The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is something of a conundrum. Almost at the end, the teacher in a high school English class comes up with the assertion that although her professor had believed there were as many as ten different plots for a book or film, there’s only one. Not surprisingly, it’s “who are you?” This is not a little ironic because Sam Raimi, a director of reasonable talent, made an origin film about Spider-Man in 2002. Usually a studio waits more than ten years before remaking a film. I’ve read that Marvel Comics would have benefitted from a reversion of the rights unless a new film was added to the franchise. No matter what we might think of the character, the trilogy has been a major money-spinner. So Columbia Pictures probably decided that losing the rights was not an option. But Sam Raimi declared he’d had enough after three. Worse, the original cast of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst announced they were no longer available. Facing insuperable difficulties in continuing the trilogy’s plot-line, the creative-powers-that-be decided to start again with a new director and cast. Since they already had a script for the origin of the superhero, all they needed to do was add a new villain and they could continue gathering in the dollars from the fan boy community.
This brings us to Andrew Garfield as the reincarnation of Peter Parker, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson died and a CGI recreation was presumably thought an inappropriate use of S/FX funds when an equally good actor was available), Sally Field as Aunt May (I suppose Rosemary Harris was too old), and Marc Webb (note the magically appropriate name) to direct. If you’re going back to the “beginning” and reruning the same story as the English teacher suggests, this means the key members of the cast should fit an age profile for “High School”. Not being American, I’m never quite sure what age bracket this most usually covers in the real world. Watching films and television series tends to suggest it’s late teens and early twenties (finding reliable young actors who can work the tough schedules to produce these series is always a challenge). But in any sane education system, people should be moving on to university no later than nineteen or twenty. So casting Andrew Garfield at twenty-eight and Emma Stone at twenty-three gives a distinctly odd feel to these school scenes.
The plus side to this incongruous look is that both can act. No matter how iconic Tobey Maguire may have become in this role, he’s never been the most flexible of actors. Perhaps more importantly, once the actor gets into the suit, it doesn’t matter who it is. So the choice of Garfield turns out something of a triumph. His performance actually gives the film considerable emotional depth. Similarly, although we grew used to seeing Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, Emma Stone also turns in a good performance. The fact she’s at high school and not a PhD-toting Oscorp employee of sufficient years experience to manufacture the antidote to the genetic plague in ten minutes, is not important. The pair of actors work well as a couple. It’s merely unfortunate they (and the director) have been given a script that, at times, makes absolutely no sense. For all its many faults, this is actually a very good film with a stand-out role for Stan Lee. Yes, instead of the poor old boy just briefly glimpsed sitting in a train or bus, he’s the butt of a good joke as two of “his” creations battle it out on screen.
Right so we need to look at the script attributed to James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. The question is whether the depiction of life as an ordinary “boy” needs to make any sense given that his transformation into a superhero is inherently incredible. So apart from seeing him prepared to take on and lose a fight with a bully, we see nothing suggesting amazing intelligence or a deep interest in science. He’s just shown as one of these insecure kids of apparently average ability who tries to hide in the classroom and get out of the place before he gets into trouble. Yet when he’s suddenly able not only to make fun of the bully on the basketball court but also make a leap no human could match, no-one reacts differently to him. He should have entered the mythology of the school, yet breaking the glass screen above and behind the ring with his foot (or was it his hand?) is not considered noteworthy.
Unenhanced, he’s suddenly able to say scientifically intelligent things to Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and, without training as a super-spy, crack the top-level security on a secret lab without pausing for breath. I suppose the spider’s bite then raises his intelligence so he can immediately understand all his father’s notes and write down the key formula from memory when talking with the “good” doctor. He knows about the portable dispersal machine and instinctively understands what colour the antidote must be — that’s the powerful blue to overcome the evil green gas. I don’t mind this level of absurdity when our character has been given a background as a scientific prodigy in disguise, but the only way in which this boy is shown as excelling is wearing a hoodie. Then there’s the completely unresolved issue of whether Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) finally crosses the bridge and injects the serum into veteran volunteers. The manoeuvring of the cranes in the final chase is ludicrous. . . I could go on but this would detract from my final verdict.
Yes, the plot is incredibly stupid and the final battle between The Lizard and the wounded Spider-Man (not really slowing down with a bullet in him — did he just heal quickly or did Aunt May do field surgery on him when he got home with the eggs?) is like every other CGI battle between a superhero and the latest villain. But there’s a real emotional heart beating in this film. He may look too old, but Andrew Garfield is immensely likeable, there’s good chemistry with both Emma Stone and Martin Sheen, and surprising depth from Denis Leary as Captain Stacy in a short role. More importantly, like Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius, Rhys Ifans is wonderfully credible as the one-armed scientist. Without such a strong performance, the film would drift. So I ended up caring for Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy as people. This may not be the best Spider-Man film. That honour is still held by Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Dr. Ock. But The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) runs it a close second and is highly watchable.