Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Picking up the pieces

All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put 'The Amazing Spider-Man"'s story back together again

The Amazing Spider-Man
Columbia Pictures
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan and Campbell Scott
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 16 minutes
(out of four)

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like something cobbled together from the spare parts of other Spider-Man movies. Only not quite enough of those parts. For all the familiar and expected story beats we get, what's most conspicuous is what seems to be missing.

The problem isn't that this is essentially a straight remake of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (although that's basically what it is - more on that in a bit). The problem is that it has all the superficial ingredients of a superhero film without once finding its own identity or reason for being. All its ideas remain vague or unfulfilled, one subplot being substituted for the next in almost comically disjointed fashion.

The film is made up of dead ends and loose ends and contradictions. There's the intrigue of the sudden departure and mysterious disappearance of Peter Parker's parents when he's a young boy, only for that intrigue to dissipate with the dull explanation of a plane crash. There's the introduction of the ominous Mr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan), clearly established as a pivotal character, only for him to disappear from the movie entirely after 20 minutes, never to be mentioned or heard from again.

There's the requisite death of Peter's Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) followed by Peter's requisite quest for vengeance - a quest he abandons completely once he's distracted by a more sinister villain. Which would be all fine and dandy, except, A) it's the backdrop for Peter's entire emotional journey; and B) even when the story is resolved, Peter seems to have no memory of there ever being a killer to catch in the first place?

No wait, I have more. There's the life-altering promise made by one character, only for that character to welch on the promise five minutes later, rendering the previous scene entirely meaningless.

Oh, and then there's a certain fascinating third-act development involving a dangerous toxin and a group of police officers - a development completely ignored and left unexplored for the rest of the film. A savvy moviegoer can practically see the scissors cutting the hell out of this thing - that, or it was a really haphazard screenplay to begin with.

In short: This is messy storytelling, loosely held together only because there are enough story bullet points in place to remind us we're watching some semblance of a plot. We see where the momentum of the story is taking us, we understand the mechanics of it and why things are going where they're going. But the whole movie ends up feeling like it's dangling, unsure of what to focus on - or, worse yet, unwilling to really dive in. It's far too satisfied to play it safe and give us the basics.

Even the film's overall aesthetic - or lack of one - is a disappointing surprise. The choice of (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb for this reboot seemed to signal a new voice and a new direction for the franchise, but the final product has very little of its own personality or style. New York City looks just like anybody else's New York City. The high school feels like any other run-of-the-mill movie high school. Almost every scene plays out exactly the way we expect it to.

But Webb's talents aren't the only ones that go somewhat to waste. Andrew Garfield makes a fantastic Peter Parker/Spider-Man, offering a more subtle nerdiness (he's shy rather than aloof, a loner rather than a dork) than Tobey Maguire, as well as deeper emotional range. (Nothing against Tobey, by the way.) Emma Stone is similarly strong as the love interest, Gwen Stacy, a perfect foil for Peter in what turns out to be a pretty strong teen romance, even as it gets thrown by the wayside too often. (And, it must also be said, Stone's selection of thigh-highs and knee-highs is a triumph of the wardrobe department.)

Then there's Rhys Ifans, one of my favorite working character actors (and one of the most underappreciated) (Greenberg!) - he gets a well-deserved chance to be the primary villain in a movie like this, and he basically nails it. Except his character's entire story is an undercooked misfire that follows virtually the same formula as that of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in Raimi's original Spider-Man. A former colleague of Peter's father, Dr. Connors (Ifans) is a one-armed scientist who has dedicated much of his life to researching inter-species DNA splicing and the possibilities of physical regeneration - like, say, missing limbs.

After a breakthrough in his research, Dr. Connors makes himself the first human guinea pig, which quickly transforms him into The Lizard (a surprisingly good piece of CGI work, by the way), in the process making him something of a radical proponent of large-scale eugenics.

Unfortunately, the Connors/Lizard setup never feels like much more than a plot device - hardly the kind of character-based treatment Ifans' talents deserve. But that's par for the course in The Amazing Spider-Man, which all too easily loses track of any subplot and any character.

Many already have (and will continue to) questioned the wisdom of rebooting a franchise by essentially repeating the same formula from the last time around. Indeed, this movie is unlikely to be remembered or discussed five years from now - especially after the studio so relentlessly teased the uncovering of an "untold story" and delivered no such thing.

There's that old cliche about those not remembering history being condemned to repeat it, but in this case the filmmakers and/or studio remember their past all too well - and are all too happy to repeat it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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