So once again Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is delivered to his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). And once again, after being nipped in the neck by a radioactive spider, he is transformed from a gawky teenager to a spandex-suited superhero who web-slings his way across New York City. The newness in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man comes from the sense of karmic interconnectedness of fathers and sons. Peter’s father, the scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), was a secretive man, fond of hidden compartments in drawers and briefcases, and so is the son, who seeks to compartmentalise his dual identities (though by this film’s end, practically everybody close to Peter seems to know that he’s Spider-Man). Richard bred genetically modified spiders in his lab, and had his colleague Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) not continued this work, Peter would never have been bitten, and never become the unwitting poster boy for his father’s theories about cross-species genetics.
As if to make up for Richard’s absence in Peter’s life – he died in a plane crash – Webb situates his hero in the midst of father figures. Foremost, of course, is Uncle Ben, and it’s Peter’s misfortune that this father, too, is doomed to death. But there’s also Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), doting dad of Gwen (Emma Stone), with whom Peter clashes as if with his own uncomprehending father. For a while, Connors fills in as a father figure, the only elder Peter can speak to about science, as if discussing homework. (“Why be human when we can be so much more?” demands Connors, speaking for every single superhero.) And when Connors morphs into a giant lizard – called, well, The Lizard; this underwhelming villain is, like Spider-Man, a genetically altered human, crossed with another species – and goes on a rampage, Spider-Man saves a little boy (it’s a nifty variation on the kid-trapped-in-a-burning-building from Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film) and reunites him with his father. He’s trying to engineer for others the happy ending he couldn’t have for himself.
Webb scores with the story’s emotional beats, and at one point, we think he’s going back to the comic-book take on Spider-Man, where Peter was just a teenager. When Gwen asks him in school if he knows his own name or when a receptionist at a research facility enquires if he’s having trouble finding himself, we get the sense of somebody still evolving, someone who’s not yet figured out who he is and what he wants to be. (Even as Spider-Man, Peter is still evolving; only gradually, and sometimes clumsily, does he get the hang of it all.) And like any self-respecting teenager, Peter bangs the door on his uncle and aunt and storms out into the night. “Take off the damn hood and look at me,” demands Aunt May, echoing the mothers of sullen teens everywhere who turn their back on concerned parents. So when Peter refuses to help nab the thief who goes on to kill Uncle Ben, the screen threatens to erupt with teen angst as well as teen rebellion. (Peter’s guilt is compounded, later, because he gave Connors the equation needed to complete the latter’s transformation to The Lizard.)
But after dropping these hints, Webb doesn’t do much with any of this. And we know why. He is, after all, entrusted with a summer blockbuster, not The Catcher in the Rye. About midway, inevitably, the focus shifts to action (well executed) and romance (well handled). The stretch where Spider-Man snakes through traffic – as opposed to leaping between skyscrapers – is choreographed like a dream. There’s also a sly vein of humour. Peter’s revelation to Gwen that he is Spider-Man is done with the screwball spirit of a romantic comedy. And there is much fun to be had as Peter slips into his superpowers, over broken alarm clocks and overachieving basketball games at school. My favourite gag came when Connors transforms into The Lizard, and Webb cuts, mischievously, from the freshly erupting scales on Ifans’ skin to the scaly fish on Peter’s plate at dinner. (Who’s about to devour whom?) And Webb isn’t afraid to stray into – now how to put this? – slightly feminine territory. This is surely the only superhero movie that references the heroine’s period, and the hero’s longest, most meaningful clinch isn’t with his girlfriend but with his nurturing Aunt May. (Sally Field, though, is abandoned along the way, as is Irrfan Khan, playing this film’s version of Anil Kapoor in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the token Indian who barely matters.)
Of its kind, The Amazing Spider-Man is not bad at all, but it exists under the looming shadow of the earlier films, and it’s hard not to question if we needed, so soon, another origins story, another values-instilling Uncle Ben, another learning-to-fly montage, and, frankly, another actor in the red-and-blue costume. Garfield is wonderful at hinting at his character’s awkwardness and unsociability. He seems happiest hanging upside down in his room, working out equations, and when faced with girls, he resembles a drowning man reaching for the light on the water’s surface – so near, yet so far. The scene where Peter asks Gwen out is an instant classic. (Stone sloshes words around in her mouth and spits them out like a happy wine taster; you can see why Peter is so intoxicated when she’s around.) And when she says yes, we segue to a sequence where Peter harnesses his superpowers to leap around in a construction site with the blitheness of a ballet dancer – it’s the closest a superhero movie has come to a musical moment.
But Garfield isn’t able to exorcise the ghost of Tobey Maguire. With his newfound powers, Maguire made us feel, along with him, the joy of not being an average bloke anymore – average in looks, strength, money, popularity. It was the ultimate revenge of the nerd. When you look like Christopher Reeve, you wear your superpowers with a sense of entitlement (it would be surprising to see Reeve as a normal human being; he’s just pretending to be Clark Kent), but when you’re built like Tobey Maguire, every bounce off a rooftop is an affirmation that you’re not going to be picked on anymore, that you’re now special in ways most people can only dream of. Maguire looked as if he couldn’t believe it himself that he was now delivered from an unremarkable life, and we delighted in his incredulousness. Garfield, on the other hand, is a more classically handsome presence – he broods like a wounded heartthrob. He doesn’t give us the satisfaction of a complete transformation, because even without the spidey sense he looks like he’d have the girls tingling.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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