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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Little-Late Film Review - The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh
More than a decade ago Evil Dead begetter Sam Raimi launched a rebirth for Spider-Man, who had been mostly neglected by the studios, and turned it into a Hollywood cash cow.  A few years later, the first sequel to the series became one of the very few sequels in film history that were actually BETTER than their predecessor.  And then he broke it.  Spider-Man 3 was such a tremendous pile of FAIL that the series subsequently died.  Now, five years after we saw an emo Tobey Maguire slide not-so-gracefully across a dance floor causing a synonymous groan amidst the isles of theatres across America, (500) Days of Summer-director Mark Webb takes up the reins of the beloved franchise to redefine, revitalize, and make Columbia Pictures a shitload of money.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the story as, since this review is a little late, I’m sure anyone reading this has either seen it, or has already read up on the film.  Still, I wanted my piece to be out there, for the twelve people that will actually read this.  I’ll start by saying that this film is definitely a different take on the story.  

Batman Begins made it cool to have a darker tone in your comic book movies and, because it worked in that film, Hollywood once again misses the point entirely (it’s par for the course, really) and assumes the dark tone was precisely why those movies were pretty good.  Well, they were wrong.  We’ve seen a number of comic book franchises completely slaughtered on screen over the last few years and, with the exception of the Dark Knight and the Avengers, it has been brutal.  The Amazing Spider-Man is another film that tries to go this route, and the “dark” tone does not really seem to fit in this universe.

The premise takes Peter Parker all the way back to High School where he struggles with bullies and with his crush for the out-of-his-league-obligatory-female-co-star Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who was one of three lovely ladies whom Peter Parker courted over the years in the comics.  Many of these high school scenes are really just set up so we can see him master his powers and fight the film’s villain along the walls and ceilings of its corridors.  It also provides some lead in to the romance between Parker and Stacy but is not the location at which their real character interactions and arcs occur.  What I’m basically saying here is most of the high school scenes are pointless, really.  I do, however, appreciate the inclusion of legacy Spider-Man jock Flash Thompson in the story, though he really only exists as a thin point of conflict, and the most pedestrian of villains, the bully.  His character is never even fully realized.  He gets his ass handed to him at basketball in a scene that is kind of entertaining but is really just trailer-bait and then his attitude and role changes entirely when Peter’s Uncle Ben is killed, at which he is pretty much dropped from the film entirely.

The scenes leading up to Peter obtaining his abilities can only be described by the most dreadful of film descriptors: Boring.  It’s hard to really care about the characters as many of them are barely flashed over (the same mistake the X-Men movies made) and after Peter becomes Spidey we really couldn’t care less about most of them, mainly because the film doesn’t.  Aunt Mae just exists to worry about Peter and the few relevant scenes she has are wasted.  They cast Sally Field and Martin Sheen as Mae and Ben, which I speculate was an attempt to make the older audience and film nerds go “Ohhhhhh!” but is really just kind of distracting, and is sort of a waste.  Still, the intimate scenes with Ben reaching out to Peter are some of the best in the movie, and thanks to the caliber of talent behind the roles, we do get a sense that these characters really do care about their nephew and the path he is traveling.

The point where the film really falls apart is when we are first introduced to the villain, the Lizard.  This is an odd choice to me as it sort of defeats the purpose that (I think) they were trying to achieve: bringing Spider-Man into the real world.  If it were the doctor just slightly deformed, or maybe a different villain entirely (preferably), it wouldn’t have been so bad.  But the dumb-looking CGI villain is such a out of place and really killed much of the tension for me.  He just looks so... bad!  What’s worse is the actor they chose to play him is really only okay and his performance has about as much subtlety as an in-costume Cirque-Du-Soleil performer riding an LED-lit unicycle through Times Square while blowing a flaming vuvuzela.

The action scenes are where this movie really shows its mettle, as they are well-directed and paced.  Little moments of tension and heavy scenes of pounding action flood the screen.  However, much of the tension is lost when we realize that these two characters are virtually indestructible.  They’re thrown through walls, blown up, slashed and shot and yet they remain unphased.  It sort of kills the tension when your hero is Reb Brown-level bulletproof and is seemingly fully invincible.  Yet, the way they flow, and the way the camera is used makes these gladiatorial bouts look good.

Now, a note on performances.  This is one of the Amazing Spider-Man’s biggest strengths over the original trilogy in my opinion.  Andrew Garfield is a much better actor than Tobey Maguire and the same applies to Emma Stone versus Kirsten Dunst, despite the fact that they are playing different characters.  The scene stealer, however, has to be Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father, the loud-mouthed, gung-ho leader we’d expect from a character played by the talented Dennis Leary.  The only performance I really didn’t like was Rhys Ifans’ villain.  I just found him too cartoonish and hammy for this film’s tone.  I also would like to point out a good performance from E.T.’s C.Thomas Howell in a small part as a construction worker and devoted father.

All that said, as negative as this review may sound, I would actually recommend this film.  It is not some great achievement, but compared to most comic book movies, it is not all that bad.  There is enough enjoyment to be had in this film to warrant a recommendation.  It just requires the viewer to put aside pretension and maybe just a little expectation to find entertainment in some of the film’s action scenes and the occasional bouts of humor.  The things that drag this one down is the endless melodrama, the lame villain and the idea that there really wasn’t any reason for this film to be made in 2012 (Besides making a ton of money, of course).

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