Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: The Amazing Spiderman

Deja Vu

In the opening paragraph of my Goodbye, First Love review a few months ago, I commented on a strange, potentially ironic, scene that coincidentally summed up many of my issues with the film (and I'm sure those of others too). In the opening paragraph of my Amazing Spiderman review, I'm going to repeat myself (which is an appropriate sentiment for the film in question, as I will subsequently argue) and make a similar observation. In the second-to-last scene of the film, you see, Peter Parker's teacher gives a brief spiel about how many claim there's only 'ten stories', but she believes there's only one: the 'who am I' story? It is unlikely to be director Mark Webb's intention, but this misguided comment sums up one of the major issues with this reboot / remake / reinterpretation / restart or whatever the fuck you want to call it. Watching this film, you're into believing there is only one story, and it's one you've seen before. Apparently 'Amazing' is an unintentional synonym for Mediocre, Redundant and Over-Familiar.

I'll forego a synopsis, because if you you've seen anything Spiderman related before, you know the drill. Angsty 'nerdy' teenager, radioactive spider bite, murdered uncle, feisty and popular love interest blah blah blah. The details are different, and there's now a giant lizard where once there was a guy in goblin armour and a robotic octopus man, but this is fundamentally the same narrative. Unfortunately, it's a film that consistently fails to justify its existence - retreading an over-familiar origin story without having the guts or intelligence necessary to make it feel fresh again. Compare it to fare like Star Trek 2009 or Batman Begins: films that kicked wallowing, rotting franchises back to visceral life. The new Spiderman consistently fails to match those watermarks.

The origin story of Peter Parker (an over-twitchy Andrew Garfield) is repeated ad nauseum. Martin Sheen and Sally Fields may be better actors than the previous Uncle Ben and Aunt May, but they're given nothing new to do. While they may be fundamental characters in Spiderman lore, I genuinely am bamboozled why anyone deemed it necessary to tell the story of Uncle Ben's death again, when we learn little anyone who's seen the previous films won't know already. I'm even more bamboozled at why it's handled so poorly: Ben's 'great power, great responsibility' message delivered through a far too convenient voicemail left moments before he was unexpectedly murdered.

Barring an under-explored subplot about his birth parents, there's nothing new in the 'birth of a hero' sequences that dominate maybe sixty percent of the running time. Here's an excellent article, by the way, exploring why the parental aspect and other elements of the plot feel wholly incomplete. Indeed, overall this feels like a highly compromised film: loose ends left dangling on webs, and then swiftly ignored. What did happen to Osborne's evil henchman after the bridge scene, anyway? The plotholes here genuinely bothered me than anything in the far more interesting Prometheus ever did. This doesn't feel like a first draft - this feels like a twentieth, where every good idea has been focus-grouped to death and only the vaguest reminders of them remain.

You may have a new and slightly sassier love interest in fan-favourite character Gwen Stacey (played by Emma Stone, who despite her relative on-screen charisma is no longer a believable seventeen year-old). Despite the characters falling for each other fairly quickly compared to the much angstier Mary Jane arc, the moral messages and plot beats of the Gwen Stacey story are almost identical to the ones from Spiderman 1/2, barely ten years old. The changes are cosmetic and unconvincing: how the heck does a young intern (apparently highly intelligent, but never shown to be such) seemingly have full security clearance in a massive multinational corporation? Some scenes are downright awful, including a bizarre one where her father Denis Leary offers her cocoa: a scene that seemingly attempts to be comic relief, but fails absolutely at that modest task. At least throwing her off a bridge as per her original story arc would have been a darker, interesting end to the story, but this is a film cynically designed as a new franchise starter: anything potentially dramatic or insightful is clearly being reserved for a sequel. It'll be another two or three films before Spiderman has to face the consequences of his actions.

Then there's Curt Connors (an underwhelming Rhys Ifans), or The Lizard. This 'well-intentioned scientist goes manically insane when he mutates' storyline was already done in Raimi's trilogy (even if we try to forget the poorly conceived third entry). Not only is it familiar here, but it's also poorly handled, and the motivations for Lizard's inevitable attempted genocide are under-explained. Huge amounts of screentime are wasted on the Lizard's origins, and too little on his transformation into reptilian psychopath. This franchise should be brave like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films, and not waste resources trying to humanise the new villain(s), again and again. It's been done, no need to repeat it. Perhaps a truly evil antagonist and threat will lend the inevitable sequel a true sense of threat and menace.

I could go on and on. This is just a redundant, mediocre film on any number of levels. What's good, you ask in a desperate search for balance? Well, James Horner's otherwise uninspiring score actually has a few unusual, interesting twists at various dramatic junctures (especially the sequence where Gwen hides from Lizard). There's a scene midway through where Garfield's playful, cheeky and irritating Spiderman comes into his own, and actually resembles the wisecracking hero from the comics more than Tobey Maguire's interpretation ever did. And most of the other performances are OK - never great, but passable. I also guess the effects are a little better than they were before? Although the irregular cuts to brief segments of first-person web slinging are distracting - an unfortunate, inconsistent leftover from the extended shot of the same that was shown in the first teaser trailer.

Yet Mark Webb is a wholly uninspired director. The simple but colourful comic book aesthetics of Raimi's films (which were never amazing either, but contrast extremely favourably to this new one) are absent here. There's a few bad leftovers from (500) Days of Summer, notably a montage scene scored to frakkin' Coldplay: at least Raimi had the decency to leave the crappy Nickelback song 'til the end credits). The action is bland and derivative. The romance is occasionally charming but largely devoid of any dramatic momentum. With pacing all over the place, the film eventually reaches the aforementioned scene in the classroom after a noisy, typically patriotic (watch out for the giant American flag at a particular dramatic juncture involving cranes) third act. It's an appropriate conclusion to a far too familiar story, and seems like the perfect time to cut to black. But, alas, we're instead 'treated' to an entirely superfluous web-slinging sequence which seems to solely exist so Spiderman can fire his web at the audience members in slow-motion and three dimensions. I saw it in wonderful old 2D, so it just looked ridiculous.

I didn't bother staying for the mid-credits scene. I watched it on youtube. It's shit too.

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