Some bizarre time warp has resulted in another Spider-Man origin story. In today’s film market there’s no room for loyalty or alchemy. This is straight math. The iron was hot, the audience willing, and release slates to fill. As a result there’s a brand new relaunch of a character most audiences know like the back of their hand.
It’s impossible to view this thing entirely on its own simply due to the overwhelmingly high profile of the character and the previous three film incarnations. But this is not the Sam Raimi Spider-Man and despite snap judgements based on early footage, it’s also not Marvel and Sony attempting to inject a little of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight energy into the franchise. It’s also not (500) Days of Summer Redux.
It’s a Spider-Man movie. One with many of the staples we’ve seen before but with a few tricks up its sleeve.
One of those tricks is most certainly not plot. The story is all meatballs down the middle, and the idea of involving Peter Parker’s father (Campbell Scott, an actor we see far too little of these days) being a genius and the key to both Spider-Man and the Lizard’s origin is both clunky and a distraction. Though it aids in speeding up certain areas of the hero’s acceptance and drive it keeps the movie from finding an early rhythm. On its best day the origin of Spider-Man is a necessary evil. A contrivance that is convenient to get the party started. Any extra time devoted to the concept is wasted and though there are a few nice moments in the first fifteen minutes of the movie it adds bloat to the whole. Additionally, the choice of the Lizard as the villain of the piece softens the impact and scope of the film; even in the most compelling story arcs of the comic the Lizard was a second or third tier villain. Hinging a film around a villain that uninspired is shaky and even though the magic of Spider-Man is his internal struggle and family dynamic, this is a huge summer movie. It needs to be more. It doesn’t help when Rhys Ifans is given pitifully little to do. He’s game for nearly anything as an actor but there’s not enough to sell the pathos and best intentions of the one-armed scientist turned scaly Jeckyll and Hyde. The tacked on motivation of the tragic villain trying to create a world full of lizard people does the film absolutely no favors.
There’s a very feeble approach to tease the next film’s villain both in allusions throughout the film and an awful post-credits scene but the end result is a film with sadly little to say.
Luckily there are a few virtues that justify a viewing outside the rickety armature of the story. Primarily some wise casting and a few truly effective moments of Spider-Man being realized with cutting-edge tech and fresh perspectives.
First things first: Andrew Garfield is at times an excellent Peter Parker. He’s not as much a wallflower as the original comics suggested but rather a young man with good intentions but nary the firepower to back it up. Garfield has a swagger and confidence about him that often works well, especially once the character gets his powers and is able to use them. Inexplicably there are times when he feels absolutely wrong for the part, primarily when given wordless moments to convey meaning. He’s either too internal in his method or too complex for a role like this. When at his absolute best, and it’s sadly not in plentiful supply, is when he’s delivering the trademark smart-ass banter with two-bit thugs. Garfield really works in those instances. His lean and limber frame also does wonders towards giving the character the comic book frame look vital in taking the character and granting him an almost alien range of motion. Despite early fears he does good work here. Since a percentage of the role is a voice acting role, he’s fine for the part. Controversy be damned, he’s not the problem. Nor is Emma Stone, a radiant choice for Gwen Stacy. Here she brings a nice mix of wit and intelligence and in the signature blonde locks of the character, she looks the part. She and Garfield work well together and though it’s a leap of faith to buy into the love story angle of the film two good performers help to sell it.
Denis Leary is solid as Gwen Stacy’s police chief dad though the character is given a pitifully short shrift here. Martin Sheen and Sally Field try and sell Peter Parker’s adopted “parents” but are ultimately a disappointment. In truth the most important relationship to nail in the movies is the Peter Parker/Aunt May dynamic and sadly none of that’s present here. Nor is there even an allusion to more interesting times. There’s no excitement in the casting to help push the audience through contrived or slow parts, though a better written Curt Connors would have allowed for the versatile Ifans to strut his stuff. The most jarring inclusion to the cast is Irrfan Khan as Norman Osborn’s [who is better known to readers as The Green Goblin] right hand man, a character who appears and is meant to be menacing and who is then discarded as a plot device. Why does this man matter? No one knows or ultimately cares. 80’s star C. Thomas Howell is nice to see although his character is involved in the film’s dumbest moment; an attempt at an emotional high point in the film involving crane operators. Stan Lee finally appears onscreen in a way that doesn’t ring hollow and it’s funny to see stuntman extraordinaire Michael Papajohn (who killed Uncle Ben in the first Raimi film) tying the two Spider-Man franchises together.
But it’s a messy collection of ideas.
There’s nothing epic enough to warrant the film special attention and there are a lot of very familiar genre staples. Where the film does strike a chord is in the exhilarating web-slinging sequences. Marc Webb and his 2nd Unit team do a very nice job of taking their audience into the body of Spider-Man. The first-person approach could have been an awful gimmick but instead it energizes the film to a level of coolness it could never attain otherwise. There are some very inspired bits of action here, whether it be how Spider-Man uses his webs and abilities to get the job done or just the joy of being a superhero. Very inspired. It’s good, because the film would have been a leaden nightmare otherwise.
Is it the beginning of a new vital Spider-Man franchise? It’s bound to simply based on math and thousands upon thousands of young folks. It’s not a kiddie film, surprisingly.
There’s death here. There’s some blood. There’s a gross rat monster. This very well could have been an attempt by Sony to both protect their rights to the character and take a shotgun approach the widest possible market. They didn’t. There’s integrity in many of the decisions here even though the end result is a film with some serious flaws. Even James Horner’s score attempts to be classy and though nothing really registers there’s no denying that a lot of work went into this. Technically it’s quite successful and though the 3-D doesn’t add much it doesn’t reek of opportunism. It’s a Spider-Man movie. If the quality of a film like this is based on how true the film is to Spider-Man’s web shooters then no review is going to matter. If you have a few spare dollars and have interest in more Spider-Man adventures you could do worse. It’s still a redundant film but in a world where we have seven Batman movies, three different Hulks, and X-Men bouncing back and forth over thirty year periods, does it really matter?