Apart from his last name, it’s hard to say what inspired the producers of “The Amazing Spider-Man” to hire Marc Webb to direct the movie. Certainly his first film, the popular romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer,” is worlds apart from that of superheroes. But their instincts proved just fine as the new Spider-Man reboot is smart and — for an oft-told tale — surprisingly fresh despite some awkwardness in the script.
Perhaps what caught the producers eye was the energy and visual pizzaz in “(500) Days of Summer” as well as its ability to worm its way into the hearts and minds of its young characters. Certainly the strengths of “The Amazing Spider-Man” include all these factors.
Webb’s take on the iconic character is a more thoughtful one. So this is less a comic-book movie and more an action drama, albeit with crazy visual FX. There is a little less emphasis on Spidey’s wild web rides through the high-rise canyons of Manhattan and more on practical stunts and the athleticism of actors and stunt performers. Not that Spider-Man doesn’t soar when he needs to: The effects really do put the Amazing in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Spidey, of course, is now in the hands of Andrew Garfield so he’s going to be a little moodier and angst-ridden than Toby Mcguire, who was such a friendly hero. Garfield’s Peter Parker still suffers social embarrassments at school, but this high-schooler is more caught up in trying to figure out who he is since his parents did abandon him when he was young.
The new origin story more or less loots from the entire Spider-Man comic-book canon to grab its heroine and villain from later issues and to restore certain aspects the last film series left out. The screenplay comes from heavy hitters in the writing department — James Vanderbilt, the youngest one, nevertheless has the fascinating script for David Fincher’s “Zodiac” to his credit; two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent; and Steve Kloves, who wrote all but one script in the “Harry Potter” franchise.
Truth be told, the characters are pretty well crafted with depth and contradictory impulses, but the storyline unfolds at times in improbable leaps and illogical developments. Of course, a comic-book movie gets something of a pass in the logic department since logic would dictate that a man can’t develop the skills of an arachnid.
Nevertheless, by letting Peter/Spider-Man’s love interest, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), not only have a father who is an NYPD captain (Denis Leary) but also work for Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who turns into the movie’s villain, is maybe one coincidence too many.
Scientific accidents and the misuse of science lie at the heart of Spider-Man lore. The movie begins with a small boy playing hide-and-seek only to have his dad and mom snatch him away from home, dump him with his uncle and aunt, then vanish from his life. His scientist father (Campbell Scott) apparently flees so he can hide the results of a lab experiment in fear it will fall into wrong hands. Oh, it will though.
In the present day, Peter stumbles across an old briefcase belonging to his dad and finds hidden within its lining a mathematical formula. Through a set of circumstances that do, as I say, stretch credibility, Peter then meets his dad’s former partner, Dr. Connors, who continues to explore the whole area of cross-species genetic transfers, not just to, in his words, “create a world without weakness” but to restore his lost right arm.
While wandering about the lab, where he is not supposed to be, Peter comes across the section devoted to spiders. At one point they rain down on him and he does, of course, get bitten. Unlike the previous origin story, however, Peter is more heavily involved in creating his alter ego.
Certainly the spider bite gives him extraordinary strength and climbing ability but he designs and builds his web shooters and pulls together his own costume. So there’s less sense of happenstance here and a greater one of self-seeking, of an orphan looking for his father — still playing hide-and-seek, in other words — but instead finding himself in Spider-Man.
By now Peter has most certainly caught the eye of Gwen. In another shift from the previous series, the girl falls for Peter, not Spider-Man. Only much later does Peter confide in Gwen that he is one and the same.
Okay, now we need a villain.
Peter inadvertently supplies the missing piece of the puzzle that has eluded Dr. Connors, which is his dad’s mathematical formula. Since the doctor is under pressure to discover a “magic bullet” from a mysterious and sinister figure (Irrfan Khan) — this is the murkiest part of the screenplay — the doctor takes the shortcut of experimenting on himself. While an injection of the new formula does temporarily give Dr. Connors his arm back, it has the nasty side effect of turning him into a giant lizard.
Like King Kong before him, the Lizard terrorizes Manhattan. He knocks cars about and climbs tall buildings but it’s hard to pinpoint his exact purpose, which is his major weakness as a villain. Whatever the case, the police are caught in the middle since Captain Stacy is out to arrest this new vigilante called Spider-Man. But if he does, who goes after the Lizard?
The Spider-Man/Lizard showdown in, above and underneath the city streets — the mad doctor has set up a new lab in the sewers — winds up most of the unraveled story strings including Peter’s love for Gwen, his clash with her dad, his admiration than horror over Dr. Connors’ experiments gone very wrong and his duel to the death with the Lizard.
One thread that gets lost, the one that originally inspired his vigilantism, concerns his hunt for the thief who shot his uncle (Martin Sheen) and left his aunt (Sally Field) a widow with little money. Perhaps in the next episode.
Meanwhile the plusses of the new Spider-Man far outweigh the minuses. Garfield is brilliant casting albeit too old to play a high school student. (Nothing says you can’t muck with the legend a little and have Peter turn into Spider-Man while in college, after all.) He takes the character more into Batman territory as he broods about his chosen role in life and feels the sorrow of mankind more. He has less self-certainty, in other words, which is a good thing going forward.
Stone brings style, beauty and smarts to the role of Gwen while Leary and Ifans give subtlety and finesse to Captain Stacy and Dr. Connors, making them less cartoonish and more flesh-and-blood. Sheen and Field anchor our new Peter in a family whose moral forcefield should give him strength to face a rogues gallery of supervillains.
Behind the camera, all jobs are exceedingly well done. Jerome Chen’s visual effects, the oh-wow stunts and CG magic give the film tremendous energy. I caught the movie in both 3D and Imax, which did darken the images but John Schwartzman’s cinematography gives the cityscape a burnished look, nicely highlighting the mostly realistic production designer by J. Michael Riva and outstanding costumes from designer Kym Barrett. James Horner’s score works overtime for my taste but I never felt it intruded on the action.
Finally, Webb demonstrates a clear vision that propels the story ever forward while deepening the psychological underpinnings of his main characters. Now that the series is past its origin story, it can move further away from its predecessor and make its character more complex and realistic just as Christopher Nolan has done with “Batman.”
Opens: July 3, 2012 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: A Marvel Entertainment/Laura Ziskin/Avi Arad/Matt Tolmach production
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Director: Marc Webb
Screenwriters: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
Story by: James Vanderbilt
Based on the Marvel Comic Book by: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko
Producer: Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach
Executive producer: Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Michael Grillo
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: J. Michael Riva
Music: James Horner
Visual effects supervisor: Jerome Chen
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Pietro Scalia
PG-13 rating, 136 minutes