British journalist David Quantick coined the phrase, "Pop will eat itself," in regards to the way in which pop culture constantly recycles what came before. In esoteric terms, pop culture is the Ouroboros, the symbolic snake that consumes its own tail. This leads us to "The Amazing Spider-Man," Sony Pictures attempt to call a mulligan on its lucrative Spider-franchise.
It's only been ten years since Sam Raimi brought the wall-crawler to life with Tobey Maguire donning the red and blue tights in the titular role. "Spider-Man" is widely regarded as one of the finest comic book adaptations, but Raimi and company were just getting their feet wet. "Spider-Man 2" was the rare sequel that topped its predecessor in nearly every way. Unfortunately, too many cooks spoiled the broth that was "Spider-Man 3." Despite pulling in nearly $900 million worldwide, the conclusion to Raimi's trilogy was lambasted for its slapdash script and overabundance of characters. Mindful of the criticism, Raimi was ready to make it up to the fans and went to work on "Spider-Man 4" with John Malkovich attached to play the Vulture. But, studio execs weren't happy with the story causing Raimi and his cast to depart.
In Raimi's place is the appropriately named Marc Webb, whose only previous directorial effort was the rom-com "(500) Days of Summer." The screenplay is credited to James Vanderbilt (David Fincher's "Zodiac"), Alvin Sargent (who worked on the previous trilogy), and Steve Kloves ("Harry Potter"). English actor Andrew Garfield, who turned heads with his turn as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin in "The Social Network," replaces Maguire as Peter Parker. Raimi was an ardent admirer of the old school Spider-Man and his films captured the spirit of the Stan Lee & Steve Ditko era. "The Amazing Spider-Man" borrows from the Ultimate Spider-Man series by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, which rebooted Spidey for the modern era. Trouble is, it had been nearly forty years since readers had seen Peter as a teenager coming to grips with his newfound powers. For movie-goers, a scant five years have passed since Spider-Man was last seen in theaters. Sony would have been better off simply continuing the franchise with a new cast and crew. Changes in creative teams happen all the time in comics, after all. Instead, Sony has decided to start from the beginning with a new hook revolving around the mystery of Peter Parker's parents, his so-called "untold story."
"The Amazing Spider-Man" opens with a young Peter Parker being left in the care of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). His parents, Richard (Campbell Scott) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz) disappear into the night before dying in a plane crash. Flash-forward to today and Peter attends Midtown Science High School where he harbors a crush on the beautiful Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Stacy is an equally brilliant student, who favors mini-skirts and thigh high boots. She interns for Richard's former colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), one of the top researchers at OsCorp. There, Peter receives his fateful bite from a genetically enhanced spider. If this all sounds familiar, it should.
All the major events that comprise Spider-Man's origin are present. Peter's bullying at the hands of Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), the bite, and the death of Uncle Ben are told in slightly differing fashion from the source material and Raimi's films. These scenes may be different, but they are hardly unique. "Amazing" adheres too closely to the basic structure of Raimi's "Spider-Man" as well as other comic book movies. Gwen is now the romantic lead rather than Mary Jane Watson. Gwen's father, Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) of the NYPD, fulfills the antagonistic role once held by J. Jonah Jameson. He is hell bent on arresting the masked menace known as Spider-Man. The primary villain, the Lizard, repeats what had already been done with Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn. In "Spider-Man," Osborn desperately injects himself with an experimental serum that drives him mad and turns him into the Green Goblin. In "Amazing," Dr. Connors desperately injects himself with an experiment serum to re-grow his missing arm. The results drive him mad and transform him into a scaly and monstrous creature. "Amazing" even includes another sequence of rah-rah, post-9/11 patriotism as New Yorkers band together to assist their web-slinging hero.
The one element that is supposed to set the reboot apart is the mystery of Peter's parents. Their deaths have been touched upon in the comics, but none of those issues are well-regarded. Indeed, their subplot is one of the least interesting aspects of "Amazing." It's also one of the many plotlines that are dropped halfway through the picture. Peter's search for the truth about his mother and father along with his quest for the killer of Uncle Ben are forgotten by the mid-point as Spidey focuses on defeating the Lizard. The former is no small loss as it seemed to hint that Richard Parker may have mucked around with his son's DNA. Other tidbits from the trailers and marketing materials have also been excised leaving the final product with a haphazard feel. "Amazing" is also a tangled web in terms of tone. The filmmakers want gritty and realistic, yet utilize cartoonish facets like the Lizard's dastardly plot to mutate all of New York City into reptilian creatures. And don't ask about the scene where Peter refines his Spider-agility inside an empty warehouse ala Kevin Bacon in "Footloose."
"The Amazing Spider-Man" never finds its footing visually either, despite the improvement in technology since 2002's "Spider-Man." Some of the effects are good. The way in which Spidey swings across the city and his contorted poses are reminiscent of Todd McFarlane's artwork. A brief POV sequence looks as if it came from a video game and NYC appears awfully artificial. The Lizard is by far the weakest screen villain in the "Spider-Man" franchise. Yes, weaker than Venom or the Sandman from "Spider-Man 3." He's a clichéd baddie hampered by poor design work and shoddy CGI. Marc Webb is clearly out of his element when it comes to action. A moment where Peter confronts a group of thugs in a subway train is indicative of many American action movies. Too many close-ups and rapid editing that reduce the scene to a series of disembodied limbs.
The reboot's greatest strength lies with its cast. Andrew Garfield had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of Tobey Maguire. Garfield looks more like the comic book version of the character, specifically the one drawn by Humberto Ramos with his poofy hair and lanky frame. Garfield's Peter Parker is less of a loser than Maguire's and has more confidence. He rides a skateboard and isn't afraid of standing up to a bully though he gets his ass kicked. He's also more of a wiseacre and more of a science whiz. This Peter has honest-to-goodness webshooters of his own devising, which should please sticklers upset by the organic shooters. Perhaps, we'll see the Spider-tracers in future sequels?
Garfield has excellent chemistry with Emma Stone and their scenes together are the best parts of the movie, particularly their first awkward steps towards a sweet teen romance. Their performances make you forget that they are too old to be playing high school students. The supporting cast is uniformly good with Martin Sheen being inspired casting for Uncle Ben and Rhys Ifans doing a splendid job as the tortured genius. Sadly, none of them get enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
"The Adequate Spider-Man" may not have the same ring as "The Amazing Spider-Man," but it is a far more accurate description. Most folks know that Sony must continue churning out Spider-Man flicks in order to retain the rights. One can't fight the feeling that the reboot merely exists as a blatant cash grab. It retreads old territory without offering anything distinctly original.