Our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is back to spinning a cinematic web that returns him to his roots, but where familiarity resides, so does a daring creativity emerge that makes this Spidey a fantastic and fascinating force to be reckoned with. The beloved web-head is now played by Andrew Garfield, taking over the wall-crawling duties from previous franchise star Tobey Maguire, and this new version of the character has his own way of doing things. Most notably, he likes to take his time.
Choosing radically different narrative pacing than Sam Raimi’s 2002 series launcher that cut almost immediately to the chase, The Amazing Spider-Man is in no hurry to fulfill the promise of the title. Instead, it cozily settles in to an intimate look at the life of Peter Parker, who now misses his mom and dad more than ever before. This parental angle doesn’t exactly get things off to a good start, as a weakly mysterious prologue sets up an absent piece of Peter’s puzzle that has rarely, if ever, been missed. Apparently little Peter (temporarily played by Max Charles) entered his scientist dad’s home office one day and found it ransacked, which was enough to send Ma and Pa Parker (Embeth Davidtz and Campbell Scott) running off into the night, never to be seen again.
So Peter ends up living with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and this new Spidey story catches up with where the hero’s origin tale usually begins. Except that this iteration is determined to introduce us to the characters first and the heroism later, a bold move that pushes the movie’s first action scene past the half-hour mark and the first major effects sequence somewhere closer to the halfway point of the whole movie. Given the penchant for blockbuster movies to kick things off with a splashy showcase of expensive stunts and pyrotechnics nowadays, this calm, careful unfolding represents an appreciable attempt to forge a fresh path.
It also helps that the roles have been so smartly cast. Gangly Garfield makes a great Peter Parker, putting his own sharp spin on the clumsy, unpopular teen. By employing jumbled line deliveries and full use of his lanky body, he convincingly communicates the character’s bumbling social skills and introverted attitude. And then later on, Garfield makes an equally relatable Spider-Man and pulls off the impressive feat of giving the superhero his own identity, while also maintaining a believable bridge between him and his alter-ego. This Spidey is big on the wisecracks and he exhibits the expected cool confidence in the face of danger, but the transformation that occurs when he pulls on the mask feels like an unleashing of a fully heightened version of Peter rather than a whole new guy. He also seems to love his newfound responsibility, a feeling that translates well to the big screen.
Peter’s other love is the movie’s other key to success. Stone is immensely enjoyable as the gorgeous Gwen, who can simultaneously match Peter’s intellect and steal his heart. Already an astonishingly consistent performer, Stone ensures that Gwen is much more than a basic love interest who sits in her room and pines for her hero. She’s as charming and likable as Peter and the inevitable romantic angle takes a rare turn by blockbuster standards and actually feels utterly integral to the plot, as opposed to a mere assumed necessity. This very special effect is achieved through that often intangible, unattainable spark of chemistry that so many romantic pairs struggle to generate. It comes naturally to Garfield and Stone, though, who are so genuine in their on-screen romance that they deliver Marvel’s most tender movie love story to date.
This relationship anchors The Amazing Spider-Man in dramatically rich territory and gives the title hero some very personal stakes in his battles. In one of the movie’s most thrilling fight sequences, Spidey battles a transformed Curt Conners, now a monstrous Lizard (now a motion captured Ifans), throughout the hallways of his high school. Spidey performs some incredible stunts and some wild web work, although eventually the Lizard appears to wear him down. But when Gwen steps in to help and finds herself in momentary danger, Spidey suddenly taps into some reserve energy and attacks the Lizard with furiously desperate might. It’s a powerful scene and a highlight of the cinematic superhero genre because it manages to say so much about the character while letting his actions speak for themselves.
There are times the road to Peter’s transformation hits a few rocky patches, however, especially when the movie tries to reconfigure certain origin tale milestone moments just for the sake of continuing to distance this version from Raimi’s. Talented screenwriters Steve Kloves, Alvin Sargent, and James Vanderbilt, who also nabs a “story” credit, collectively come up with a weird, though acceptable way to update the imperative subplot about Uncle Ben’s murder so that the sequence of events is almost entirely different and yet almost entirely the same as the comic book faithful one we already saw a decade ago in Raimi’s version.
Sometimes we can see the strain of the writers’ efforts, but this remains a minor quibble in the face of such boldly intimate blockbuster moviemaking. A few moments flirt perhaps too closely with treacle and James Horner’s score, while pleasant, is mostly forgettable, but again, minor quibbles when they go up against Webb’s moving accomplishments, the presence of the actors, the chemistry of the leads, the unusually lofty structure, and even the absolutely awesome action sequences that excite as well as they engage.
What a wonderful web. What a wonderful Webb. This is superhero cinema reinterpreted, at once a heartfelt tale of a boy in love and suddenly a soaring adventure about a boy who swings in spandex. The Amazing Spider-Man is familiar trajectory, but it’s executed with such poignant patience that it feels uniquely new. This Spidey is spectacular, a superhero with soul in a story stuffed with sensitive sweetness. Yes, with all the ups and downs in this Spidey’s life, he remains a pretty emotional guy. I can relate. This kind of stunning superheroism makes me emotional, too.