Friday, July 6, 2012

Totally 'Amazing'

Now THIS is the type of summer action movie I like to see! Though there was no way it could be possibly outshine The Avengers, and there's a good chance it won't be quite as good as Christopher Nolan's conclusion to the Batman trilogy in The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man was one summer blockbuster I'd been waiting months to see. Having seen so many big budget duds, I NEEDED something genuinely good to write about, especially with a July that sports only seven major film releases (I write about a dozen reviews a month; you do the math). Thankfully the superhero reboot directed by (500) Days of Summer's Marc Webb (I don't think his name had anything to do with the selection process) was exactly what both Todd and I needed, as both of us wanted something that came CLOSE to bringing back the giddiness of seeing The Avengers on screen.

As a film franchise, Spider-Man had hit on some hard times. Remember, the Sam Raimi trilogy of Spidey films were all released in the past decade, and most people going to see Andrew Garfield play their favorite web-slinging hero not only remember Tobey Maguire's take on the same role, but in fact bought tickets for it in May of 2002. But after Sony Pictures (supposedly) screwed up Raimi's vision of the series in 2007's second sequel, they're giving it the old sophomore try in the reboot. There's little question as to why Sony reset the series; the previous stars were getting old, Raimi wasn't on board, and if they didn't do something with the license the rights would revert back to Marvel, as well as all those box office dollars. That wasn't much of a problem when Marvel couldn't make a good movie if they tried, but now that they're owned by Disney...

Oh, Peter Parker; you nerd, you!
Well, it doesn't matter anymore. Despite any early reservations, both Todd (who doesn't miss a superhero movie if she can help it) and I loved The Amazing Spider-Man. This was a classically-told story executed so well that it mattered little if Webb and company didn't add anything significant to the mythology of the character. Peter Parker is the same loner, smart-ass high-schooler that the comics remember, trying to make it through his school years while living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). A renewed search into the disappearance of his parents as a boy brings him to OsCorp, the scientific research company for whom his dad used to work. There he meets the one-armed Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who had worked alongside Richard Parker on genetic research intended to cure diseases around the world. Peter also manages to get bitten by a genetically-modified spider, which somehow turns him into something more than human, with the proportionate strength of a spider, excellent reflexes and the ability to cling to walls and ceilings. Eventually the genetic experiments break down (as they invariably to at the cinema) and the newly-christened Spider-Man must protect the city from Connors, whose work has resulted in him have transformed into the rampaging Lizard.

He's just hangin' around...
Most Spider-Man fans know the major events that have shaped the unusual life of Peter Parker. First of course is the spider bite, the source of all his powers (when I get bitten, usually all that is involved is a lot of scratching). Others include the myriad of tragic deaths left in Spider-Man's wake, usually those close to him. I won't say who perishes for the sake of the dozen or so people out there who have somehow managed to escape all references to pop culture, but trust me on this one: Spider-Man is definitely the harbinger of death. But one thing I don't recall from any comic books was the loss of Parker's parents, or at least the idea that their absence is a major factor in his development. It is here where Webb makes his biggest divergence from the source material, and it is indeed a welcome change from what we already know about the teenage superhero. The character was never so driven in the original trilogy, and that change of focus does wonders for making this film fresh despite everything else remaining practically the same.

The sequel will feature Spidey vs. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Garfield is especially impressive in his first major leading film role. Throughout the movie, Peter Parker goes from smart-assed teen to super-powered bully and arrogant jerk (where I became worried would be his final resting place) to, finally, the wise-cracking, responsible superhero we know and love. I was so relieved than the creative minds behind Parker manged to perfectly emulate what was so great about the teenaged hero and get it so RIGHT. Garfield is simply amazing, bringing with him a darker, more brooding tone to the role and  actually taking the character on an emotional journey that changes how he sees the world and his place in it. Not to disparage Maguire's impressive (if somewhat campy) take on the part, but Garfield simply blows his predecessor's incarnation out of the water. It's a moment of celebration when Spider-Man finally attains that "hero" status from the city of New York, especially since he's no longer seeking approval for his actions, but just trying to do the right thing. This was a rushed process in Raimi's version, but Webb allows Parker to mature as a character over the length of the film, not something you often see in blockbuster movies.

Webb did a great job in surrounding Garfield with exceptional talent, both on the acting and creative sides. Most notable is the fantastic Emma Stone as legendary Spidey girlfriend Gwen Stacy, as she and Garfield together possess excellent chemistry, far more than Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (as Mary Jane Watson) ever boasted. Gwen is the kind of seemingly unattainable girl we've all known at one point or another; beautiful, smart and driven, but without the bullish attitude that often accompanies those qualities. She has very strong feelings on right and wrong, and with a police Captain for a dad, it's easy to see from where those good qualities came. It feels like Stone has been around forever, though it's easy to forget that she made her big screen debut AFTER Spider-Man 3's launch in 2007. Her rapid ascent has been her legacy, and she has quickly garnered quite the impressive list of credentials. Her inclusion here is the perfect example of casting done right. Other examples include Sheen and Fields, whose character's no-nonsense goodness exemplify the Golden Age of Comics in being bright lights in otherwise dark surroundings. The always-strong Dennis Leary also impresses as George Stacy, where his unique personality (I like to call it "Charismatic Rage") fits perfectly with the perpetually-stressed and high-strung officer of the law. Ifans is another actor who has really turned it up a notch of late, with his excellent turns in Anonymous and The Five-Year Engagement. The Lizard is one of those Spider-Man villains I had not been familiar with, and I was afraid that The Amazing Spider-Man would turn into a "monster-of-the-week", doing little but prep you for a more plot-based sequel. Thankfully (as Todd later related) Curt Connors has always been a strong villain, and continues to be so here. He's really a tragic character in fact, trying desperately to use his new-found formula for good, only to change his tune and turn into a fearsome creature when things go horribly wrong. Ifans plays a good (ish) man forced into an evil destiny because he was pushed one time too many, and it's easy to sympathize with his plight. It makes for a great tale, and along with the rest of the cast really sets the standards for the whole theatrical experience.

Dramatic pose... and GO!
The best things about The Amazing Spider-Man were all the little things that Webb and company got right. Gone are the "organic webbing" that Parker could somehow (and conveniently) excrete from his wrists in the Raimi films, replaced with the gosh-darned web shooters we knew we always wanted. I loved how Parker, while top-of-his-class smart, used technology derived from OsCorp designs to develop his shooters and web fluid, as even a genius-level student designing those from scratch would have been a bit of a stretch. Speaking of OsCorp, I loved how corporate head Norman Osborn's presence was felt but never overtly shown, even in the post-credits "reveal." They're taking their time with Osborn, which is great since the character is easily Spider-Man's nemesis in the comics, even more so than the popular Venom. I loved how the ending left a number of things in the air, not forcing itself to resolve every little conflict in Parker's life in just 136 minutes. I loved the special effects, which felt both realistic and breathtakingly spectacular all at once. Even early scenes of Parkour are excellently conceived and pulled off, though they're all but gone once Parker finally dons the famous red and blue spandex.

"I'm going to throw you out the window, now."
Sure, Spider-Man has a few blemishes, but that was mostly in the visual department. Maybe it was just because we were late getting to the show and the only central seats left were in the front row (damn you, MBTA!), but the action scenes were often shot much too close to what was happening, obscuring any details. It's a common problem in even great action films, and for a first-time action director like Webb, it's unsurprising that he would fall into that trap. Also, as I stated earlier, there was little beyond the focus on Peter Parker's parents that mark this as anything but a typical Spidey film, and so the director has little to actually call his own when all is said and done. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man is a well-cast, well-made and ultimately "amazing" movie, and easily the 7'th best film this year. It contains by far the best Stan Lee cameo of any Marvel movie, and is one of the best superhero films in recent years, better even than any of those released in 2011. I know it's easy to get excited for the new Batman film on July 20'th, and don't think this excuses you from not having seen The Avengers, because you really need to do so. But this was a pleasant surprise while I await other things, and if you'd be doing yourself an injustice if you don't take the time to check out this worthy reboot.

1 comment:

Nina said...

I'll have to share this to FB!