Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Surprisingly, Amazing Spider-Man was pretty damn good. The appropriately named director, Marc Webb, came at the production from a dramatically different perspective than what we've seen from this franchise. Raimi's movies were fundamentally a blend of superheroics and camp, with some light horror thrown in for good measure. I'd argue that Webb actually drops all three components of Raimi's genre mash-up, including the superheroics. Instead, he's telling a much more grounded story, more sci-fi than fantasy and at lower power-levels than we've seen in a while.

It's a surprising twist, given that the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction, as evidenced by this summer's spectacular Avengers. The more "realistic" comic book fare was starting to feel like a product of the previous decade. This Spider-Man feels like he'd fit right alongside Singer's first two X-Men movies. This version, for instance, would likely lose in a fight against Jackman's Wolverine - can anyone seriously claim the same is true of Maguire's character?

It's all the more surprising, because the one standout in the gritty realistic millennial comic book hero movies was Raimi's Spider-Man. He was the one superhero who seemed lifted from the page, absurdities and all. This version, while ostensibly the same character, is more subdued. He's a character with powers beyond human, but he's nowhere near the lightning-quick, unstoppable hero portrayed by Maguire.

Longtime readers of this site will likely assume I see that as a negative: it was, after all, the reason my reviews on Thor and the Nolan Batman movies have been a tad muted. This time's a little different, though: since we've already seen an authentic superhero version of Spider-Man on the big screen, I didn't feel cheated. Actually, by virtue of being different, Amazing Spider-Man felt worthwhile. If this had been a facsimile of Raimi's origin movie, it would have been a waste of everyone's time.

It didn't hurt that Webb pulled off the details. Comic fans will be thrilled to see Gwen Stacy portrayed flawlessly on the big screen, especially since neither of the love interests in Raimi's trilogy were really all that convincing. Likewise, contrary to a lot of early buzz, the Lizard was fairly well executed. He wasn't perfect, but he felt like a decent adaptation of the concept. I also really liked the supporting characters: Captain Stacy, Uncle Ben, and Aunt May all worked for me, and Flash was spot-on.

But the best aspect of the movie had to be Peter Parker. This version of the character is actually something of a departure from the comic. He's less traditionally "nerdy": more an outsider than a dork. This Peter caries a skateboard everywhere and comes off as something of a troublemaker. It's the sort of alteration that usually enrages geeks like myself, but it works so well I have to go with it. The character is well constructed and rounded, rather than a simple archetype.

There are several other twists to the "classic" origin, but most feel organic and refreshingly believable. You're with Peter as he gains his powers, has a falling out with his adoptive parents, and eventually embraces his new identity. There's far more story here than there ever was in Raimi's film.

The price, of course, comes off the other end. The hero of this movie is Peter Parker, not Spider-Man. And when the movie briefly shifts course, it's rarely to its benefit. You've likely seen enough of the trailers to realize that he spends a lot of the movie without his mask: what you may not realize is that this doesn't feel out of place. When he invariably lost it in the last act of all three Raimi movies, it felt forced. Here, it just makes sense.

Likewise, the fight scenes are generally underwhelming. Not bad; just less exciting than we're used to. While I don't think it's entirely good or bad, it's worth noting that the sequences where Peter's experimenting with his powers and discovering what he can do are far more engaging than his fights with the Lizard. And don't expect a grand payoff: the last fifteen minutes or so were probably the weakest in the movie.

As a whole, this is really good science-fiction flick with touches of drama and a fantastic love story. It's fun, intriguing, and surprisingly touching. The relationship between Peter and Gwen may be the best superhero romance we've seen since the first two Superman movies (though I'll entertain arguments on behalf of Xavier and Magneto in First Class).

Stacking it against the Raimi movies is tough. Obviously it's better than the third; that should go without saying. Other than that, it's a better Peter Parker movie but a far inferior Spider-Man flick. Personally, I prefer Raimi's, but that's a reflection of preferences, not quality. This is a fairly major revision of the character, but it comes together almost seamlessly.

Just don't go in expecting a superhero movie: this is something different.

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