Monday, July 09, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

I did my best to keep the comic book and Sam Raimi fandom out of the main eFilmCritic review, but on my blog, that stuff's fair game.

Raimi's Spider-Man 3 gets a bit of a bum rap; it's not his best work, but it at least seems to enjoy being a movie about a superhero fighting supervillains. Amazing seems embarrassed by it; it had me checking my watch a lot during the first half as it slowly went back over material Raimi had covered in zippier fashion. What struck me as really odd, though, was reading tweets from comic book pros like Kurt Busiek saying it was the best comic book movie ever, saying the campiness of the Raimi movies never really set well with them.

Which was odd, because I never found the Raimi movies campy. Colorful, yes, in a way that was loyal to the source material. Funny on occasion. Aware that it's telling a larger-than-life story and not feeling the need to diminish that. It's something Marvel has done well in its Avengers movie cycle, knowing how far to push, to the point where what is a relatively grounded (by superhero movie standards) thing like Iron Man can stand side-by-side with Thor and an alien invasion, and where there is a very good chance that the Marvel Movie Universe will include Rocket Raccoon in a couple of years.

The Amazing Spider-Man (the movie) is a little more disappointing because Amazing Spider-Man (the comic) is doing a pretty good Lizard story to tie in right now, and seeing a Lizard who actually looks like a lizard, and has clear motivations (as opposed to a pointless conspiracy story that makes the movie feel like it's deferring things until later) makes the version Rhys Ifans is playing seem bland, even when he's doing the closest thing that this movie will allow to supervillainous ranting. Plus, man, I can't tell articulate how disappointing the visual of the Lizard is. The human-shaped head combined with the obviously CGI mouth just doesn't work; it's the exact wrong combination.

(Aside: Dan Slott is killing it on the Amazing Spider-Man twice a month right now. It had a rough patch a few years ago when Marvel had a forced DC-style rollback to undo Pete & MJ's marriage, bring back Harry Osborne, and otherwise make things more like what they felt the platonic ideal of Spider-Man was, but ever since the "Big Time" period started a year or two ago, Slott has quietly pushed Harry off-stage, tacitly acknowledged that no other girlfriend character was going to get over, and stopped with the "Peter's a sad sack who is always broke and unlucky" bits. It's awfully close to where it was before "One More Day", without it seeming to have gotten there unnaturally.)

For all that disappointed me about the movie, though, I think it was the last Peter/Gwen scene that really bugged me:


Peter Parker is motivated by guilt, and worry, and a pathological need to protect people. Slott's doing good stuff with that in the comic right now, as Peter's "no-one dies" pledge is something he can't possibly live up to and threatening to crush him. For the most part, the movie gets that, and the last act piles it on thick - Gwen mentions how not knowing whether her father will come home is a tremendous burden on her, the Lizard's plan is possible in part because of Richard Parker's work that Peter gave to Conners, and Peter watches George Stacy die because of it. With his dying words, George asks Peter not to put Gwen through it, and, well, of course Peter's going to obey that. Honestly, George doesn't need to ask. But, he does, and there's a tearful scene.

AND THEN, there's another scene, where Peter sits behind Gwen in class and whispers something about not keeping certain promises, and with that, the movie betrays the one thing it unquestionably got right. Sure, you can say it makes a certain amount of sense, because they're teenagers and their actions vary with their hormones, but... Come on, why would the movie undercut a perfect ending like that, leaving it in that uncommitted spot? It's just sloppy.

Then, of course, there's another scene mid-credits, hinting that there's a guy behind the guy and a secret where Peter's dad is concerned. The mastermind who sends someone to speak to Conners is probably Norman Osborne, just because Spider-man doesn't really have many mastermind-level villains (I don't see them going this direction with Dr. Octopus and Mr. Negative is too new). Whatever; it's annoying because Spider-man doesn't need a secret history; like Superman, he works much better as a character who steps up on his own rather than having been manipulated into place. But, if you're going to do a trilogy rather than just let the character have other adventures, that means backfilling mythology.



Yes, I'm a big Raimi fan, and I'm tremendously disappointed not to see just what Raimi would have done with these characters. I half-suspect that a good chunk of this movie's script started as Spider-Man 4, as in previous films, Raimi and company had set up the Stacys (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and James Cromwell) and Curt Conners (played by Dylan Baker), and I'm pretty sure that Raimi would have had no problem taking the lizard in the lab coat and running with it.

One last thing: One thing neither set of movies really gets right is Peter Parker's tendency to wisecrack as Spider-man. What comes across in the comics as nervous energy or Peter feeling unburdened seems mean in the movies, just Peter venting without consequence. It's worse here than it is in Raimi's movies - that scene where Peter mocks the car thief almost makes the viewer sympathetic for the crook, and it's hard to imagine this Peter Parker refer to himself as your "friendly neighborhood spider-man" in future movies.

The Amazing Spider-Man

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2012 in Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, RealD 3D)

The Amazing Spider-Man is done no favors by arriving when Sam Raimi's trio of Spider-Man movies is still fairly fresh, but that's not indefensible; in the ten years since his first Spider-Man came out, Marvel Comics has started at least two new series for the character that went back to the start, released a bunch of other #1 issues, produced two different animated series... This sort of thing is part of the landscape. What's important is how well the story is told, and this particular Spider-Man origin falls short of amazing.

There's a little more intrigue to it - largely unseen in most versions of the Spider-Man story, here we see Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) and his wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz) leaving their son in the care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). A dozen years later, the orphaned Peter (Andrew Garfield) is still with them when he finds his father's old satchel, which leads him to his father's old Oscorp colleague Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), a bite from a genetically engineered spider, and an armed robber he tragically doesn't stop. He meets a nice girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), though her NYPD father (Denis Leary) is none too fond of new masked vigilante Spider-Man, while Conners's experiments in using reptilian DNA for cellular regeneration go monstrously awry.

This story has been told enough that by now, it's less about the particular variations on the theme than how its told, and the way this movie fails is kind of fascinating. Director Mark Webb and the producers - with three writers at one end of the pipeline and three editors on the other - manage to make a movie that focuses so resolutely on the things it does best as to weaken itself in every other area. And for as nice as the scenes between Pete & Gwen or Pete & Ben are (except the last Pete/Gwen scene, which seems to throw the filmmakers' understanding of Peter Parker out the window), the balance between that and the actual plot that involves Peter Parker becoming a superhero and fighting supervillains is terribly out of whack. Conners goes from mentor to antagonist off-screen, with just voiceover flashbacks to scenes apparently cut from the movie to bridge the gap. The movie joins its big Brooklyn Bridge action sequence halfway through, depriving the audience of not just a cool set-piece, but seeing Peter and Captain Stacy confront "supercrime" for the first time.

Granted, the stuff with The Lizard is not very good, but by not just rolling with the innate strangeness of it, the filmmakers make what's left feel shoehorned-in and out of place. It feels like they're doing a Batman Begins-style reboot - go back to a previously untold starting point, scrape away the parts that make for easy parody, focus on what resonates with the audience - without realizing they are removing all the fun parts. Webb and company get the horror-movie surface of The Lizard well enough, but the grandiosity of a were-lizard in a lab coat who sssspeakssss like thisssssss and wants to rule over a world of transformed lizard-people just doesn't seem to be something they're willing to embrace. The lab coat is shed at the first opportunity and the snout-less CGI model is neither convincing nor entertaining.

The cast, at least, is solid. Andrew Garfield makes an appealing Peter Parker while still remembering that he's a teenager and can often tend to be well-meaning and self-centered at the same time. Martin Sheen makes a great, folksy Uncle Ben - he's grandfatherly without ever seeming frail. Rhys Ifans does pretty well with what he's given, and Emma Stone wrings a fair amount of charm out of what she's given. Denis Leary, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, and Irrfan Khan get the job done.

It's a nice-enough looking movie, with some impressive stuntwork and a consistent style. It does tend toward the dark - this Peter Parker does much of his webslinging at night - which doesn't do the 3D cinematography any favors, although there are a few moments which show off the climbing abilities of both spiders and lizards. Still, as much as Webb can build action sequences around emotional beats, they often aren't as viscerally exciting as they could be, even with relatively little emphasis use of digital stuntpeople.

The Amazing Spider-Man does a few things pretty well, and they're the things people generally say are important: Decent acting, getting the emotion right. But for a long movie featuring a guy with spider-powers facing off against a mad half-reptile scientist, it's not nearly as much fun as that description and remarkably short on memorable action.

(Formerly at EFC)

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