A nerdy schoolboy from Queens gets bitten by an altered arachnid — again — in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a mostly slick, entertaining and emotionally involving recombination of fresh and familiar elements. With the propitiously named Marc Webb at the helm and a solid screenplay, Sony’s reboot of its successful franchise, arriving five years after the last Sam Raimi-directed installment, is gratifyingly more of a drama-with-action than a nonstop assault on the senses. Benefiting enormously from the perfect chemistry of leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, this superhero date movie should do boffo biz, though only strong word of mouth can confer must-see status.
While this is essentially a remake of Raimi’s perfectly good “Spider-Man” (2002), the lure of (excellent) 3D and Imax showings should help rev up fanboys, even if they feel it’s something they’ve already seen; still, such auds might be disappointed by how long it takes to get to the action.
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The screenplay, surprisingly compact despite the 136-minute running time, is co-written by James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac”), “Harry Potter” scribe Steve Kloves and Alvin Sargent, who also worked on Raimi’s version. Following that earlier template, the film roughly falls into two halves, the stronger of which is the first, set before the birth of Peter Parker’s unitard-wearing alter ego.
Some elements have disappeared (most notably the Daily Bugle newspaper, with Peter now shooting photos for … himself?), and some concessions have been made to fit the new villain, Oscorp employee Dr. Curt Conners, aka the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), into this origin story. Yet it’s still essentially a coming-of-ager/romance hybrid, albeit one that feels even less comicbook-like than Raimi’s.
Given that the film was shot in 3D, it seems appropriate that the prop connecting teen Peter (Brit thesp Garfield) to his dead father, scientist Richard (Campbell Scott), is a pair of glasses. The specs are not only a visual reminder of the film’s underlying father-son theme but also drive home the point that Peter, a brilliant student who’s occasionally awkward and overly gleeful, is a nerd (whose interest in science turns out to be a huge plus). Indeed, high school, specifically the life lessons learned there, figures heavily in the pic, which returns to campus several times, including for a key battle sequence.
Webb and Garfield, in a commanding performance that combines boyish charm and manly backbone, establish early on that Peter’s growing pains and search for an identity are common to any teenager, yet also inextricably linked to his lack of a father. Every issue may seem like a matter of life and death for an adolescent, but Garfield makes Peter an interesting hero precisely because his struggles involve real people — and real lives.
After Peter’s bitten by the requisite spider at New York-based Oscorp’s genetic research facility, where he’s been shown around by cute intern and classmate Gwen Stacy (Stone), he discovers his new powers in a subway car, and then the next morning in the bathroom. The two short scenes showcase Peter’s maladroitness as well as the pic’s underlying vein of character-driven humor.
Though the film is clearly set in the present day or not-too-distant future (with Internet and holographic computer projections galore), there are some nice retro touches, such as Peter’s old-fashioned camera and skateboard, which comes in particularly handy when he tries to test the limits of his strengths in a scenic harbor-side hangar.
After his uncle Ben (a benign Martin Sheen) is killed in a robbery, Peter starts to think of ways he can harness his powers to find the killer, with a well-placed luchadores poster inspiring Spidey’s mask. An hour has elapsed by the time the full transformation is complete, but it hardly feels like wasted time, since Webb, as in his debut, “500 Days of Summer,” has drawn his characters and their predicaments in clear terms and with enough individuality to make auds feel invested.
Though the action-heavy second half is well executed, with long-held shots and clear editing allowing for a coherent, almost old-fashioned sense of spatial relations and never-intrusive use of 3D, it’s clear that Webb is more interested in the story’s human dimensions. A spectacular setpiece involving Spider-Man’s rescue of a small boy in a burning car, hanging off the Williamsburg Bridge, has much greater resonance than any confrontation with Connors’ generally destruction-oriented Lizard, an ugly creature that’s less human-gone-wrong than two-dimensional comicbook villain, with CGI and prosthetic makeup to match. Similarly, the palpable rapport of Garfield and the ever-affable Stone in the pic’s home stretch wows far more than the climactic webslinging antics.
Technically, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is assembled in expert if classical fashion. D.p. John Schwartzman achieves a glossy look on the Red camera, while production and costume design set the film sufficiently apart from its predecessor without departing too much from the look of the comics. James Horner’s nonspecific score is unfortunately deployed so often and indiscriminately that a scene in which it’s not used, as Lizard looks for Gwen Stacy at Oscorp, suddenly crackles with a nervous energy absent from some of the bigger fight sequences.
The pic is dedicated to producer Laura Ziskin, who died last year. Obligatory end-credits kicker suggests which villain is waiting in the wings for the series’ part deux.