This review originally appeared on fortstewart.patch.com.
The Amazing Spider-Man swings into theaters today, rebooting the 10-year-old franchise after the debacle that was Spider-Man 3. But can the new cast and new director (the fittingly named Marc Webb) deliver where Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire faltered?
The short answer is: Yes. The Amazing Spider-Man is a far better film than Raimi's self-indulgent, jokey and overlong Spider-Man 3; it is, in fact, the best film of the franchise. And British actor Andrew Garfield (doing a flawless American accent) is a better Spider-Man than Maguire—leaner, more intense and less self-pitying.
That's not to say the film is without flaws; one subplot feels unfinished, and the villain is definitely a minor-leaguer in Spidey's baddie bullpen. But these are minor quibbles. The film gives us a Spider-Man (and more importantly, a Peter Parker) we can care about, then surrounds him with other characters we can care about too, and drops them all into the middle of a pretty darn fun action movie.
Since Amazing is a reboot, the first half of the film is essentially a retelling of the familiar Spidey origin story: lonely orphan Peter Parker (in this version more a skater burnout than a nerd) lives in Queens with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (a wonderful Sally Field and an equally wonderful Martin Sheen), gets picked on in high school and pines after the pretty, popular girl. Then he's bitten by a genetically modified spider, and, well ... things change.
Peter quickly develops enhanced strength, agility and the handy ability to cling to walls. The scene where he discovers his powers, set on the subway, is among the funniest in the movie. It also answers a question I always had about Spidey: If his hands stick to walls, what keeps them from sticking to everything else? The answer, it seems, is, "practice."
At first, Peter thinks his new abilities are simply good for a lark. When personal tragedy strikes, however, he feels a responsibility to use his powers for good.
But it's a lot tougher than it's cracked up to be, this superhero game. The crooks don't take him seriously at first. The cops (including his girlfriend's dad) think he's a dangerous vigilante and are out to arrest him. And, oh yes—a giant lizard is trying to kill him.
This is Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), AKA The Lizard, an old colleague of Peter's deceased father. Dr. Connors lost his right arm years ago, and, in true mad-scientist fashion, is determined to grow it back. So he injects himself with some lizard DNA, and, well ... things change.
Yes, it all sounds ridiculous. And you know what? It is. But it's the fun sort of ridiculous. And for my money, the giant lizard isn't even the best reason to see The Amazing Spider-Man. He's not a very interesting villain, and his scenes don't really captivate. No, the real reason to buy a ticket is the chemistry between Garfield's Peter Parker and love interest Gwen Stacy, played wonderfully by Emma Stone.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, since director Webb made his mark with indie romcom (500) Days of Summer, but every scene between Garfield and Stone is a little comic gem. Stone's Gwen Stacy replaces Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, and once again the movie is better for it. Dunst, though a fine actress, didn't have much chemistry with Maguire, and by Spider-Man 3 basically all they did was weep at each other. In contrast, Garfield's and Stone's scenes crackle with comic energy and a real warmth.
Webb's direction is quite assured, considering his only other feature credit is a comedy where Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel talk about indie music for two hours. He may not have the crazed visual flair of Sam Raimi, but Webb gets a lot from his actors, and his action sequences are confident, fluid and clearly edited. Too often in modern action films, an over-edited scene is mistaken for an exciting one, resulting in a thousand quick cuts that convey precisely no visual information to the audience. Webb stages his action setpieces well and lets the camera take in everything there is to see. As a result, the audience always knows what's going on.
The special effects are excellent, of course. Much of what Spider-Man does would clearly kill a human being, so there's obviously some computer trickery at play. But unlike the previous Spidey films, it's impossible to spot the point where Peter Parker stops being Andrew Garfield and starts being ones and zeros.
In all, The Amazing Spider-Man outdoes its predecessors in every significant way. Though the villain isn't particularly compelling, there are plenty more to choose from for the sequels (remember, Batman Begins featured a minor villain, too). What makes this film work is the spot-on casting, well-drawn, funny scenes, and the fantastic energy between the two leads. This is a Spider-Man movie to make you forget the pain of the last Spider-Man movie. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing of all.
The Amazing Spider-Man is playing in both standard and 3-D formats at Clearview Caldwell Cinema IV, AMC Loews Wayne, Clearview Bellevue in Montclair, and AMC Essex Green in West Orange. For times see here.