Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

In Sony’s big budget Spider-Man series re-boot, the marketing pushes that Peter Parker finds a clue that might help him understand why his parents disappeared when he was young. But my favorite moment in The Amazing Spider-Man comes when he faces the reality that heroes, too, are fallible – a fact not to be confused with anti-heroism – in a gripping scene in which a life hangs by a thread one night from a bridge in New York City. The music stops. The heart races. Director Marc Webb (who directed (500) Days of Summer) lets the seriousness of what’s at stake sink in. Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield, the best thing about Aaron Sorkin’s anti-capitalist rant The Social Network) uses his “weakness” – a damaged psychology – as his greatest asset; he calmly, deftly sizes up the risk, the victim and the context and, focusing on the individual as an individual, he acts swiftly to preserve and protect.

Whether it works is beyond his control as we learn time and again in the story’s dark subplots. But he acts on his knowledge – he’s brilliant – experience and, above all, his imagination, a point he takes from Albert Einstein, and he trusts only his own judgment right through to the end. Of course, Garfield’s jittery Peter Parker/Spider-Man is a high school student with abandonment issues, so he makes mistakes, from stealing an identity to expecting something for nothing (with an attitude, too) but the gaunt, brooding techno-geek photographer expresses more interest in his own life than Tobey Maguire’s easygoing kid did in the Sam Raimi pictures. He’s less detached and more engaged, less smug and more intelligent, and The Amazing Spider-Man (2 hours, 18 minutes) is more serious than the pleasant Spider-Man, less self-important than the jaded Spider-Man 2 and more satisfying than the exciting Spider-Man 3. This time, in smooth transitions, interesting shots (and I saw it in 3D IMAX) such as his discovery of his father’s briefcase with his knowing Aunt May (Sally Field as an OCD maternal figure) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen at his best since The Subject Was Roses) in the same frame, Spider-Man is more of a work in progress. He has a dodgy personality. He uses his mind to regenerate himself more than he uses his new power from a genetically engineered spider’s bite. His interests extend beyond having a female at the center of his universe, as too many leading male characters do.

Not that The Amazing Spider-Man is nonstop intensity. It isn’t and it’s not some sort of indecipherable puzzle beyond one’s grasp like a Christopher Nolan movie, either (Peter Parker clearly prefers Alfred Hitchcock’s coherent thrillers). Spider-Man basically scampers about like a spider with the mind of an exceptionally able young man discovering his own power for the first time and, as an exciting comics-based tale with several powerfully moving moments and sparks of light sarcasm, it’s not more complicated than that. The cast is good – including Denis Leary, Campbell Scott and C. Thomas Howell as a trio of fathers – the mood is darkly serious and the suggestive theme raises questions about one’s chosen responsibility to others, offering a bond between superhero and city that repudiates today’s cultural cynicism.

Amazing Spider-Man is exaggerated. Based on comics created by writers Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the studio’s first film series (2002-2007), which has grossed over a billion dollars, centered upon Peter Parker’s relationship with another comics love-interest character named Mary Jane. This origins story – the Spider-Man character celebrates his 50th anniversary this August – centers upon his relationship with his father’s former partner, Dr. Curtis Connors (the excellent Rhys Ifans), and another love interest, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, fine though too mature for the role). Their triangle folds into his quest to solve the mystery of his father. The handicapped Dr. Connors operates a big cross-species scientific business and is willing to discuss his own misgivings about failed ventures with Peter. Of course, it turns out that he has some Nietzschean notions that turn into the equally adaptive and regenerative Lizard Man – who lets loose on the Big Apple – and Spider-Man strives to show him that his vision of a “world without weakness” is unscientific and will not make him whole. The movie moves with tension and if the action-packed last third lacks punch, and it doesn’t on its own terms, it’s because after all the Marvel Comics pictures we know how these scenes end. For her part, Gwen Stacy has gusto and the chemistry with Parker/Spider-Man sizzles with wit, romance and sex appeal. In short, The Amazing Spider-Man is another crowd-pleaser (unfortunately loaded with another glut of Sony’s distracting product placements), but not merely another Spider-Man (or comics) movie; it is a well-made summer treat.