Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Film Review: "The Amazing Spider-Man" (**1/2)

The franchise reboot is a move that's almost always been met with criticism, or at least skepticism. Before Christopher Nolan brought "Batman Begins" for judging, most didn't even indulge the idea of a solid Batman film after "Batman and Robin". Same goes for "Star Trek" showing up after the maligned "Nemesis". "The Incredible Hulk" came under fire for its close proximity to the previous rendition, though it admittedly had itself more self-knowingly put together than Ang Lee's version. "The Amazing Spider-Man" has it toughest because it's coming on the heels of a franchise that rendered two quite wonderfully entertaining entries before being collapsed by studio self-interest.

We have to feel bad for Sam Raimi, who was preparing "Spider-Man 4" all in the midst of Sony planning to reboot the franchise altogether. In the grand scheme, it seems rather juvenile of them to trash the entire future of that franchise for the critical failures of "Spider-Man 3". What's even more juvenile is that Sony themselves were responsible for the overloads of plot glut that many blamed for the film's weaknesses. They were able to get away with the move, however, thanks to some crowd-pleasing casting of Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and the hiring of "500 Days of Summer" director Marc Webb.

Now comes the release of the film itself, which searches for a way of telling the origin story with different catalyst to set it off. "The Amazing Spider-Man" starts with Peter Parker as a young boy, as his parents suddenly leave with urgency and much mystery. That mystery sticks with him through much of his childhood, and what he ends up as is a rightfully angry teenager who will stand up for the little guy, in spite of his disadvantages in the fight. Of course his struggle to figure out his father's research leads him to Oscorp, where he stumbles upon a barely explained room full of spiders, one of which bites him on the back of the neck.

The fact that it treads over the same origin story is honestly not a big deal. If you make two adaptations of the same material, you're going to find some overlap in plot. This is just a retelling with a different intention to it, and that's not necessarily a problem. It's simply the fact that him gaining superhero abilities isn't given nearly enough momentum. It feels like they consider it an afterthought and not that significant a part of the story, which just feels odd. It's a superhero origin that doesn't care at all about how he even gained his abilities. It's more interested in other, less covered, narrative grounds like whatever happened to his parents.

The fact that Peter didn't grow up with his parents is a significant part of that character, and it was overlooked in Sam Raimi's trilogy. What Marc Webb mistakes the situation for in this is a massive conspiracy involving why all these things happened to his parents. It is an interesting thought, but it's given too much weight in plot and not enough in character. In general, Webb seems to be too fully interested in plot glut and the spectacle of Spider-Man than he is interested in creating Spider-Man. So soon after the hero hits the street, he's a sensation, and the film is about that sensation of the mask and the hero than the person of Peter.

Andrew Garfield is probably the most popular casting, and the thing most people will be quite happy with. He's a genuine character of selfish flaws, and not the perfectly relatable guy that everyone recognizes Spider-Man as. To be honest, he's not even Spider-Man. He's a kid who lost his parents and has had to adjust to this new set of parental figures, doesn't know why his parents even left, and is generally just railing against everything that doesn't go his way. He's angry and he's a showoff, and he thinks that he can solve all the problems of the world in that way that only a teenager could believe. Garfield nails that modern depiction of geek without bringing the mind too immediately to "The Social Network".

The problem is that overt mystery and spookiness about his father's "secrets", and even without knowing what those secrets are, they feel like they'll be rather insignificant when revealed. The placing of Oscorp as the center of all evil instantly shrinks the scope of this new series. The villain of this film is spurred forth from corporate claptrap, much like the 2002 "Spider-Man", and holds too close resemblance to Green Goblin in its Jekyll and Hyde trappings. What we get is a monster attacking New York with a not terribly brilliant plan of turning everyone in New York into lizards. It's cruel that it comes to this for Rhys Ifans. He clearly cares about his character deeply, but the film itself does not.

The remaining cast have similar difficulties fighting a script that's so determined not to let them do their jobs. Martin Sheen genuinely knocks it out of the park as Ben Parker, filling a familiar purpose but giving it real weight that doesn't seem so corny as in the original. Denis Leary gets such a fantastic role for him to sink into, and that too rarely happens. Emma Stone is adorable as always, packing about as much beguiling sass and romantic emphasis as she can given the typical constraints she's working under. The performance that really brought me to ground level was Sally Field as May Parker, Peter's aunt. Her arc is handled so carefully and perfectly, as opposed to nearly every single other character in this film.

So since the performances don't seem to be a hair out of line, the massive blame can only be laid on the team behind the film, mainly the aforementioned evasive script that leaves things simple and rather predictable. Marc Webb's direction too seems rather gimmicky and flash driven, focusing more on Spider-Man than Peter, or anybody for that matter. The score by James Horner is easily the biggest thing wrong with the film, transcending distraction and going all the way to plain annoying. The cinematography doesn't have any zest, shoving and zooming where it needs not go. Overall, it's a film that should work, but doesn't because of ill chosen production values.

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