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Saturday, July 7, 2012

DAMN Good Movies -- THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN


Yes, I'm back with another of my movie takes, this time on the film The Amazing Spider-Man, based on the classic Marvel Comics superhero.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now. If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...let's go web-swinging...

Once upon a time, The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be a little movie called Spider-Man 4After the poorly-received Spider-Man 3, Spider-Fans were understandably concerned about the future of the film franchise and even more so after learning of director Sam Raimi's plans for the fourth film as of 2009.  Instead of having actor Dylan Baker finally develop his character Dr. Curt Connors into The Lizard, or featuring more visually impressive villains like Electro or Mysterio, John Malkovich was set to portray The Vulture.  Oh, and Anne Hathaway was going to be Felicia Hardy, but not as her alter-ego Black Cat.  No instead, Felicia would become a female Vulture named...wait for it...The Vulturess.

Even the suits at Sony Pictures realized what a trainwreck this would be and instead opted to part ways with Raimi and the original film cast to go the reboot route.  (Poor Anne Hathaway, having to settle for that trivial Catwoman role in The Dark Knight Rises as a consolation prize...)  They brought in the aptly-named Marc Webb as Raimi's replacement, using a story by Steve Vanderbilt with some tweaking on the script by Spider-Man 2 and 3 screenwriter Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves.

Essentially, The Amazing Spider-Man tries to be to the first Spider-Man film what Batman Begins is to the 1989 Batman film starring Michael Keaton, a fresh retelling of the legend using a completely different creative team and stylistic approach.  And for the most part, Webb succeeds with the relaunch, although nowhere near as effectively as Christopher Nolan did.  There's a distinct effort to be different here, from the unfortunate Spidey costume tweaking to color schemes, orchestral score and overall film tone.  So if nothing else, you can't accuse Webb of trying to be a Raimi clone.

One of the major influences for this film appears to be Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's stellar run of Ultimate Spider-Man, which reimagined the Spider-Man saga for the 21st century and a more modern audience.  Bendis and Bagley gave us a scruffier Peter Parker with messy hair and updated fashion sense than the sweatervests and ties favored by original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko.

Thankfully, all the important bits remain mostly intact in Webb's film.  Peter is still bit by an altered spider, Uncle Ben is still killed by a criminal that Peter doesn't stop when he could have, but the little details are just a bit different.  One significant film series mprovement though, is the return of the web-shooter devices that Peter, once again a scientific prodigy, invents himself.  Also, The Amazing Spider-Man wisely adds the mystery of Peter's missing parents, Richard and Mary Parker, to this new film mythos, bringing in a fresh story playground to explore and presumably develop in sequels.  If the closing credits bonus scene of Curt Connors talking with a mysterious figure is any indication, a trilogy is definitely in play here.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

SPIDER-MAN/PETER PARKER:  This entire film (and probable sequels) rides entirely on Andrew Garfield's skinny shoulders and he definitely steps up.  Garfield has Peter's neurotic but charming nature down cold, making a welcome change from Tobey Maguire's mumbling approach.  His Peter is understandably bitter over his missing parents, troubled without being annoying, but also quick with the quips and comebacks as Spider-Man.  This is the Peter some of us wanted to see in Raimi's movies. 

GWEN STACY:  A welcome upgrade from Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone seems like she would be a more natural Mary Jane Watson but turns in a solid performance as Gwen.  She and Garfield have great chemistry together on screen, making you forget all about Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.  It also helps that this version of Gwen is Peter's intellectual peer, making her feel less of a girl hostage simply waiting for her neck to be snapped after being thrown off a bridge.

THE LIZARD/DR. CURT CONNORS:  Rhys Ifans shows his range from being just Luna Lovegood's father Xenophilius in the Harry Potter films.  His Curt Connors is just as tormented over losing his arm as his original comic depiction, but the emotional attachments of his wife and son are abandoned here for some reason.  As a result, he's far less sympathetic than he is in the comics and I'm still trying to work out what he hoped to accomplish with his sudden "Hey, I think I'll turn all of New York into lizard creatures" masterplan.

CAPTAIN GEORGE STACY:  In an interesting switch from James Cromwell in Spider-Man 3 to Denis Leary, Captain Stacy has a bit more edge to him.  There's a fun scene at the Stacy dinner table with George and Peter debating the ethics of vigilante justice.  However, after finally helping Spider-Man after hunting him, Stacy comes off like a Commissioner Gordon ripoff.  And then he ultimately does what Stacys do best.

BEN PARKER:  With Cliff Robertson sadly no longer with us, the role of Uncle Ben is handed off to none other than Martin frickin' Sheen.  He sets Peter off with the important lesson of power and responsibility nicely, showing how close the two characters are before the tragic incident that claims Ben's life.  So glad he agreed to do this role.

MAY PARKER:  You can't deny Sally Field's talent as an actress, but after Rosemary Harris' performances as Aunt May, it's really hard to accept this particular casting change.  Field does just fine, but her surprisingly underwritten role doesn't exactly help sell her take on the character.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO:  Smilin' Stan appears in the Midtown High library as a librarian grooving to his headphones and oblivious to the chaos and destruction from the Spidey/Lizard battle going on right behind him.  Very fun.

So after trading away Mary Jane Watson for Gwen Stacy, J. Jonah Jameson for Gwen's NYPD captain father and the Green Goblin for The Lizard, things may feel a little off.  It's only been ten years since we covered the ground of Spider-Man's origin, after all, so it seems a little too soon for this kind of continuity reboot.  However, if you can set those memories of the first three Spider-Man films aside and appreciate The Amazing Spider-Man on its own merits, you should enjoy this flick quite a bit.

And for those who might be wondering, here's the updated and revised list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Watchmen (2009)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)
8. Iron Man (2008)
9. X-Men: First Class (2011)
10. X2: X-Men United (2003)
11. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
12. X-Men (2000)
13. Thor (2011)
14. Batman (1989)
15. Superman II (1981)
16. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
17. Green Lantern (2011)
18. Iron Man 2 (2010)
19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
20. Hellboy (2004)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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