Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 17, 2014)
Cinematic reboots for superheroes tend to fall into three different categories. One takes a movie that fizzled and tries again. For instance, 2008’s Incredible Hulk attempted to win over all the viewers disenchanted with 2003’s Hulk.
Second, we find do-overs that bring back long-dormant characters. 2006’s Superman Returns would meet this category, as it offered the first Superman movie in 19 years.
Third, we locate reboots that follow movies that killed off successful franchises. Superman Returns could be viewed in that way – 1987’s Superman IV was a total dud – but I look at this category as best represented by Batman. 1997’s Batman and Robin was so poorly received that it demolished a thriving series. Eight years later, the stench still remained in the air, but 2005’s Batman Begins cleared it – and set up the template for the modern reboot.
2012’s Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t fall into any of these categories. Unlike Superman, Spidey didn’t spend much time on the sidelines; it’s only been five years since 2007’s Spider-Man 3, so it’s not like the character remained idle for long.
While Batman Begins acted to revive a series badly wounded by a crummy film, the same wasn’t necessary for Spidey. Sure, Spider-Man 3 got the weakest reception of the three, but it still sold a lot of tickets and certainly avoided the “disaster” status stuck onto Batman and Robin or Superman IV.
So why did Spidey reboot? I think this occurred essentially because the main creative team behind the three prior movies didn’t want to continue with the series. Without Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire in tow, the franchise’s producers had little choice but to start anew.
And I understand they had a hard task in front of them. Like I mentioned, they didn’t need to revive a series that lost public affection, and they didn’t have the luxury of beginning again after many years. They were going to relaunch Spidey with memories – mostly quite fond – of the Raimi films still active in the collective moviegoing mind.
I suppose they could’ve taken the 1980s/1990s Batman route and simply continued the franchise with new actors. A theoretical Spider-Man 4 could’ve picked up where 3 left off and not bothered to “reboot” the situation.
However, I suspect all involved wanted to be able to put their own stamp on the series and not just continue someone else’s themes/efforts, which led to a proper reboot.
It feels weird to see “the beginnings of Spidey” retold only 10 years after 2002’s Spider-Man, but I understand why the movie went that way. Amazing needs to make it clear it doesn’t exist in the same timeline as the Raimi films. This Peter had no lifelong crush on Mary Jane and he meets Gwen much earlier in life than in Spidey 3 or the comics.
Amazing attempts to spice up the standard origin because it’s not “the standard origin”. The film deviates from comic book mythology in substantial ways as it gives us Spidey’s creation.
When I see a movie adapted from a book or other source, I don’t expect – or necessarily want - slavish fidelity. Heck, I loved the Raimi Spider-Man and it took notable liberties with the character’s “real” story. For instance, in the comics, Peter never met Mary Jane until both were adults; he lived next door to Mary Jane’s aunt but they didn’t know each other as kids.
I was fine with the changes made for the Raimi movies because they were mostly in the right spirit. If anything, it helped the series that Peter had a lifelong crush on Mary Jane, as it deepened both roles and their relationship.
Amazing takes significant liberties, but not to the advantage of the characters or narrative. Gwen essentially exists as a replacement for the Raimi movies’ Mary Jane. Yeah, she’s a more bookish version, but she’s still just another love interest/damsel in distress. Actually, Gwen needs less saving than Mary Jane, but she also has less reason to exist; most of the time, she feels like a basic plot device.
And there’s just no connection between Peter and Gwen at all. I don’t know how much of that’s due to the writing and how much stems from the actors. Maybe there was simply no chemistry between Garfield and Stone, but their scenes together fall completely flat. When Spidey and Mary Jane first kissed in 2002, it delivered an electric moment; when Gwen and Peter smooch, a collective yawn comes from the audience.
Stone feels like she thinks she’s playing Mary Jane – and she should have been. I get the feeling that Amazing features Gwen instead of Mary Jane solely to separate it from the Raimi movies. Yeah, Gwen played a role in Spidey 3, but the Raimi flicks were really all about Peter and Mary Jane; Gwen’s presence in the third film was a fairly token one that occurred mainly to add some tension to the Parker/Watson relationship.
Indeed, Mary Jane was such a major presence in all three Raimi adventures that I suspect the producers changed to Gwen solely to give the new series their own stamp. Never mind that Stone was almost literally born to play Mary Jane. She looks like her and has the kind of sassy personality that’d work for the character.
But alas, she was too young to get the part – she was 13 when the 2002 flick went into production – so she’s stuck with Gwen. It’s an awkward connection that never quite works. I like Stone but think she always feels out of place in the part.
And then there’s Garfield. I think he’s a decent actor but seems all wrong for Peter/Spidey – or at least takes a problematic path in the role. At his heart, Peter is the ultimate nice guy, a virtual mama’s boy who’s a hardcore nerd. That’s how he was portrayed in the Raimi films, and that series got Peter to a “T”.
Forget that Peter, as he’s nowhere to be found in Amazing. Instead of the sweet, bookish character, Garfield’s Peter is a brooding loner; he’s Rebel Without a Cause vs. Maguire’s Revenge of the Nerds.
Maybe this significantly altered portrayal exists to satisfy the teen girl crowd; Garfield’s Peter would fit in nicely among the Twilight characters. Whatever the motivation, he’s just not Peter Parker. The “real” Peter would be voted “Most Likely to Win a Rhodes Scholarship”, while Garfield’s Peter would be chosen as “Most Likely to Go Columbine on His Classmates”.
At its core, Amazing gets the Spider-Man franchise’s tone completely wrong. Instead of a lovable loser, we get a surly, twitching loner. Instead of the guy who can’t catch a break, we find a prick who hides underneath a hood and snarls at his relatives.
Perhaps some people like the changes, but I don’t. Again, I don’t demand that the movie stay 100 percent faithful to the facts of the source, but I do want it to adhere to the spirit of Spider-Man, and that doesn’t happen here.
Part of what always made Spidey/Peter unique and so appealing came from his hapless nature. When Marvel introduced the character in 1962, he was something different than the flawless heroes who preceded him. Peter was an average guy with real-life problems and neuroses, and he ended up on the fuzzy end of the lollipop more than he emerged as the big hero. We could relate to Peter and root for him.
Sociopaths will relate to Garfield’s Peter, but I find it hard to imagine he’ll endear himself to many others. I never thought I’d say this, but for the first time in my 35 of Spidey reading/viewing, I’ve found a Peter Parker I don’t like. In this movie, the character’s almost utterly unsympathetic, and no attempts to redeem him succeed. He starts as an off-putting weirdo and stays unlikable to the end. Peter Parker as James Dean just doesn’t work.
This even mars the scenes in which Spidey uses his trademark wit. In the comics, I loved when Spidey would joke with the baddies. In this movie, however, he feels like a sadistic creep; his taunts veer toward nastiness and rarely amuse or delight.
Amazing is the first Spider-Man film since 2008’s Dark Knight pushed comic book movies toward a more grim, serious orientation, so I suspect it’s not a coincidence that it leans in that direction. No, Amazing doesn’t come with the grittiness of the Nolan Batman flicks, but it’s considerably more somber than we’d expect from this franchise. While Spider-Man always came with an introspective side, it didn’t lend toward real darkness ala Batman, so this flick’s tonal shift feels odd and inappropriate.
Which connects to the film’s main problem: it simply lacks any sense of fun. Just like I don’t want a jokey, campy Batman, I don’t want an overly self-serious Spider-Man. Again, that’s what the Raimi films did so well: they presented solid character drama but retained the inherent quirk and self-deprecating wit of the original.
I won’t call Amazing a complete dud. However, it’s much closer to “bomb” than to “success”. I love the Spider-Man character and franchise but find myself almost wholly disappointed by this ineffective revamp.
Footnote: a little teaser with Dr. Connors shows up a few minutes into the movie’s end credits.