Even if you don't automatically recoil at the words "reboot," "sequel" or "franchise," it's hard not to roll your eyes a little at The Amazing Spider-Man, which revives the cinematic saga of Peter Parker exactly 10 years after Sam Raimi's Spider-Man started telling it the first time around. In the comics they've managed to move on to a whole new Spider-Man with Miles Morales, but onscreen we're back again to Peter and Uncle Ben and Aunt May, to a bite from a genetically modified spider and a villain who's also a family friend. A few of the details have changed, but for the first hour of The Amazing Spider-Man, you'll be forgiven for feeling serious deja vu.
Luckily, it gets better from there, and the second hour of the movie contains some well-wrought action scenes, a believable and affectionate romance between Peter (Andrew Garfield) and his girl Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and eventually the requisite shots of Spidey swinging through the skyscraper canyons of midtown Manhattan that alone justify the existence of CGI. But director Marc Webb, making a huge leap from his directorial debut (500) Days of Summer, never gives the movie a point of view, or a fresh enough gloss on the familiar story to justify revisiting it. The world he establishes for Spider-Man, and especially the performances from Garfield and Stone, are appealing and full of promise; so why couldn't we give all these new players something actually fresh to do?
It must be said, over and over again, how good Andrew Garfield is as Peter Parker, to the point that you wish you could wipe Tobey Maguire's portrayal from your brain. At 28 Garfield is hilariously too old for the high-school character, but he brings to Peter both an adolescent angst and a grounded appeal-- his scenes with Stone have real hormonal heat, and in the skintight Spidey suit his whippet-thin body captures both Peter's tentative steps toward his superpowers and the confidence that eventually emerges. Garfield manages to play Peter as a sensitive soul-- he sticks up for a bullied kid in the opening scene-- but a wiseacre, a do-gooder spurred to help others but also taunt his nemesis (Chris Zylka) with his newfound powers. Paired with Stone, whose Gwen Stacy is capable and courageous, Garfield is the perfect balance of superhero and believable kid, and his takeover of the character is the single best thing The Amazing Spider-Man has to offer.
It's everything that surrounds Peter and Gwen, unfortunately, that constantly drags the film down. As the geneticist Dr. Curt Connors, who experiments on himself and eventually transforms into the monstrous Lizard, Rhys Ifans is largely on autopilot, a villain who provides occasional obstacles for our hero and not much more. Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz appear in flashbacks as Peter's parents, in roles that seem to be much more important to the future Amazing Spider-Man sequel, and though Sally Field makes a perfectly good Aunt May, it's Martin Sheen who makes the stronger impression as Uncle Ben-- and, as you surely know by now, he doesn't stick around the movie too long.
About an hour in Connors transforms into the Lizard for the first time, and with a villain for Spider-Man to face and action set pieces to breeze through, the movie picks up considerable steam. Only one fight-- set at Peter's Midtown Science High School, and featuring a charming Stan Lee cameo-- is truly unique, but the others work just fine, and the much-promoted sequence atop a skyscraper carries a nice vertiginous thrill. But there's also no strong connection between the Lizard and Spider-Man, despite all that back story about Connors working with Peter's father, and as far as CGI beasts go, the Lizard is nothing groundbreaking or special. That goes for just about all the big-screen theatrics of The Amazing Spider-Man-- it jumps every required hurdle for a superhero blockbuster, but just barely, and with no flair.
But even after all that, it's exciting to think of where Spider-Man might go next, reinvigorated with a strong new cast and a deeper back story that hopefully won't need too many villains (hello, Spider-Man 3!) to raise the stakes next time. The Amazing Spider-Man isn't the bold curtain-raiser they needed to justify a reboot such a short time later, but it earns its keep. Spider-Man lives to see another franchise-- maybe next time they'll make it a clear victory.
For our To 3D or not to 3D guide to The Amazing Spider-Man, go Here.