No one would ever have guessed that Tobey Maguire could cast such a long shadow. It’s been ten years and two months since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man arrived in theaters, and only five years since the release of the final chapter in his trilogy of stories starring Maguire. Such a gap would be small at any moment in film history, but with the ubiquity of home video and cable repeats, it feels like Raimi’s movies are still happening. There’s a sense of “Didn’t we just do all this?” that’s impossible to shake as you watch Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, and it doesn’t get any better when, say, the villain’s mental breakdown and clumsy inner monologue seem lifted in large part from Raimi’s first film. So much of Webb’s film feels perfunctory, as if he signed on not to make a movie but to provide Marvel and Columbia with a certain number of set pieces choreographed with a very familiar rhythm, all while doing his best to stay within the very narrow confines of an origin story we all saw play out on FX last Saturday afternoon. It’s a testament to Webb’s vision and commitment that he’s able to carve out a few good moments in the film, largely tied to the relationship between Spider-Man/Peter Parker and his love interest, Gwen Stacy. Yet those moments feel trapped in a film that’s surprisingly rote, from the laziest 3-D I’ve ever seen to some of the clumsiest exposition since, well, a few weeks ago. Parts of Webb’s film show real promise, and it’s those moments I hope he’s able to return to in the inevitable sequel. Because that’s what The Amazing Spider-Man is, more than anything: place-setting for a better, fresher, more exciting movie.
This Spider-Man gets its own origin story, thanks to credited screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves (with some occasional punch-up from Paul Feig.) This time around, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is left to live with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt Mae (Sally Field) when young Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) die in a plane crash after going on the lam for reasons unknown. Discovering an old photo that connects his father to scientist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a high-school-age Peter visits the man’s lab one day and gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Peter’s evolution as a superpowered human is a slow one, though, and while dealing with his newfound ability to walk up walls, he’s also doing some classically awkward flirting with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a classmate and intern at Connors’s lab. The first third of the film is the strongest because Webb gets to flex the relationship muscle he used on (500) Days of Summer. He’s so good at it that Peter and Gwen’s goofy attempts at romance don’t come across as forced or inorganic; rather, they spring from who these people are. Stone and Garfield are naturals, too, alternately brave and insecure with each other. Webb makes these moments shine because they’re the times when The Amazing Spider-Man stops feeling like a contractual obligation and starts feeling like a story about a boy and a girl overcoming fate together.
Soon enough, though, that sense of assembly-line filmmaking returns. Peter, as he must, finds himself negligently responsible for his uncle’s death, and his quest for vengeance turns him into a citywide vigilante. Set against this is Connors’s descent into villainy as his attempt to genetically regrow a lost arm using reptilian DNA turns him into a giant lizard. In love with his new powers, Connors hatches a plan to infect the rest of Manhattan with the same serum because, he reasons, people will be happier in a more advanced evolutionary state. His logic is pretty thin even for the villain in a summer blockbuster about a giant lizard, but his dive into madness feels even worse for having to hit the same beats — right down to the half-whispered voice-over as he argues with himself — as Willem Dafoe did in Raimi’s 2002 film. It’s as if Webb and his team of screenwriters simply copied and pasted characters, setting, and motivation from the earlier films into this one, making it less of a reboot and more of a parallel-universe imagining of the whole thing.
Adding to the sense of autopilot is the sporadic 3-D. There are moments when the effect works well enough and adds a sense of depth and dimensionality to wide compositions, including fight scenes and Spider-Man’s web-slinging flights through the skyscrapers of New York. But there are also huge sections of the film where it’s not used at all. When Peter meets Connors, the scene plays out in bright, normal-looking shots that work perfectly well without 3-D glasses: both actors are nicely framed and perfectly in focus. There isn’t any doubling, and something out of focus merely looks to be outside the camera’s depth of field. This happens often. 3-D as an exhibition gimmick is flawed in any number of ways, from the digital blur of fast pans or tracks to the overall dimness experienced by watching a movie through a pair of mild sunglasses. Yet at least movies in 3-D actually appear to be in 3-D. A substantial amount of The Amazing Spider-Man seems to either drop the 3-D altogether or else to render it so minutely that it might as well not be there.
That’s the issue plaguing the entire film: It feels not quite finished, not quite whole. It’s more like a very well-made fan project than a movie with the heft and weight you’d want from something trying to sell you a new version of a story you just watched a couple years ago. The whole thing would wreck if it weren’t for the sizable charisma of Garfield and Stone, who feel more human than Raimi’s heroes ever did. Garfield’s sarcastic, edged portrayal of Spider-Man is often wonderful: his banter with bad guys actually feels like taunting from a kid grown bigger than he’d ever dreamed of being. Stone is great, too, and she’s more restrained here than usual. She and Garfield are endearingly sweet together, and their relationship is consistently the best part of the film. Ifans holds his own in a thankless role in which almost every word out of his mouth is a recap of what we’ve just seen or another explanation of his evil plans.
Every film, big or small, is a mix of art and commerce. The studio wants us to pay for the experience as a unit of entertainment, while the creative men and women on the other side of the table want to tell a good story. That’s what we really buy into: the adventure, the romance, the feeling of going somewhere else for a while. Yet The Amazing Spider-Man is only occasionally able to work as a story. Too often, it feels like a blatant, ungainly request for more money from people who just gave us a very similar version of the film we’re seeing now. Its status as product all but dwarfs its existence as a film. There’s even the obligatory post-credit tag, where the next film(s) are set up with a quick, vague scene that does little except drive home the fact that this film isn’t meant to stand on its own. Yes, there are some good moments in it, and Garfield is the best actor yet to don Spidey’s tights. But so much of the film feels like a commercial for itself, rather than a narrative brought to light and life by storytellers with a mission. If only Webb and the rest had realized that with their great power comes great responsibility. I think I’ve heard that line somewhere before.