Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Ten years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man reinvigorated the superhero genre with spectacular financial success and a measure of aesthetic worth, reboot time has rolled around already. Apparently necessitated by a strict mixture of fiscal and contractural requirements, this year's model was entrusted to the inevitably pun-inspiring Marc Webb. Webb’s speciality is a slickly commercialised version of independent film’s toey romanticism, having helmed the mildly acute (500) Days of Summer (2010), and therefore it’s not too surprising that the best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man are those that concentrate on Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his immediate human quandaries. In theory the rehashing of Peter’s tragic relationship with his inevitably murdered uncle Ben, and his attempts to leave behind the petty harassments of high school alienation, ought to be tiresome, considering all of that stuff is so fresh in the memory from Raimi’s film. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), generally considered the progenitor of this style of reboot, wasn’t a film I enjoyed much, but it was at least an origin story -- the events between an iconic initial trauma and eventual caped crusading -- that was usually elided by other versions, and therefore worth reiteration, whereas Spidey’s is well-known, and not that complicated. The Amazing Spider-Man has pretences to offering, nonetheless, an account hewing more closely to the comic book’s original storylines and retconned developments, and to presenting a deeper, more intimate and authentic portrait of the superhero as a troubled teen. Mary Jane Watson is left out for the time being and Peter’s most tragic lover in the comic, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), steps up. The specifics of how and why Peter was left living with his aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), what happened to his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), and how this ties in to the incidents that transform him into Spider-Man in a matrix of convenient plot convergences, are worked through with care if not particularly great drama.

And so, Webb and company laboriously set up franchise fodder in hinting Peter’s parents’ close involvement with Norman Osborn, who remains off-screen undoubtedly to facilitate the casting an appropriately big-name actor at a later date. The mystery of the Parkers’ deaths, not long after they fled their house following a suspicious break-in with a brief stopover to leave Peter with the far more earnestly blue-collar Ben and May, haunts Peter with far greater immediacy here than in earlier films. The presence of screenwriter Steve Kloves, fresh off a decade on the Harry Potter series, suggests attempts to reforge Spidey in the bespectacled boy hero’s mould, and there are obvious conceptual similarities. Garfield, slipping into the skin-tight spandex, offers a less stereotypically nerdy version of Peter than the one Raimi and Tobey Maguire crafted. Whilst still being beaten up by school bully Flash (Chris Zylka) and at odds with his environment as a young prodigy with an alienating past, this Peter is more wilfully an outcast, beset by a private tension, stemming from his awareness of his own mismanaged intelligence and the emotional damage he’s suffered, and trying in spite of inevitable consequences to stand up for the victimised. Ben and May are still more distinctive, eccentric, less idealised versions of plebeian decency, and Sheen and Garfield manage to invest their scenes together with enough vitality so watching this predestined Calvary again is more than tolerable, particularly as the script and the actors sharpen the edges on Peter’s sense of loss, his long-withheld anger and grief leaking out in a fit of teenaged insouciance. Webb’s skill with depicting contemporary mating rituals is manifest as Gwen’s attraction to Peter is more clearly based in their shared smarts and love of science, and Stone and Garfield, both excellent actors, are a delight when interacting, particularly in a scene where Peter asks Gwen on a date and she accepts all without any actual, specific words being uttered. 

After Ben is killed, Peter’s search for a new father figure presents two alternatives, in the form of Gwen’s stern police captain sire (Denis Leary), and Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Connors happens to be both a former colleague of Peter’s father and Gwen’s mentor, and as Peter follows a thread of evidence he discovers in his father’s long-forgotten briefcase, he sneaks into Connors’ labs and is bitten by one of the genetically modified spiders ironically developed by his father years before. Peter discovers and learns to control the powers this imbues him with, and he seeks out Ben’s long-haired killer in what evolves into a crime-fighting crusade, whilst handing to Connors a crucial formula of his father’s that allows Connors to finally achieve his dream of improving human DNA with advantages borrowed from other animal species. This advantage is the one Connors particularly desires, to regrow his missing right arm, and which his financer Osborn, who is dying, also wants badly, with sleazy middle-managers pressing for results. But what worked accidentally for Peter proves still maddeningly elusive for Connors, as he transforms under the influence of his serum into a lizard-like monster that rampages periodically about the city, and eventually develops a psychotic intention to subject the rest of the city to the same transformation. 

Garfield’s Parker, twitchy, muttering, distracted, is more realistic than Maguire’s, and it doesn’t feel so sarcastic to describe this as the first mumblecore superhero flick. But therein lies some of the problem that begins to unravel the initial effectiveness of The Amazing Spider-Man: where Raimi’s deliberately naïve, deeply stylised take was keen to the shifting energies of the comic book style, this Peter Parker feels distant from the cheeky, dynamic superhero, too great to be chalked up to the liberating factor of the mask. In much the same way, Webb’s engaging teen angst film remains largely disconnected from the entirely lumpen superhero film around it. There’s little if anything original and striking about Webb’s visuals as he goes through the already dutiful poses of Spidey flying through the air, trucked in via Raimi from the comic, given the slight tweak of being mostly nocturnal now. The action is weak, and the situations delve into the dullest clichés of the superhero genre. Whereas The Avengers dressed up the familiar “climb the skyscraper and knock out the villain’s super-duper thingamabob” climactic contrivance with sufficient distractions, here it’s unadorned and cruelly unimaginative. Ifans, an actor who managed to be at once plaintively endearing and perversely menacing in Enduring Love (2004), is fine as Connors when he’s supposed to be a vaguely paternal, brilliant yet slightly pathetic savant. But once the good doctor is beset by his transformations, Connors becomes schizoid and megalomaniacal, and prone to delivering veiled warnings in a low and menacing fashion to his good friend Peter, for no particularly good reason other than hacky screenwriting requires easily signposted story beats. The resulting monster mayhem is pretty dreary. The fact that this is nothing more than a half-hearted recycling of the same relationship between Peter and Otto “Dr Octopus” Octavius in Spider-Man 2 (2004) is all too apparent, and whereas that film allowed Alfred Molina to work arch magic, here Ifans is lost under remarkably unfrightening CGI.

Webb presents Peter’s initial discoveries of his powers with a nifty subway fight that’s 90% slapstick, and there’s an amusing aside revealing that Peter’s inspiration for his mask is a Mexican wrestling poster. But details of Peter’s construction of his Spidey alter ego, particularly his development and deployment of web-shooters utilising an Oscorp invention – how does he obtain supplies of this stuff? – are sped through, and the sense of the film just checking off necessary details begins to feel oppressive. One terrific aside nearly rescues the film’s second half from doldrums, as Peter combats the Lizard in his high school, the duo rampaging through the school library whilst the librarian – the cleverest cameo for Stan Lee yet – is obliviously listening to dashing orchestral music on headphones, a beautiful mismatch of sound, attitude, and violence that suggests what the film might have become if Webb had asserted more personality over the fantastic action part of the movie. When I first learned of their casting, I thought that Stone ought to play Spider-Man, or Spider-Girl or Spider-Chick or whatever, and Garfield ought to be the sweetly befuddled love interest, and after watching the film, I still felt the same, not merely in the interests of seeing the ranks of female superheroes filled out a little, but because Stone has the physical wit and gumption that suits the role. Here Stone is as beguiling as ever, adding suggestions of real dramatic strength to her already proven comic abilities particularly in the epilogue, elevating Gwen far higher than the usual girlfriend part, but that’s still all it is. The script tries to help her by having her perform some heroic acts, particularly in her rush to create an antidote for Connors’ transformation gas, but it’s all too rushed and silly to be effective. 

Similarly, the attempts to restage the climactic aid of ordinary New Yorkers for Spidey in a tight situation seen in Raimi’s first film, and which felt unusually powerful in the wake of 9/11, are here stymied in impact by the clumsiness of the scriptwriting as it strains for an effective device. So we get skyscraper cranes ranked out like a video game obstacle course, so that the wounded Spidey can more easily reach his destination. And that’s a problem The Amazing Spider-Man never quite escapes: so many of its basic elements are just by-rote repetitions designed to quickly move the tale back to an acceptable jumping-off point for generic adventures and familiar narrative reflexes, giving so much of it a feeling of deja-vu, and even the presumption that most of its key audience, now pubescent, were pre-schoolers when the first film came feels dodgy in our great new digital age. So much of the labour of this reinvention seems set to pay off later – will the tame blockbuster mentality this film exemplifies have the cojones to mimic Nolan and bump off Gwen? And will the admittedly engaging evolution depicted in Peter and Flash’s prickly relationship pay off with substance? And should I care? One of the best things about Raimi’s series, including, yes, the lumpy third instalment, was that it added up to one of the best portraits ever put on screen about a particular phase in life, the shifts in expectations, passions, and sense of self that can beset us in the years between leaving high school, and finding whatever, and whoever, constitutes an acceptable future. This clear basis in realistic experience underpinned the candy-coloured action and self-mocking veneer. Ultimately, in this regard, The Amazing Spider-Man seems both more down to earth but less coherent, and the product engenders a seriously mixed response, travelling a course from something like exhilaration at the unexpected strength of its first third to a bare interest by the finale. I was torn between admiration for the stronger aspects on offer, the skill with which it recycles some aspects, and also bewilderment in how those good things still can’t add up to a genuinely enjoyable film, as the whole superstructure strains and groans for the weight of its own mercenary, shop-worn raison d’etre.


Robert said...

Just happened to watch this the other night. I agree wholeheartedly. The presence of Andrew Garfield's particular wounded animal energy, which is believable and engaging, made me wish I was watching a Never Let Me Go-style Spiderman movie where we KNOW he's Spiderman, but it's never quite mentioned or shown. Not as exciting, per se, but given his specific talent, would be interesting. Whereas, the way this movie plays out, the action is so flat and predictable, it's as if it's not there at all, so why not do something entirely different? The overriding question going in, for me, was "Why an origin story again?" That was the question during the end credits, too.

Roderick Heath said...

“…a Never Let Me Go-style Spiderman movie where we KNOW he's Spiderman, but it's never quite mentioned or shown.”

Robert, that’s a great notion, a sort They Might Be Giants take on the superhero flick. It reminds me irresistibly of a sketch the British comedian Alexi Sayle did years ago, which was of a Superman flick directed by Ken Loach, with the hero confessing his secret powers in mumbly, embarrassed fashion in the pub, and being grilled by an unemployment officer about what use his powers are on a resume. Also, “Andrew Garfield's particular wounded animal energy” is a neat descriptive phrase. There should, indeed, be a way to make this work for the character – at least he hasn’t disappeared, unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman – but I still found it frustratingly disconnected from the hero in view. I think the best answer to the “why an origin story again” question is that the filmmakers wanted to distance themselves from the previous trilogy without seeming as arbitrary as Joel Schumacher’s awful Batman reboots. But yes, it was all undone in the end by the flatness of the action.

Robert said...

Ignorant of the Alexi Sayle bit (only now learning of this), I wrote a comedy feature spec wherein a Jimmy Olsen type successfully lures a Lois Lane type away from the town superhero. The middle part has a sequence tracing the superhero's slow slide into self-pity and uselessness. "I've never been dumped before." This sort of thing was the lingua franca of comedy about ten years ago, which is nearly about when I wrote it. To do it now would require an *earnest* take, like what we've proposed above. Makes me go Hmmm.

Steve Biodrowski said...

Great review, but I simply cannot parse this sentence:

"This advantage is Connors he particularly desires, to regrow his missing right arm, as which his financer Osborn, who is dying, also wants badly, and middle-managers are pressing for results."

Roderick Heath said...

Yes, as you can see that happened because I always use an internet translator to turn my reviews into Hungarian and then back into English. Don't you?