It’s been just over a decade since Tobey Maguire first swung across the Manhattan skyline as Spider-Man, and three blockbuster films later, we have a brand new Peter Parker in Andrew Garfield and a fresh spin on the web-slinging hero’s origin story in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Still, the bar is set pretty high for Spider-Man’s return to the big screen, with the previous three-film franchise earning almost $2.5 billion worldwide and receiving generally positive reviews across all three installments. For the studio’s gamble to pay off, “The Amazing Spider-Man” must not only succeed on its own merits, but also win over fans of its predecessor with a new director, star, and tone for the wall-crawling, web-slinging hero.
And thankfully, that’s exactly what it does — and what’s more, it goes a long way toward posing the question, “Tobey who?”
It’s worth noting early on that I’ve long considered 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” not only the best of the previous franchise, but one of the best comic-book movies made in the last decade. Even so, when the credits rolled on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” I found myself wondering whether Garfield’s debut as teenage superhero Peter Parker might actually be a better film than “Spider-Man 2” — or either of the two other films, for that matter — in Sam Raimi’s blockbuster trilogy.
Visually, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is the natural evolution of the webslinger’s big-screen adventures, seamlessly combining fantastic practical and digital effects that blur the line between the superhero’s world and our own. In many cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the computer-generated elements end and real-world sets and stunts begin, and just as the scenes of Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan grew more impressive with each installment of the previous franchise, the reboot shows every minute of the four years it had to improve on the effects of “Spider-Man 3.”
Along the same lines, the 3-D in “The Amazing Spider-Man” doesn’t show any of the normal issues associated with films that feature a lot of fast-moving, colorful elements, and manages to enhance the experience rather than distracting from it. Basically, it’s 3-D done right, and it shows you just how much the format can add to the theater experience — especially during some of the brilliant sequences shot from first-person perspective that director Marc Webb included in the film.
Plot-wise, “The Amazing Spider-Man” falls short of telling the “untold story” that the movie’s tagline promised, but that’s only because the movie stays closer to the character’s comic-book origin than any of the previous films. From Peter Parker’s mechanical web-shooters to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his parents’ death, to the presence his very first love, Gwen Stacy, “The Amazing Spider-Man” manages to be both a modern retelling of Spider-Man’s origin and the most faithful adaptation of those early comics we’ve seen thus far.
And where the previous films glossed over many of the moments that defined Spider-Man as a character in the comics — most notably, his relationship with Gwen and her father — “The Amazing Spider-Man” clearly isn’t afraid of taking the time necessary to develop the mix of emotional extremes that are a hallmark of the character. Fans know that Peter Parker is at his best when he’s grappling with the demands of his sense of responsibility and the unbridled glee of being a teenager with all of these amazing powers, and Webb delivers a film that captures that dynamic perfectly.
That’s not to say that “The Amazing Spider-Man” is without a few flaws here and there, though. Much like the previous trilogy, Spider-Man spends a bit too much time in costume without his mask, making the notion of his identity remaining secret a little far-fetched. At a time when every parking lot, street corner, and phone has a camera, the idea that Peter Parker’s hijinks sans mask could go unnoticed is a little sketchy.
The film also has some problems here and there with its primary villain, The Lizard, due to the amount of digital effects required to make actor Rhys Ifans into a massive, scaly monster with a tail the size of a compact car. A few close-quarters scenes with Spider-Man and Lizard feel a little too heavy on the computer-generated visuals, but Webb has a good handle on when to rein these scenes in before they run away with the film.
The cast of “The Amazing Spider-Man” also seems to have a good grasp of the subject matter, and Garfield makes a strong case for himself as the new standard for Peter Parker. While his take on the character is less awkward and nerdy than his original 1962 counterpart, he clearly draws a lot from the modern-era Peter Parker introduced in Marvel’s line of Ultimate Comics, which filter popular heroes’ origin stories and adventures through a contemporary lens. (This is the same line of comics that Marvel Studios drew inspiration from for “The Avengers” and the rest of its recent films.)
Unlike his predecessor, Garfield seems to be conscious of the change that takes place in Peter when he puts on his costume. When he becomes Spider-Man, his movements become quick, jumpy, and spider-like, and Webb deserves credit for reflecting this in the action sequences. The hero of “The Amazing Spider-Man” uses his abilities in much the same way as a spider would, wrapping up his opponents with webbing in fast, darting attacks that are 100-percent arachnid, and using the strands of his web to sense what’s around him.
It’s a clever move by Webb that leaves you wondering why the original trilogy didn’t think to do the same.
Emma Stone also goes a long way toward bringing the Gwen Stacy of the comics to life on the screen, and along with being a visual match for the character, her chemistry with Garfield offers a great reminder of why Gwen Stacy is remembered so fondly by fans. First and foremost, she’s attracted to Peter, not Spider-Man — and she sells this key difference in the film. While the film’s duo move from casual acquaintance to tell-each-other-every-little-secret a little too quickly, Webb and his leads do a nice job of showing you why the pair were once one of comics’ most popular couples.
When the credits do finally roll — and make sure to wait until they stop rolling for an extra scene — it seems silly to think of “The Amazing Spider-Man” as anything but the best Spider-Man film we’ve seen so far. From the massive improvements in visual effects and action sequences to a more appropriate tone and leads who better embody everything fans love about the characters, Webb’s spin on the Marvel wall-crawler is proof that looking at a character with fresh eyes can sometimes be a good thing, and that “reboot” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
In the end, it’s entirely appropriate that “The Amazing Spider-Man” opened in the period between “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” as it occupies a spot that’s tonally equidistant from both films. Where Marvel’s big team-up movie was a lighthearted, fun adventure and Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Batman finale is likely to be a dark, brooding exploration of its hero’s soul, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a balanced mix of bright and dark, fun and angsty, fast-moving and deliberately ponderous — just like its hero.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” opens July 3.