Friday, July 6, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – Review

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man is a mixture of things that work and things that do not work. The film is about Peter Parker, an orphaned high school student who gains spider-like superpowers after being bitten by a genetically engineered super spider. His powers are put to the test when a scientist, Dr. Curt Connors, tries a trans-species genetic experiment on himself and turns into The Lizard, who wreaks havoc on New York City. Peter also finds love in the form of classmate and fellow nerd Gwen Stacy. Being that this film has nothing to do with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy, I am not going to compare and contrast them, rather I am going to just let this new version stand on its own. Starting with the elements of the film that work: director Marc Webb gets the visual style for Spider-Man right. His suit is dirty and lived-in, not everything is glossy and clean. And the same goes for the world Peter lives in, it feels realistic, which helps ground the spectacle and fantasy of the film and its characters. Webb does a great job with Peter and Gwen (in terms of garnering great performances and the tone of each character). Their characters and relationship are the most compelling aspect of the film. Peter is cocky and wisecracking as Spider-Man but shy and somewhat reclusive as Peter and Gwen is confident and intellectually right there with Peter, making them a good match. First-love is something viewers can relate to and has a powerful nostalgic charm, and thus the audience relates to Peter in this respect. The action set pieces are well done and build throughout. Stan Lee has probably his best cameo to-date (both being very funny and seamlessly fitting into the narrative). And finally, Webb gets the tone of Spider-Man right (for the most part). The film is fun and entertaining firstly, but he also gives Spider-Man grave situations and consequences that he must deal with and that shape him. The film is light enough to have funny moments, but serious enough to allow the more dramatic moments to have weight and significance. Now the things that do not work: The principle issue with the film is that the motivations of the characters are not strongly detailed for the audience (if at all). Why does Gwen seem to really like Peter right off? Is it because he stood up to Flash Thompson? Is that enough for her to seemingly be completely infatuated with him, even though he speaks to her for the first time ever moments after standing up to Flash (and it somewhat seems like she does not even know his name)? Webb does not give the audience enough dramatic character development for their relationship to really feel organic and honest. As is, the audience accepts it because that is how it is in the books or the movie-marketing told them they are romantically linked. Yes, their relationship is the best aspect of the film, even without the strong character development, because the chemistry is great and the performances are great. The audience understands why Peter likes Gwen. Webb visually shows them that he does (a picture of her is his desktop wallpaper, for example) and has from afar for some time, but Gwen’s motivation for liking Peter back immediately and so strongly is not clear (and does not really make sense). Continuing with the issue of characters’ lack of motivation, what causes Connors’s sudden change of heart from wanting to stop Ratha from delivering his formula to Osborn for it to be tested on V.A. patients because it turned him into a lizard to wanting to turn everyone in NYC into a lizard like him? It made no sense. Webb uses a very sloppy scene in which Connors seemingly has two personalities that are fighting each other (one that is timid, Connors, and one that craves power, the Lizard) to try to explain why Connors decides to turn everyone into lizards – done with competing voice-overs (signaling that this was probably added and done in postproduction – also, random side-note, how did Connors build a new office/lab in the sewer? How did he get internet and access to the power grid down there? He is a scientist specializing in reptiles, not an electrical engineer – oh boy, this is getting off track). The problem is that this scene just randomly shows up. There is no set up for Connors internal struggle. Webb does an awful job with Connors overall. There is little to no character development, and thus his motivations are unclear, which in turn removes all dramatic tension from his actions. The audience does not care about him or anything he is doing, and thus their stake in the outcome is diminished. This is only worsened by the fact that Webb does not give Peter and Connors enough character development together either. Connors is merely some guy that used to work with Peter’s father, and Peter only relates to him in as much as to try to discover the truth behind why his father disappeared. Yes, Peter feels responsible for giving Connors the equation that made his transformation into the Lizard possible, but they never really have a true connection, which again removes the tension from the action scene in which Peter is trying to stop Connors and lessens the audiences’ stake in the outcome even more. The audience is watching it more so to see what happens and to partake in the cool action set pieces than a much more engaged and visceral experience in which they are right there with the characters and truly care about what happens to them (which makes more a much more enthralling and lasting movie experience). This is almost a completely debilitating flaw in the film. The characters are just sort of secondary to the action and special effects, propped up by good performances. Even Uncle Ben’s death is handled in a drama reducing manner. Peter is not directly the cause. Sure, he could have stopped the eventual killer maybe, but it is done in such a way that Peter is really only slightly indirectly involved, and thus again Webb has let potential character development and real emotional drama slip away. Without being the cause of Uncle Ben’s death (in as much as Peter is the cause in the books), how will he learn responsibility for his actions? Something that greatly shapes him as Spider-Man. Thus, Webb leaves us with a film that is spectacular in many ways, but without a strong adversary for Peter, no clear motivations for the Lizard (or Gwen) and very weakly drawn characters The Amazing Spider-Man is nothing more than a fun summer blockbuster, one that does not standup to the great comic-book films that drive audience expectations.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Marc Webb, coming off the indie hit (500) Days of the Summer, has shown that visually and performance wise he is a very competent Hollywood director, able to handle big budget action/adventure films. However, and this could be attributed to the film having three different writers credited (each scripting a different daft) and/or the film seemingly having a condensed runtime at the expense of some the characters (especially Connors), he certainly needs to work on his ability to craft a more efficient and strong narrative structure, particularly pertaining to strong characters. If he directs the sequel, he should have an easier time without all the Spider-Man origin stuff to get through putting a time constraint on the rest of the story. I suspect that the sequel will be much better as a lot of the important pieces are in place (i.e. a good cast and crew). James Horner delivers a good score that has a different vibe to it than most comic-book/superhero film compositions. That said, it did not have an iconic theme for Spider-Man, something that is needed in such a film as this (though, I did like this piece a lot). John Schwartzman’s cinematography is also very good. Schwartzman has a grand scale to his visuals that work well in the action set pieces. He also gives the film a grittier ‘lived-in’ look and feel, complementing Webb’s vision. J. Michael Riva’s production design (he is a carryover from Spider-Man 3) is great in a few places. Peter and Gwen’s rooms fit their personalities very well (the Rear Window poster is an awesome piece of set decorating), and the Oscorp tower in its entirety is fantastic. Webb did do a good job with his cast. Martin Sheen is quite good as Uncle Ben (Peter’s surrogate father). He has warmth to him, while exuding the principles of a strong moral code. Sally Field’s Aunt May is sort of a deer in headlights. In her eyes, Peter is a troubled youth (and yet it seems as if she knows he is Spider-Man at the end and that reconciles her feelings). Field is fine, but her character is not very well written. Denis Leary is fantastic as Captain Stacy, bringing energy to the film and stealing scenes. Rhys Ifans has a very difficult part. As shown in the film, Connors is very under written and lacking lots of needed character moments. But, Ifans does bring humanity to Connors even so. Emma Stone is brilliant as Gwen (maybe even stealing the whole movie). The audience gets why Peter likes her, because they like her. She is cool and sweet, but capable of fending for herself. She does not need to be rescued (which is refreshing). Andrew Garfield plays Peter well. He is a loner, who is going through a lot of tough emotional stuff, dating back to his parents’ death. Yet, Spider-Man is almost like an emotional release for him, something that allows him to finally experience pure joy. And, Garfield is able to covey that well.

Summary & score: The Amazing Spider-Man is a fun enjoyable superhero film and good first chapter to potentially a new trilogy, but pales in comparison to the great films in its genre. 7/10

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