Much of the critical discussion of “The Amazing Spider-Man” has asked the pertinent question “Why bother?” After all, the Sam Raimi-directed trilogy that concluded only five years ago is still pretty fresh in our minds, and the third one was a disappointment. (I didn’t like the second one, either, but that’s another review.) The new director, Marc Webb, has only one feature film to his credit, and the previous Spidey, Tobey McGuire, has moved on to greater glories. So, other than to repackage the familiar property in shiny new 3-D—and make some more money renting those annoying glasses—why start the whole thing over from Square One?
First, the series benefits from the replacement of McGuire with Andrew Garfield, a young British actor best known for a supporting role in “The Social Network.” As Peter Parker, he’s considerably more edgy, less nerdy, more complicated and, well, a better all-around actor. Playing against real-life woman friend Emma Stone as Gwen, Peter’s high-school inamorata, Garfield brings a nervous energy and brittleness to the role, a little bad boy appeal when he constantly flouts the rules. Like Garfield, Stone is hard to believe as a high-schooler--he’s 28, she’s 24—but the two have the acting chops and experience to make their relationship the most absorbing facet of the film. And Webb does anguished romance well, witness his comedy hit, “(500) Days of Summer.”
Next, the strong supporting cast includes Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Denis Leary, and Rhys Ifans. The first two play Peter’s uncle and aunt, his de facto parents after the mysterious disappearance of his real father and mother at the film’s opening. These two multiple award winners flesh out the character more than prior series numbers do, giving Peter a fuller background and motivation to use his accidentally acquired super powers responsibly.
Finally, Webb and fellow screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent add some dashes of humor that Raimi’s darker vision lacked. Some are throwaway laugh lines that Spidey hurls at this baffled opponents, some is visual, and some situational (as when Peter is nearly caught visiting Gwen’s bedroom). The humor helps make the action and romance work. After all, the basis for the series is a comic book hero; Dostoevsky this ain’t.
Like most big-buck summer blockbusters, “The Amazing Spider-Man” has its problems. At two and a quarter hours, it’s about twenty-five minutes too long. Cutting out some of the relentless, occasionally tedious swinging from his webs would help, as would making Ifans’ mad scientist role a little less fulsome. The giant green lizard Spidey must battle—a clear reference to Godzilla—does not evoke terror so much as mild amusement. And there are holes in the plot where story lines just get lost or the movie’s inner logic is missing.
Rated “PG-13,” the biggest battle Spidey’s latest incarnation will have is, paradoxically, with Batman, whose new vehicle (other than the Batmobile) rolls into town in a couple of weeks. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is an acceptable way to beat the heat, has some nice visuals and a good score by James Horner, and doesn’t get carried away with spectacle to the detriment of plot and character. The final moments—inserted into the closing credits—set up for a sequel, so you might as well get in on the ground floor.