The Amazing Spider-Man is intended to be a new origin story about a powerless kid who got superpowers and became hero. Unfortunately, it doesn’t know which origin story to tell, nor does it understand what it means to be “powerless”. Wrapped up in the notion of being “grittier” and “realistic”, Marc Webb‘s reboot attempts to spin a fresh new vision for the wall-crawler, but it constantly forgets the story its trying to tell by getting tangled up in lazy coincidences and idiotic character motivations. The film’s problems are further compounded by the woefully miscast Andrew Garfield, who carries the sweet, good-hearted nature of Peter Parker, but none of the powerlessness that makes us root for him. What works in the film—the visuals, set pieces, the performances, and the score—work wonderfully, but everything else in the movie is far from amazing.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a movie that’s constantly chasing plotlines. In this telling, Peter has been haunted by the disappearance of his parents since he was a boy. One day, he finds his father’s old briefcase, which leads him to search for answers at Oscorp Laboratories. There, he wanders into an unguarded room (instead of using door locks or retina scans; Oscorp uses touch-based memory puzzles), gets bitten by a genetically-mutated spider (the room is filled with them), and develops his super-speed, agility, reflexes, and strength. Peter is driven to further investigate his parents’ disappearance, until it’s time to catch the guy who killed Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Peter then hones his crime-fighting abilities by fighting people who resemble his Uncle’s killer before realizing that maybe he should go after all criminals. Meanwhile, amputee Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who was a friend of Peter’s father (Campbell Scott), is genetically mutating animals to unlock the secret of regeneration. Naturally, scientific investigation can only lead to horrible things, so Connors regrows his arm only to then transform into a beastly giant reptile known as “The Lizard”. The movie then twists itself in knots to keep making Spider-Man and the Lizard fight.
And the fights are terrific, as are all the action scenes in The Amazing Spider-Man. Webb has taken the visual energy and imagination he brought to his previous film, (500) Days of Summer, and weaved an entertaining spectacle that takes full advantage of 3D to craft some truly memorable set pieces. It’s enthralling to see Spider-Man shoot his way through cramped spaces before swinging into the open night sky of New York City. Another great scene has Spidey bouncing up and down the corridors of his high school, firing webs left and right, as he tries to fend off the Lizard.
Unfortunately, there’s no good reason for Spider-Man and the Lizard to fight at the high school. Superficially, The Amazing Spider-Man can deliver an exciting ride, but the story is a mess. The Lizard’s master plan doesn’t require him to take time out of his busy villain-schedule to go down to the high school and start fighting with Spider-Man. If anything, it’s a distraction. But the movie needs another action scene, and so it gets one, and it’s a good one, but it’s a pointless one. The movie is constantly skipping ahead and taking shortcuts so it can get to where it needs to be. It gets so bad that at one point, a minor character moves machinery in order to physically get Spider-Man where he needs to be. This kind of sloppy writing means that the plot and character motivations in The Amazing Spider-Man don’t evolve; they simply change directions and then forget about what was happening before. A boy’s search for his missing parents is set up as the heart of this story, and then it’s simply left by the wayside until we’re reminded about it in a scene that takes place in middle of the end credits.
Amazing Spider-Man is clearly set up as a smaller, more intimate look at the character while trying to eschew blockbuster bombast in a way that makes Webb’s movie look almost like it’s in direct opposition to Sam Raimi‘s big, happy, four-color Spider-Man trilogy. Webb’s movie is supposed to be about the “man” behind the Spider-Man, except the man behind Peter Parker is the wrong man. Andrew Garfield does a wonderful job at conveying the sweetness and inherent goodness of the character, but he can’t get past one gigantic obstacle: he looks like Andrew Garfield. In the film’s attempt to make Peter more modern and realistic, they’ve fallen into a paradox where they have to acknowledge that geeks are now considered “cool”, but Peter is still a geek. Raimi nerded-up Tobey Maguire to play Peter Parker, but Garfield looks like he could just be skateboarding home from a GQ photo shoot. We never believe for a second that Peter is a powerless outsider, so when he gets his powers, it doesn’t feel like a boon for the teenager. If a powerless kid got a little power drunk in a realistic setting, it would be charming and a bit dark (like half of Chronicle). But here it just makes Peter come off like a bully and someone who doesn’t deserve the great power that’s been foisted upon him.
Garfield almost escapes the problematic character on the page through the strength of his performance, especially when he shares the screen with Emma Stone, who plays Peter’s love-interest, Gwen Stacy. The female lead is one area where The Amazing Spider-Man clearly trounces Raimi’s films. Whereas Mary Jane always felt like the damsel-in-distress, Gwen is smart, funny, and resourceful. We never think of her as someone who needs saving, and while the film is content to brood over a variety of other relationships, it keeps the romance between Peter and Gwen upbeat. There simply isn’t enough of it, and there’s definitely not enough of Stone who gets the film’s funniest moments.
In a better cut of the film, there would be more time devoted to letting Peter and Gwen’s romance provide some aspect of levity, but The Amazing Spider-Man is chained to blockbuster action and pretentions of gritty realism. Instead, it gets the worst of both worlds. The gritty realism drains the film of lightheartedness and humor, and the terrific performances from Garfrield, Stone, and Sheen are overshadowed by a story that has to explain every piece of Spider-Man’s origin to the point where it feels like there’s a deleted scene showing how Spidey can stick to walls despite wearing gloves and shoes. The momentum is drained by over-explanation, and then it has to speed up in a sloppy fashion to get to a big action scene. When one character casually points out a Doomsday device that the company just leaves unguarded in the middle of the office, we’re torn between laughing and cringing.
The movie continues to try and outrun this narrative nonsense until it’s finally consumed by a laughably ridiculous third act where contrivances and new motivations overwhelm the viewer to the point where the film’s positive aspects aren’t enough to save the day. When you see Spider-Man battling a giant reptile on top a skyscraper to save the city from a convenient Doomsday device, you can’t help but wonder, “Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about a powerless kid trying to find out what happened to his parents?” I guess it’s easy to get distracted when you can swing through the air with the greatest of ease.