the effort it would take to swing through New York like a human pendulum. To once again compare Raimi’s Spider-Man to Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, it is putting a fun Saturday morning cartoon next to a dark Cirque de Soleil that takes place in the streets of New York – though with actual fear that someone may get hurt.
Through the establishment of Peter, his acquisition of powers, his development of those abilities, alignment of motives, and hunt to put a stop to destruction, the movie feels incredibly long. Not too long, but long. What keeps it from being exhausting is the unity of style and overarching plot. While Raimi’s Spider-Man played out as a series of amusing or entertaining scenes, brightly cobbled together as a visual whole, Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man has smaller cues and subtler motivations that weave organically through a darker, more relatable world.
Through a series of slightly ill-fitting references to both Peter’s parents and to the deteriorating physical state of Norman Osborn, the movie sets up a trail to clear the path for its sequel. Its best chances for success in these coming installments would be to play to its strengths of character and style. There is no need to try and find a twist in the Spider-Man story that hasn’t been revealed before. Uncle Ben’s death was no less painful because the audience knew it was coming. Instead, portraying it with a different raw style was what kept it compelling. I would gladly continue to munch popcorn through the next Amazing Spider-Man, if the directors are able to give their loyal audiences a shred of credit to not need a gimmick.