There are many types of superhero movies: campy, dark-and-gritty, kid-friendly, gonzo, etc. But really, there are just two kinds: movies that actually have something to say about heroism and sacrifice, and ones that don't. On that basis alone, Amazing Spider-Man is a win.
You might feel like it's too freaking soon to retell Peter Parker's origin, but at least this movie digs a bit deeper into the material that Sam Raimi already mined ten years ago. And the result is not only more emotionally complex, but also manages to dig into why Spidey decides that great power leads to great responsibility.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Spider-Man is often described as being the first of a new breed of superhero, someone with real-world problems like a sick aunt and late rent payments. Stan Lee threw out the "millionaire playboy" model of hero and replaced it with a more down-to-earth soap opera approach. Also, like many of Lee's best heroes, Spidey makes a foundational mistake, due to arrogance, and has to atone for it through heroism.
In his 2002 movie, Sam Raimi stuck pretty close to the outline of Spidey's origin from Amazing Fantasy #15. He gets randomly bitten by a radioactive spider, decides to become a wrestling superstar, and fails to stop a robber who kills his Uncle Ben. And then the guilt-ridden Peter decides to fight crime as Spider-Man, because he now understands that with great power, must come great responsibility.
The reboot doesn't follow the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko origin quite as slavishly — there are some fairly major deviations, in fact — but the themes of responsibility and self-sacrifice are still in there. But the movie takes more time to show the journey that Peter takes from selfishness to greatness — with more than one detour through anger along the way. It's not quite so simple as turning a giant lever from "SELFISH" to "NOBLE."
One of the coolest parts of The Avengers, earlier this summer, was the way it showed Iron Man becoming more and more willing to lay down his life for others — maybe partly as a result of Captain America's needling, or maybe just because he always had it in him.
Likewise, the number one thing that sticks in my mind about the Raimi Spider-Man movies is the sequence in the second film, where Spidey stops a runaway train full of people — despite being clearly in agony and pushed to his limits. And in return, all the people on the train agree to pretend that they never saw his face, even though he lost his mask. There are a few moments in Amazing Spider-Man that clearly pay homage to that sequence, but take it to a new place.
Spider-Man is not a hero who should ever be having an easy time of it. He should always be miserable, struggling and behind the eight ball. He works best when he's in a situation where most sane people would give up, but he refuses to admit defeat.
So anyway, the Marc Webb-directed Spider-Man reboot does a pretty good job of dramatizing all of the emotional stages that Peter Parker goes through on his way to becoming a champion of the helpless. Call it the stations of the Spider. It's a bit more convincing, and you feel the weight of the decision to focus on saving innocent people, instead of just using power for revenge, or self-gratification.
And it's the tale of four daddies.
Daddy issues and the journey to manhood
In the classic Spidey origin, there's one father figure: Uncle Ben, whose job is to spout a few words of wisdom and then die. The new movie greatly expands Uncle Ben's role, partly because they managed to get Martin Sheen to play him, and you actually want to hear what President Bartlet has to say about stuff other than just that one thing about power and responsibility.
But the film also adds a whopping three other father figures, for Peter Parker to have daddy issues with. There's Peter's actual father, who disappeared when he was a kid — Richard Parker is a bit of a footnote in the comics, where we eventually learn he and Peter's mom were super-spies. In the movie version, it's closer to the Ultimate Universe, where Richard Parker was a scientist who did forbidden sciencey-stuff.
Peter has never gotten over being abandoned by his parents. And when he discovers a clue about his father's research, it's a cue for lots of plot developments, but also a healthy amount of brooding and teenage angstiness. Peter's abandonment issues mean that he's already resentful and prone to a tiny bit of "capslock Harry" syndrome, even before he gets the fateful spider-bite and the lesson about responsibility.
But this leads Peter to a third father figure: his dad's colleague and best friend, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Dr. Connors, who's missing half an arm, is obsessed with completing Richard Parker's work on cross-species genetics, so he can regenerate his missing limb the way a lizard would. (And even if you haven't read the comics, you pretty much know where that's going from early on.) The best scenes with Dr. Connors involve him mentoring Peter, talking about his missing father, and the two of them tampering with the forces of creation together.
And finally, there's Captain George Stacy (Dennis Leary), the father of Peter's girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone). Captain Stacy has a combative relationship with both Peter and Spidey, whom he sees as an irresponsible vigilante. The movie sets them up as antagonists, but then turns their relationship into a dialogue about heroism in which the cop has something to teach the superhero. And because Dennis Leary brings a certain intensity to the role and refuses to become a caricature, the relationship between George Stacy and Peter Parker takes on a certain amount of weight and complexity.
I'm not crazy about the extent to which the movie leans on the "abandonment" aspect of the "daddy issues" trope — but the film more than makes up for it by giving Uncle Ben a more well-rounded character, and by making George Stacy more than just an authority figure for Spidey to rebel against. To a very large extent, these four father figures — Richard Parker, Ben Parker, Curt Connors and George Stacy — represent stages that Peter Parker goes through on his journey from boy to man.
Superpowered escapism is physical
The Avengers did things with motion-capture and CG (especially with the Hulk) that no superhero film had ever quite pulled off before. (Although a lot of it was building on James Cameron's Avatar.) Simple stuff like an awareness of the spatial mechanics of Thor getting his hammer back after throwing it, or a feeling of real violence in many of the brawling sequences, went a long way towards bringing the joy of superhero comics to life.
And now, Marc Webb's emphasis on practical effects brings the other side of the equation — this is a more acrobatic, physical Spidey. (Check out some behind-the-scenes footage here and here.) Sam Raimi's entirely CG swinging scenes already feel somewhat dated, for good reason — but there's a classic grace and power to the action in the new Spidey movie. It feels as physical and hands-on as the violence in The Avengers, only in a different way.
We were lucky enough to see an early screening of ASM in IMAX, and it probably is worth the extra scratch to see some of these action sequences in that level of resolution. Plus Marc Webb turns Manhattan into a character in his film, and one way he does that is with huge shots of the skyline. When Spidey swings on his webs, he swings across panoramic vistas, adding to the sense of, well, amazement that this guy is swinging around the city. Plus there are about 100 "hero shots" of Spidey posing on buildings and stuff.
Spidey is the classic example of the skinny teenager who lucks into amazing power, and alongside the teen angst, this movie serves up a healthy dose of adolescent wish-fulfillment. And a big part of why that works so well, and is so satisfying most of the time, is that Peter feels like a real kid. But also because his newfound athleticism is so convincing.
We've all seen a zillion superhero origin stories, but at least this one makes you feel the physical jolt of a puny kid suddenly getting that kind of power.
A crappy conspiracy thriller
On the minus side, there's a conspiracy thriller, mostly having to do with Peter's missing father. If you've watched the trailers, you've already gotten the Cliff Notes of this storyline, which is the weakest part of the film.
Even as the Amazing Spider-Man is infusing all the cliches of the superhero origin story with new life, the film also regurgitates all the cliches of the corporate conspiracy thriller in an incredibly lazy way.
Without going into it too deeply, basically Curt Connors is working for some nasty people — the name of his employer, OsCorp, is a hint there. Every now and then, Bollywood superstar Irrfan Khan wanders in and delivers sinister monologues, acting as though he's from a totally different movie. There are lots of hints at dark secrets about exactly why Peter's parents disappeared, which seem like they'll probably pay off in the second movie.
(This movie has broken box office records in India, possibly partly because of Khan's supporting role.)
Actually, the biggest weakness in the movie is the plotting, generally. There are some pretty huge plot points that are set up, and then basically dropped, or resolved in a hasty fashion.
And meanwhile, Curt Connors is a somewhat interesting character — until he turns into the movie's villain, and then he becomes a blander-than-average supervillain, who's driven crazy by his transformation and hatches a kludgey evil masterplan. Of course, given that this is an origin story, a weak supervillain is par for the course.
All in all, don't go see Amazing Spider-Man for the plot. But you know, it would be sort of a surprise if it were any other way.
And finally, there's a stammering romance
Marc Webb's previous gig before ASM was the terrific (500) Days of Summer, and he infuses the Peter Parker-Gwen Stacy romance with an indie-movie awkwardness, tinged with sweetness. The two of them bond over their shared inability to finish a sentence. There are a lot of cute scenes where they stammer and grope their way through falling in love. We see Peter and Gwen connect as science nerds, as major dorks, and as two kids with similar daddy issues.
Honestly, as good as the cast in the rest of this film is, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone really anchor the film. With Webb's help, they take what could have been a tacked on romance subplot and turn it into something that feels pretty honest and emotionally satisfying. To the extent that the movie is a coming-of-age story as well as a superhero origin, it's also about Peter Parker growing into the sort of man who deserves the love of someone like Gwen.
And that's probably the main contribution this movie makes to the crowded "superhero origin" genre — thanks to some really strong performances and an emotionally complex Peter Parker, this film manages to turn the "becoming a hero" story into a mostly pretty compelling story about growing up.