Friday, July 6, 2012
New Decade, New Spider-Man
When The Amazing Spider-Man was first announced, it felt like a new milestone in Hollywood shamelessness. Another movie five years after Spider-Man 3 and only ten years after that trilogy first hit theaters? The idea brought exasperation, not excitement. Superheroes are supposed to have a long time out when their films ran out of gas, not just come right back with a different cast and crew. Disappointing me must be met with consequences! So why did they reboot the series so soon? Well, there's a fairly simple explanation for that. The rights for the character were set to revert back to Marvel Studios in 2013 unless Sony made another Spidey film. Just think, ole Webhead would probably be joining the Avengers and Sony would be missing out on beautiful money!
The scenario actually presents a tough question to film critics - should a movie's annoying real-life origin influence the assessment of its content? All the bad reviews I've read don't make any secret that they intend to punish this one for jumping the gun. But is that really fair? Is it fair to the new director, Mark Webb? (Yeah, that's his name. Hopefully that wasn't the only reason he got picked!) How would I have felt about this movie if it were the one that came out in 2002? Let's face it, the timing of this compared to the Raimi trilogy will matter less the more time passes, and this movie turned out to be a lot better than you would expect from a premature reboot.
But let's talk about those other movies first. Sam Raimi is a devoted fan of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics of the 1960s and he brought that old-school cheesy sincerity to the material. That first movie was unapologetically corny and less than a year after the horrors of 9/11, that was just the kind of comfort people were looking for. Spider-Man 2 was even better and perfectly captured the pathos at the heart of the source material (this new film clearly wants that too, but it's not there yet). What's interesting is that while I feel it's the better film (not exactly a controversial stance, there goes precious hipster cred), I've seen it much less times than the first film despite owning both on DVD. I think the reason for that is that the anguish Peter Parker goes through in that movie is just too powerful, too raw. I've always felt a lot of empathy towards the character and parts of Spider-Man 2 are just painful. An odd compliment, but it is one.
At this point, even people who have never read the comics are probably sick of Spider-Man's origin story. The new film is determined to do it justice and the results are hit or miss. One thing I like is the addition of Peter Parker's missing parents to the storyline. In the comic, they were Cold War-era spies whose plane was shot down over enemy territory. That's obviously too dated for a contemporary movie, so The Amazing Spider-Man has them involved in some sort of high-risk scientific research. It isn't fully explained, so I'm thinking it will also play a role in the sequel (based on early box office reports, that seems very likely).
One of the movie's strengths is the casting. It's easy to buy the lanky Andrew Garfield as a shy, bookish teen. Martin Sheen is awesome as Uncle Ben, so it's a shame that his actual demise is rushed and somewhat sloppy. It's nowhere near as wrenching as when Cliff Robertson bit the bullet. As for Aunt May, this time she's played by Sally Field, who does well with the little material she has. Parker's freelance photography gig at the Daily Bugle is completely excised, probably cause everyone knew nobody could top J.K. Simmons, who had audiences howling with laughter in Raimi's films with his performances as publisher J. Jonah Jameson.
The Stacy family is also given key roles this time around (okay, Gwen showed up in Spider-Man 3 but that might as well not have counted because it was a total waste). Emma Stone plays Gwen this time and brings her natural charm to the part. Denis Leary plays her father, police captain George Stacy. Mary Jane and Harry Osborn simply don't appear. However, Norman Osborn does...in a very brief cameo during the credits.
I didn't love the movie's treatment of the character. His plight should have been compelling and something was just missing. I think it was his family. In the comics, Martha and Billy Connors had to live in fear of Curt becoming The Lizard again even though he thought the evil reptilian personality was repressed. The family became quite close with Spider-Man over the years, despite never learning who he really was. But that's the kind of rewarding continuity you just can't get when the movies keep starting themselves over.
Dedicated fans of the comic know that both George and Gwen Stacy are eventually killed. At the end of this film, George meets his heroic end at the hands of The Lizard (in the comics, it was Dr. Octopus). Those who are just getting introduced to Gwen Stacy in this movie are in for a brutal surprise in the sequel if the producers decide to go for it. Hopefully, Spidey-fans will behave as well as Game of Thrones viewers who have read the books and know about the shocking character deaths ahead on the TV series. They have shown remarkable restraint out of a selfless desire for the viewers to have the optimal experience. So...they'll have to be much more careful than I just was...but hey, there was a spoiler warning!
But here's the thing...I had an important realization. With Batman, the "definitive" version of the character to me is the one in Batman: The Animated Series. Kevin Conroy's voice and Bruce Timm's design always comes to mind first when I imagine the character. So Christian Bale's silly growling in otherwise great movies isn't something worth getting too worked up over...I can watch those cartoons any time I want. With Spider-Man, the definitive version isn't Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, or even Christopher Daniel Barnes's voice from the 90s cartoon. It's John Romita's drawing of Peter Parker. With that in mind, it probably doesn't matter what the movies do. And in this case, it's clear the people who helped create this new film did care about doing it well regardless of the money-grubbing Sony execs. I suppose that's about all you can ask for.