I don’t really know why we had a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise…oh wait, I do…money. But actually, I think it’s more than that. The previous run had lost vision and derailed into one of the worst films of all time, Spider-Man 3. In fact, there could have been a generational moratorium on the franchise, but credit director Marc Webb for going there with the reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, and re-hashing much of the thematic material that Sam Raimi covered back in 2002′s crowd-pleaser, Spider-Man. There are also some subtle shifts to the new entry that make it, I think, a better adaptation.
Let’s just get the main theme out of the way. There’s really not many ways to shake up “With great power comes great responsibility,” but writers James Vanderbilt et al manage to address it without copying it. In fact Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) speech to Peter (Andrew Garfield) about Peter’s father believing in the moral necessity of doing good if and when you can is actually a better, more universally applicable perspective. You don’t have to have great power to have great responsibility or to do good in the world. In fact, Peter believes that his father, no superhero, failed in his greatest responsibility…actually being a father. Of course Uncle Ben and the audience know different, and perhaps Peter will learn in the sequel. But more immediately, Peter also learns that shit happens in life, and it often happens because of our unwillingness to step in and do good, inaction often born out of self-absorption.
Although in rather simplistic fashion, Peter’s work with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) reveals that even our attempts at doing good can yield unexpected, negative consequences. As such, Peter/Spider-Man’s actions become as much about undoing the bad that he has unknowingly done as they are doing good for his fellow neighbors. The evil/violence in which Peter has unwittingly embroiled himself, stems from another character’s (Dr. Connors) inability to accept his lot in life (read finitude and vulnerability). That Dr. Connors cannot embrace his lost arm spirals into an obsession that fundamentally changes his identity and harms those around him. Although it’s a bit absurd (attempting to regenerate an arm), Dr. Connor’s desire to be physically whole is a symptom of our broader culture’s struggle to accept ourselves…and others…for who we are. I’m not saying that cures for diseases shouldn’t be sought after, but the themes of perfected or eternal life run throughout both sci-fi films, see the recent Prometheus, to real life, see Transcendent Man. It is a far more significant “sign of the times” than another critic’s reflection on the series.
Having not seen the new release, Alex Wilgus critiqued the series in an article for Relevant magazine and called Spiderman “just another casualty of our cultural obsession with vagabondage and noncommittal living.” He continues, “You will be hard-pressed to find any glorification of, say marriage or long-term employment. Instead, it’s in the brief romantic fling and the transitional time between one thing and the next (insert: job, apartment, significant other).” As some of his readers pointed out, this has never been what the comic book series (or accompanying movies) have been about. Spider-Man has been a touchstone for a transitional audience. Moreover, I would argue that long-term employment and marriage, for many people, do not provide the sense of self-worth or satisfaction that Wilgus assumes they will. In fact, the current state of the economy and changing natures of employment opportunities, betray the very settled existence(s) that Wilgus expects Peter Parker to be getting on with. In the latest film, Peter is a wayward teenager, not out of place there, but his identity as Spider-Man does give him new purpose. His unwillingness or inability to open up about this identity or the conflicts that he must endure is more complex than simply being “unwilling to commit.” In fact, his concluding line to would-be girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) reveals that he has no intentions of going it alone much longer.
The plot is to be expected. In the quest to learn more about the disappearance of his father, Peter visits Dr. Connors at Oscorp. Dr. Connors and Peter’s father were both researching cross species genetics in an effort to help cure people of a variety of illnesses and maladies. Of course, Dr. Connors is also at the beck and call of someone much more powerful. While on a “tour” of Oscorp, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops superhuman capabilities. If you don’t know what they are…well I doubt anyone is that pop culture illiterate. As the film progresses, Peter must navigate his dual identities and eventually do battle with the one man who could have helped him learn more about his father.
Webb does a fine job of directing and all the performances are solid. The many scenes in which Peter awakens to and experiments with his new spidey senses and capabilities do feel more organic than the first go-round. But Garfield is a little too pouty…he reminds me too much of Hayden Christensen in the Star Wars prequels. On the other hand, Emma Stone is picture perfect…as usual. The action sequences and special effects are smooth, and it’s clear that video games continue to have a significant effect on big-budget filmmaking (someone was playing their fair share of Mirror’s Edge to get the inspiration for the first-person web-slinging). The makeup/CG artists could have taken bigger risks with The Lizard’s face, but I imagine that’s getting a little nit-picky.
The Amazing Spider-Man is not as much fun as The Avengers nor is it as captivating as the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises will likely be, but it hits somewhere in the middle, and for a harmless summer superhero flick, that’s not an awful thing.
The Amazing Spider-Man (136 mins) is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence and is in theaters everywhere this week.