We’ve seen it before, of course. We know he gets bitten by accident, yahoos about his powers, learns tragically about power and responsibility, and is surprisingly adept at sewing himself a spandex costume with significant embellishment. The beats aren’t new, and — this is crucial — they shouldn’t be. Watching a superhero origin story is like watching yet another cinematic troupe play out a Shakespearean saga, an analogy that Stan Lee, with his faux-Bard posturing, might like. There are liberties taken, certainly, but the essence of it all — whether the movie is directed by the fortunately named Marc Webb or Sam Raimi or by us, with a phalanx of action figures duking it out in bed — is the same.
And the reason Spider-Man stands at the very top of the increasingly cluttered superhero heap — a heap made up of aliens and mutants and shadowy vigilantes and men with really long fingernails — is because there’s a real man underneath that mask. Other heroes veer wildly in personality and character and scope based on writers and artists working on them, but there is only one Peter Parker. One who is as much about saving the day as he is about the frustration of not having done it more seamlessly; one who is as much about the utter inability to ask a girl out as he is about being a genius scientist; as much about heart, then, as he is about heroics. And, given he’s a high schooler, the mask is all about acting out.
Webb’s film starts with a knee-high Peter Parker, playing hide and seek with wily parents who elaborately balance hats on broomsticks to confuse the child. He isn’t the only one hunting for them, even though that hunt becomes a way of life as he grows up and continues to wonder where — and why — they hid. Relentlessly, recklessly he fumbles his way toward answers… But while the film begins with the boy, it only genuinely kicks off with the girl. Making Parker’s jaw drop with her go-go boots and the Vonnegut novel in her hand, Gwen Stacy is a confident, striking platinum blonde heroine who melts our boy right through. It is this impulsive, heady romance that gives a vitally thumping bassline to The Amazing Spider-Man. Even as a slithering foe (compared, in the script, to Godzilla) raises the story’s stakes and lends it hihat reptilian chills.
Dr Curt Connors, while lacking of limb, is anything but ‘armless. (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Spidey’d get it.) A scientist trying to harness the regenerative power of lizards, he grows back his right arm but, in the process, turns into the long-tongued Lizard, a monster who wants to create an equally scaly army. Cue action sequences, each amplified by how genuinely formidable this foe looks. For a film shot in 3D, this doesn’t take gimmicky advantage of the format as often, but when things roll, they really roll. The action is lucid, urgent and importantly imaginative — Spidey seems to be improvising, desperately, on the fly — and the bits when Webb lets us look through those friendly neighbourhood eyes as he careens dramatically around the city, putting us right in the middle of a rollercoaster ride, are worth the IMAX prices. 3D this one, true believers.
Strangely for a superhero blockbuster, however, the sentiments overwhelm the setpieces. For one, the cast is smashing. Andrew Garfield brings a wiry jumpiness to Parker, a constant nervous energy that keeps the character constantly unpredictable. Emma Stone is a treat as Gwen Stacy, ebullient and fresh enough to make up for decades of poorly-cast love interests in superhero movies. Martin Sheen is a very solid Uncle Ben (though it does occasionally seem like the President’s turned into a handyman) while Sally Field’s Aunt May doesn’t click at all, forever seeming like a presence too far from Peter’s centre. Rhys Ifans is a great Connors and a fine Lizard, further made fearsome by the humanity he brings to the part. And James Horner hasn’t sounded this good in decades.
Webb’s strength as a director lies in just how smoothly he flips genres, switching between gears with immaculate ease. Snap, it’s a coming of age story, snap, it’s about boy meets girl, snap, it’s Jurassic Park, snap, it’s the best darned Stan Lee cameo in the Marvel universe, snap, it’s a blockbuster, snap, snap, snap. And despite maniacal gearshifting — and some initial sluggishness — he keeps slowing down to close in on the nuances: on a boy who’d rather use a strand of webbing than reveal intent or identity, on a superhero learning on the job, on a girl falling head-first in love knowing she’s in trouble, on promises made and promises broken.
And on Spider-Man, who scuttles. His movements aren’t immediately graceful, often a flailing, akimbo mess. Garfield gives the character stammering nerves and Webb visually jerks him like a whimsical puppeteer, moving his limbs before the rest of him. It’s a dynamic new way to see Spidey on screen, and as he gets better — both at his job and at realising just what his job is — this new Spider-Man soars. And Webb lets us tag along for the ride.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Rediff, June 29, 2012