By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In this era of anything’s-possible-on-a-movie-screen special effects, our capacity for amazement has diminished if not disappeared.
So, with the Spider-Man franchise that emerged from the Marvel Comics empire rebooted so rapidly, are we ready already to ooh and aah as Spidey slingshots through the vertical maze of skyscrapers that is Manhattan?
Not so much. Which is part of the reason why the romance that anchors this action-adventure thriller, one that proves entertaining in spite of being unnecessary, affects us so much more than all the airborne pyrotechnics.
The Amazing Spider-Man – following on the heels of director Sam Raimi’s trilogy: 2002’s Spider-Man, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, and 2007’s Spider-Man 3 – is not a prequel or a sequel but a redo. It’s another acrobatic, angst-ridden, arachnoidy thriller, a quick relaunch of the superhero franchise.
Interestingly enough, the director called upon to take over the Spider-Man reins is Marc Webb – and not just because of his ironically appropriate last name. Webb’s first and only other feature was (500) Days of Summer, a winner of a quirky independent romantic comedy but not a project that would suggest that he was right for this epic.
Andrew Garfield, so fine opposite Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, takes over the lead roles, Peter Parker and the alter-ego title character, from Tobey Maguire. He’s a bullied high school nerd in Queens grappling with the mystery of just why his parents suddenly disappeared and he was raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, portrayed by Martin Sheen and Sally Field.
When he is bitten by a genetically modified, radioactive spider and is given certain superpowers that he then uses – because, as you may remember and to rephrase, great responsibility should always accompany great power – he dons a mask and employs his newfound abilities as a devoted-to-society crime-fighter.
The lead female character and love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, was a peripheral character in Spider-Man 3 and was played by Bryce Dallas Howard as the rival of Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson. Gwen is not only a fellow high school student and Peter Parker’s crush, but the daughter of a protective New York City Police Department captain played by Dennis Leary, who remains leery of Peter Parker as a suitor of his daughter through most of the film.
Rhys Ifans plays the villain of the piece, the one-armed Dr. Curt Connors, also known at certain points as The Lizard after his genes are spliced with reptilian DNA.
Webb works from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, based on Vanderbilt’s story based on the comic book, and does seem to have brought his penchant for character development with him. However, he never allows The Lizard to emerge as anything other than a strangely uninteresting and much-too-comic-booky villain, and his inexperience with the action and spectacle elements is far too evident, which doesn’t ruin the film, not by a long shot, but does contribute to the film’s unevenness.
Garfield and Stone have romantic chemistry to spare and each also manages to bring emotional and psychological three-dimensionality – the good kind – to a character with comic-book origins. Garfield makes sure to also show us Parker’s petty side, and Stone uses her sly sense of humor to help her hold the screen. The arc of their relationship and their scenes together, with bursts of attendant character-driven humor, have far more impact than any or all of the action set pieces in the film’s second half.
Oh, and it’s available, if you’re so inclined, in wholly unnecessary 3-D.
Will Spi-hards be disappointed by this restart of the franchise? Perhaps. But if this generally well-made do-over lacks the freshness and pop of the 2002 original, it may have as much to do with the moviegoing audience as it does the film itself when you consider how many movie superheroes have surfaced over the last decade. Oh, another spandex-clad savior? Pass the popcorn.
So we’ll scale 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for the webslinging, Webb-directed, once-more-with-feeling, arachno-hero fantasy, The Amazing Spider-Man. Amazing? Apparently not. Acceptable? Absolutely.