First things first -- Marc Webb’s stab at a Spider-Man movie is not so dazzlingly different as to make you forget everything that’s come before, and that includes the superhero dazzle of Avengers, from just over a month ago. A lot of films arrive with baggage, but Webb’s has two full suitcases and several small carry-ons. He’s replacing a beloved director on a beloved franchise (and Raimi was never vocally finished with the series - he wanted to tell more stories; Sony was just overly eager for a fresh take), and not only that, Webb’s telling a story that is so familiar by now that a retelling should breed contempt.
The miracle of The Amazing Spider-Man is that the retold origin story remains as vital and interesting as the first time it was told (way back in 1962 - Spidey turns 50 this year). Through fresh casting and sharply written scenes by screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent (Spider-Man 2 & 3), and Steve Kloves (the Harry Potter series), Webb and company manage to breathe real life into the iconography of Peter Parker’s transformation into the superhero Spider-Man. The school field trip that leads to Parker’s radioactive spider-bite is intact if wholly different, the inspiration from pro wrestling is incorporated in a way that’s faithful to canon while never aping the past, and Parker’s relationship with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, the film’s MVP) is more fleshed-out, more emotional and more believable than it’s ever been before.
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is getting to an age where he’d like to know how much of an impact his parents may or may not have had on him before leaving him to be raised by Ben and Aunt May (Sally Field). Peter’s acute talent in science connects him to his departed father, and a chance encounter with his dad’s old notes on a project lead him to the only person outside his own family who really seemed to know Richard Parker -- Dr. Curt Connors. Connors is now at Oscorp, working in bleeding edge animal/human DNA hybrid science, and recognizing the father in the son, he takes Peter under his wing.
For the first half of the film, as Peter searches for a connection to his dad, handles his own burgeoning super-powers, and attracts the attention of comely science nerd Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), The Amazing Spider-Man is a satisfying, exciting Spider-Man movie (and, yes, drama can be even more exciting than the world’s biggest CG explosion). The light touch one expects of Spider-Man is present, but there’s a weight to Webb’s world that feels slightly less comic book and more real -- never gritty or “dark,” but lived-in and comfortable. Maybe this is Webb working in the wheelhouse of his own strengths as a director, bringing a playful, knowing touch to the world of a good teenage kid in over his head a little with too much going on in all aspects of his life.
Roughly halfway through the film, Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans) becomes a mutated human lizard (called the Lizard) by experimenting on himself, causing big trouble for New York City and Spider-Man. It causes big trouble for Amazing Spider-Man as well, with the film pulling away from what it’s really good at (making comic book characters into interesting human beings) to deliver what it thinks the audience wants (big CG-heavy tussles between superheroes and supervillains in Real-D 3-D). As a spectacle movie, The Amazing Spider-Man is merely passable.
I don’t think that’s wholly the fault of other superhero movies (like Avengers) blowing us away in the final act. Amazing Spider-Man fails on its own terms when its Lizard looks like an older CG character from ten years ago, or when whole sequences go nowhere with no pay-off (Lizard unleashes a gas that transforms a few dozen people into monsters like himself, and it’s all but ignored - just one example), or when Spider-Man rescues kids from a bridge (as seen in Spider-Man 1) or rallies New Yorkers to his aid (as seen in Spider-Man 2). By the sixth time you see Spider-Man shoot web all over Lizard’s mouth only to have the villain yank it off, it gets a little repetitive.
Those standard comic book action beats aren’t outright terrible; they’re just not exceptional in any way. Combined with the excellent character work from Garfield, Stone, Field, Sheen, and Denis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father, The Amazing Spider-Man still adds up to being a pretty damn good Spider-Man movie. Some fans may still be waiting for a great one, other fans may say that great Spidey movie is Spider-Man 2, but still others might even name Amazing Spider-Man as their favorite and it’s not an embarrassing pick. I’m hoping this cast can bring us a great one -- one in which Spider-Man is as funny as he can be in the comics and the action is eye-popping and dramatically substantial. The Amazing Spider-Man defies the odds, keeping the series very alive under Sony’s watch, without being buried under its own baggage. Let’s see what Spidey does next. I’m ready.
Spoiler-ish thoughts on the post-credits sting:
They’re obviously hopeful for a sequel. The mystery of Parker’s parents is left dangling and only addressed in a “I bet you thought we forgot about it!” post-credits sting. To construct your sting around a hole in the film’s story is just dunderheaded because if there’s no sequel, then your film never really finishes what it sets out to do. Amazing Spider-Man’s post-credits bit is nonsensical and only serves as a reminder that we never got an answer to the thing that started this whole new story in the first place. (Also, to place in the sting in the trailer itself basically removes any reason for a post-credits sting in the first place.)