While undeniably the least anticipated of this summer’s trio of big-time, tent-pole superhero movies, The Amazing Spider-Man, beyond any discussions about its quality or worth, has become the latest test case for an ongoing pop culture debate – how soon, exactly, is “too soon” to do a reboot? Is there even such a thing as “too soon,” anymore?
Last week, while composing my epic-length overview of Spider-Man in various media I presented my argument that Sony was right to kill off their still nascent Spider-Man franchise after the debacle that was Spider-Man 3, even if that left me with the prospect of a new Spider-Man movie I felt more obligated to see than excited to. Of course, I understand, from the corporate perspective, the reason for the shortened turn-around: if Sony hadn’t kept their license active, than the lucrative film rights to the character would have reverted to Marvel/Disney. But still, a completely new version after only ten years and two months – to the day – since the first film, let alone only five years since the last film, even in our much more accelerated culture, surely seems a little hasty.
If you’re reading this, you almost certainly know the story of Spider-Man: angst ridden but good-natured teenager Peter Parker gets bitten by a spider, gaining “amazing” spider-powers, only for his uncle to be tragically murdered by a criminal Peter could have, and should have, stopped earlier; as a result, Peter learns a valuable lesson about responsibility and therefore becomes Spider-Man. It’s the same story now that it’s always been, and pretty much exactly the same as it was ten years ago, and that’s entirely the film’s problem. While everyone seems to be looking at The Amazing Spider-Man as a reboot, the fact is that it fails to do what a reboot is supposed to actually do, which is engage a property in a new and different way. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man certainly look different in many respects; the newer film tries to be a bit more gritty and realistic than Raimi’s hyper-real, idealized New York City of a decade ago. The Peter Parkers appear different, with the likable, lovelorn, and sympathetic Tobey Maguire replaced with the sullen, moody, and not unsympathetic Andrew Garfield, and his love interests have been switched out, with the blond, brainy Gwen Stacy replacing the red-headed, artistic Mary Jane. For the most part, though, what has changed between the two films proves pretty lateral; what remains, though, remains almost entirely the same, but strangely with less of the humanity that Raimi’s unrealistic version captured so well (at least for the first two movies).
Of course, not everything in Spidey’s origin has been transposed intact to The Amazing Spider-Man, as Webb, along with credited writers James Vanderbilt, Steve Kloves, and series veteran Alvin Sargent spend a lot of screen time trying to embellish that origin. Key to this newer version is that more of an onus is placed on the mysterious fate of Peter’s parents. Leaving the young Peter in the dead of night to be raised by his Aunt and Uncle, they are subsequently believed killed in a plane accident; as he comes of age, Peter continues to be haunted and bitter about their loss. After rediscovering some of his father’s research, Peter traces it back to the nefarious conglomerate Oscorp, and specifically to Curt Connors, his father’s colleague, who has ambitious ideas about potentially merging human and reptile DNA. Unfortunately, while all of this is fine for incorporating the film’s antagonist, the Lizard, into the story, it tells us nothing new or different about Spider-Man that we didn’t already know, despite advertisements promising that “Spider-Man’s secrets will be revealed!”
That, most of all, is what sinks The Amazing Spider-Man: while it makes slight changes from the first film, embellishing or de-emphasizing certain elements of the main origin story, its differences from the earlier incarnation prove entirely cosmetic. This is just the same story, told nearly the same way, with the same meaning and message and with nothing new or insightful added to make it worth revisiting. That it wasn’t done as effectively as its predecessor, at least from an emotional perspective, only makes the entire thing feel all the more unnecessary.
To make clear, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t awful or unwatchable. There are some intriguing ideas mixed in here and there, but for the most part the film doesn’t carry them through to their potential. I appreciated, for instance, that Webb and company didn’t try to have Peter Parker just become Spider-Man fully formed, and instead had Peter journey from victim to vigilante to hero; it wasn’t altogether well done, but it was something that at least set it apart thematically from its predecessor, and the film’s most poignant moments come when Peter realizes that there’s more to being a hero than beating up the bad guys.
Casting-wise, Andrew Garfield certainly has the physical appearance of Spider-Man down, especially of the wiry, gangly, Todd McFarlane-drawn Spider-Man of my own youth. It seemed, though, that Garfield might have taken the idea of Spider-Man as a New Yorker and neurotic a little too much to heart, and used that to essentially make his Peter Parker into a Woody Allen for the Twilight set. I’ve liked Garfield in most of what I’ve seen him in, but despite his considerable talent, he really lacks that intangible quality needed to anchor a movie, and with this kind of spotlight on him it proved all the more noticeable. In the end, Webb and Garfield’s Spidey/Parker felt more like a caricature than a character, a series of nervous ticks searching for an emotional center.
Beyond Spidey, the very likeable and talented Emma Stone isn’t given much as his love interest Gwen, and her romance with Peter feels almost like a perfunctory obligation of the plot than something justified by any discernible emotional connection. She, at least though, is well cast; the rest of the supporting players, though strong actors and performers all, are pretty well miscast, and playing characters that are left too underdeveloped by the final film. Poor Sally Field isn’t really given anything to do as Aunt May, and seemed almost cynically cast just because she’s someone’s idea of elderly. Dennis Leary trades on his gruff-but-semi-loveable cache from Rescue Me for the part of Gwen’s father, the police captain in charge of hunting down Spidey; in the end, though, he’s much too abrasive and distancing for what turns out to a pretty important role. Of them all, Martin Sheen fares the best as Uncle Ben, but he’s also emblematic of the casting issue; that Sheen is a great actor cannot be doubted, but at the end of the day, he’s just not the avuncular type to be playing Peter’s surrogate father figure.
Webb, too, seemed, at first glance, an odd choice to direct the film, given his only previous credit was the overly indyriffic-by-half 500 Days of Summer (which I actually did like, though as a movie it was a very good script). Now in hindsight, his selection appears even odder. While he does well with character moments, Webb displayed some pretty clear ineptitude with most of the action sequences, which generally failed to measure up with either the film’s predecessors or its competitors. There was an admirable effort here to complement the CGI with some real-life stunt work, but most of the action felt like it was better in theory than in practice. And for all the hype that the film gives us Spidey in 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man rarely seemed to take advantage of the format until its finale. Most frustrating for me was that the scenes of Peter discovering his powers just seemed to lack any of the sense of wonder or awe that Raimi’s films captured so well. To be blunt, I was actually more thrilled by the climax of the movie’s original trailer, with its extended point-of-view sequence, than I was by anything in the actual film.
If this movie does boast one significant advantage over the original Spider-Man film, it’s that its villain proves significantly more effective. I’ve personally always anticipated seeing the Lizard onscreen, and to a degree I wasn’t disappointed; the character’s CGI looked believable, and his fight scenes with the Webslinger are pretty much the film’s best and most inspired action sequences. The problem, though, and I expected this going in, is that his story is essentially identical to that of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 – a sympathetic mentor transformed by his altruistic but still self-aggrandizing experiments into a myopic monster. While faithful to the Lizard of the comics, in the cinematic sense it’s again, just too much of a retread. We’re also not given much of an indication as to how we’re supposed to feel about the Lizard’s alter ego, Connors (played by a surprisingly wooden Rhys Ifans), prior to his fateful transformation; which left me feel somewhat indifferent to his plight by the time he started growing a tail. All told, he’s a better, more organic villain than the Green Goblin of the first Spider-Man, who seems poised to be the Amazing version’s next big nemesis.
In the end, the issue at the heart of The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t whether it’s a reboot that has come too soon, it’s that its less a true reboot than a straight remake of a movie that’s still much too fresh in people’s minds. Unlike reboots, remakes have been a fact of commercial moviemaking for almost its entire history, with rare exception, a remake represents an attempt to take a pre-existing movie, show, or idea that was good enough to be successful the first time and try to copy it for a new generation and a new audience. Reboots, though, take still-fresh properties that were successful but were in some way irreparably screwed up beyond immediate salvation; meaning that they are, essentially, a do-over for studios that had no real excuse to mess it up the first time. While overdone all across popular media, there have been times where reboots have worked, and have therefore proven welcome in retrospect.
If I had to choose the two best and most successful reboots of recent memory, I would likely name Batman Begins and Casino Royale, and for good reason: they kept what was fundamental about their subjects and presented them each in a way that was new or interesting. Batman Begins reinvented a franchise, eight years after its last installment, that failed in great part because it didn’t take its character or his mythology seriously; in doing so, it re-presented the iconic Batman by restoring to him a wealth of character fidelity, an ocean of narrative depth, and a ton of political symbolism. Now while Batman Begins was generally welcomed by most, Casino Royale, it’s fair to say, was treated with a degree of skepticism equal to, if not greater, than that recently faced by The Amazing Spider-Man. While not everyone agrees with me, I feel Royale worked because it transformed an iconic but undeniably tired character, James Bond, from an anachronistic demigod who never demonstrated an ounce of emotional depth to complement his consider panache, into a more realistic and compelling individual who was forced to contemplate whether he wanted to be something more than a geopolitical thug. Key to both films’ success is that while they while remaining inherently recognizable as being Batman and James Bond respectively, they eschewed the formulas of their earlier versions, defied traditional narrative expectations, and subverted their characterizations so they had something new and different to say. Ultimately, as reboots, they were successful because they managed to appear familiar but also fresh. The final issue with The Amazing Spider-Man is that while it’s huge on the familiar, it completely lacks anything resembling freshness.
At the end of it all, the timing of the new Spider-Man may or may not be too soon for a hypothetical reboot, but it’s undeniably far too soon for the straight-up remake it actually is. If the film had managed to be a true reboot, it might (or might not) have shown potential to be interesting and entertaining; as it is, it’s far too much like a movie I remember seeing as if it was yesterday, and whose influence is still keenly felt in every other superhero movie that hits the multiplex. For better or worse, The Amazing Spider-Man was a movie that had to justify its existence by being something exciting, new, and dare I say, amazing. At the end of the day, it was just the same old Spider-Man. And not even a friendly neighborhood one, at that.