10 July 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Amazing Spider-Man

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

With directing great superheroes comes great responsibility. I wish director Marc Webb knew this. Or perhaps directing superheroics on screen isn’t something the man is capable of.

Webb’s re-boot of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise is not an utter elevated train-wreck. If all you want is a bit of comic book action during the summer between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, then The Amazing Spider-Man is adequate to the task. I certainly can’t give it a worse rating than something like Battleship or Dark Shadows. It’s not a Batman and Robin. There’s that.

But as a Spider-Man film, and me speaking as a Spider-Fan, the The Amazing Spider-Man is a huge disappointment. It’s even a bit depressing. I’m glad I have the Sam Raimi films to bolster me, knowing that somebody has already done Spider-Man right, because otherwise this very unnecessary (except for keeping a lock on film rights) re-do of Spidey’s origin would be… okay, an elevated train-wreck. And to hear Sony, and even some fans, try to do revisionist history on the Raimi films as if they were off the mark—that’s painful. Yes, Spider-Man 3 had many problems, most of which were forced on Raimi by the studio, but it is still a better “Spider-Man film” than this one. The first Raimi film is an well-crafted, dead-on origin story, and Spider-Man 2 is just a goddamn great film. Raimi balanced Spidey’s drama with the crisp fun of his comics.

The Amazing Spider-Man is an overall mess, but there are two major problems that injure it. Before getting into that, here’s a fast rundown on its many other problems:

The origin story is coasting for anyone who has seen the first Spider-Man, since there isn’t enough new added to it, and what is new doesn’t work. These scenes are cold reminders that re-booting a popular franchise only ten years old was a mistake from the start. The editing stitches together a story that moves too slow when it needs to step up the pace, but then suddenly jumps abruptly from scenes without any sense they have a connection to each other. Entire plot strands simply drop out of the movie in the rushed finale, which is apparently due to Sony making a drastic re-cut of the film at the eleventh hour. The importance of Peter Parker’s parents is never explained, and evidence from the trailers and promotional material indicate causalities in the re-cut that might have made sense of this. (On the other hand, Peter’s Parkers Mom and Dad were never major players in the comic book, and the movie should have cut them completely, so this is a mistake I can half-tolerate.) The Oscorp goon Dr. Ratha (Irrafan Khan) vanishes after the mid-point, since a major scene between him and the lizard was also gutted from the movie. The line from the trailers Dr. Ratha speaks, “Do you think what happened to you was just an accident?”, is noticeably missing, which is another tie-in to the ditched “parents’ plot.” Peter’s pursuit of the thief who killed his Uncle Ben, a major focus for the character in the first half of the film, also goes absolutely nowhere. Sally Field has little to do as Aunt May. The score from James Horner is nonstop and never develops much-needed dynamism.

But I could probably have dealt these problems if it weren’t that the film mishandles Spider-Man and the Lizard. I.e. its hero and its villain. Those are kind of major issues.

I’m going to stall here again, and tell you about the elements of the films that I did like. Despite the problems with his character as written, Andrew Garfield does a good job with what he was dealt. I can see a Spider-Man film working with him. Emma Stone sparkles as Gwen Stacy, one of the few major characters from the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko era of Spider-Man that didn’t work in Raimi’s films. (She was introduced too late, in the third film, and like much of that cramped movie she ended up marginalized.) Stone is such a perfect girl-next-door type that whenever she’s on scree the film seems able to coast over other troubles. She and Garfield have good chemistry together, even if the characters don’t have any real reason to like each other than script requirements. I also enjoyed Dennis Leary’s turn as Captain Stacy, Gwen’s policeman father, who takes the place of the missing J. Jonah Jameson as Spidey’s civilian adversary. Leary gets most of the funny lines, even though the character isn’t strictly a comedy role. The best line i the whole movie is Leary making a priceless “Godzilla” reference. Martin Sheen is also worthy successor to Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben. He’s the only actor here I can see slipping seamlessly into Raimi’s Spider-Man universe.

Enough avoidance…. And I should warn you, although I don’t hate this movie, in the next few paragraphs I’m going to get a bit harsh. The Spider-Fan is going to come through.

Spider-Man and Peter Parker: both of them are jerks. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the character occurring here, and it hurt me to realize as I was watching that I didn’t like Spider-Man, a character who’s “lovable loser” charm is infectious and has endeared him to people for almost fifty years. The movie makes Peter Parker into a “cool nerd” to fit in with the times and to appeal to a new young audience, but apparently the script and director Marc Webb decided that a cool nerd is also a “who cares?” ass. It’s important for Spider-Man to have a period of being intolerable after he figures out his powers, since this is what causes him to learn about “power and responsibility” when his inaction leads to Uncle Ben’s death. But Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man is obnoxious before-during-after. The film reaches a point where Peter is supposed to have finally learned the value of a hero—after far too long—but even then nothing changes. Marc Webb completely fails to give the character a recognizable arc. Seeing Spidey knock around innocent people on the subway, cruelly beat up thugs in an alley, kick around the police… oh, I miss Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

If the filmmakers wanted to “cool-up” Peter Parker, they should’ve taken lessons from the animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man, which did an excellent revision of high-school era Spidey for a new set of fans. (If you haven’t seen it, check it out. I wish it ran for more than two seasons. Sony needs to leap on releasing a full box-set of the second season.)

Spider-Man doesn’t even quip much, an element the studio claimed they were going to put into the character that viewers thought was too slight in the Raimi films. But Garfield’s Spidey makes the same amount jokes that Tobey Maquire’s did. The big quipping scene, where Spidey corners a carjacker (the entire sequence was shown online a month before release), misses completely the self-deprecating comedy of the comic’s character. He’s just a jerk. There was even a point where I sympathized with Flash Thompson over Peter Parker. It was painful even to type that.

Where I felt this unfortunate change to “too cool for you” Spider-Man the strongest was in Uncle Ben’s death. It’s already re-configured to have less impact, as well as depriving Martin Sheen the chance to breathe some energy or passion into it, but Spider-Man comes out of it more ticked off and angry than before, and he never recovers from it. He never learns from this. This robs the character of his heart. And a heartless Spider-Man is not a fun superhero, and the result is a film that has none of the fun of the comic book, the original trilogy, or the animated Spectacular Spider-Man.

Oh, man—the Lizard. One of the great Steve Ditko and Stan Lee villains (first introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man #6) was getting built up in the Raimi trilogy, where scientist Curt Connors, played by Dylan Baker, appeared in the second and third movies, and got mentioned in the first. Even though The Amazing Spider-Man throws out the trilogy, apparently somebody though it was still the Lizard’s “time,” and threw him in here. Honestly, the idea of the Lizard isn’t a terrible one for an opening villain, since he can tie in with Oscorp and the experiment that gives Spidey his powers, but the execution is awful. Rhys Ifans plays a decent Curt Connors in the film’s first half; he isn’t remarkable, but does convey some of Connors’s tragedy over the loss of his arm and his personal interest in Oscorp’s project. But once he transforms into the humungous lizard-man, it all collapses.

The Lizard simply looks stupid. For a big-budget film, this level of CGI shoddiness is bizarre. The character looks like the bastard child of Godzilla and Voldemort, and in certain stances hilariously reminded me of a green Cookie Monster. I have no idea why the designers decided to eliminate the original snout on the monster from Steve Ditko’s version, but the flat-faced one with the dopey grin on his face is impossible to take seriously, even before getting to the wonky CGI.

But the Lizard also makes no sense as a character. Connors is a standard myopic scientist until he transforms into the Lizard once—and suddenly he develops a master plan to wipe out all of humanity by changing everyone into lizard-people. Bwah-ha-ha… wait, where did that come from? Why does Connors develop this idea after changing back to human form? It’s not only that it doesn’t match the Ditko-Lee character (Connors is like Bruce Banner, and doesn’t want to keep turning into a crazed lizard monster, giving Spidey’s battles with him a great moral trickiness); it’s that it doesn’t click with anything else in the story. If he got made at Oscorp for pushing him and tried to destroy them, that would make sense. But suddenly deciding to lizard-ize the Big Apple, based on a machine clumsily mentioned once before?

This kills the finale. A Spider-Man I can’t root for rushes to confront a silly villain with a dumb plan I don’t believe he can even achieve. There’s also further evidence that the finale got cut hastily cut at the last minute: the lizard turns a SWAT team into reptilian creatures like himself, but they never do anything. Dennis Leary tries to save the ending with a passionate scene, and I appreciate it, but the finale is otherwise awful.

I missed J. Jonah Jameson something fierce. The buoyancy of Spidey’s most persistent critic, the man who shines a light on how unfair life is to Peter, and just simply a great “New York” character who could inject humor into any scene, is something The Amazing Spider-Man needs desperately. Dennis Leary picks up a bit of this—Captain Stacy is meant to fill the Jameson slot—but the character is too crucial to Spider-Man’s mythos and tone to get slashed out.

I have to lay most of the film’s failings at the feet of Marc Webb: I don’t think he had a comic book movie in him, and directing (500) Days of Summer did not indicate that he could. He doesn’t understand the characters, doesn’t get the tone, doesn’t know how to piece together the story. There’s quality hiding here, but Webb was not the man to bring it out.
A technical note on the presentation: I viewed the film in IMAX 3D, and this is the worst use of 3D I’ve seen since the format’s return. It almost seems not to exist. At a few points, I took off my glasses and discovered the image had no blur to it at all; there was not even any attempt to create a depth of field. Except for a view gimmick web-shots at the screen, the 3D is a waste, and the extra dollars charged for it is the worst kind of price gouging. Prometheus promised some advancement with the process, but we’ve dropped right back into The Last Airbender territory. The only director I want working in 3D any more is Martin Scorsese.

The Amazing Spider-Man pulled in a superficially impressive $140 million over the Independence Day weekend. The reason it is only a superficial victory is that it marks the fourth best opening for the Spider-Man movies—and that isn’t considering ticket inflation or the 3D bump. So despite the lukewarm “positive” reviews movie seems to be getting and people saying, “Hey, I liked it,” it seems the film isn’t re-igniting love for the character, and I expect a tremendous drop in its second frame, and the this other comic book movie rubbing it from existence in the third. In a few months, I imagine that most critics who gave it positive reviews will rescind their positions, and Spider-Fans will be creating online petitions demanding Sony to re-boot the character again.

And here lies hope… I think a “soft reboot” in the next film (which I hope will be called The Spectacular Spider-Man), which will probably not have Webb at the helm, has great potential. I like Stone and Garfield, and nothing is irrevocably broken that can’t be fixed in a quick credits sequence or by being outright ignored. If the new villain works (the teaser in The Amazing Spider-Man is so vague that they could go with anybody in the next movie—how about the Kangaroo?) and the four-color comics fun of Spidey comes back, there’s no reason this new series couldn’t turn into something great in a few years. Perhaps the lesson of The Avengers will steer Sony right.

Excelsior to the Better Films to Come! (Please.)

My Summer Movie Scorecard
The Amazing Spider-Man . . . . . . . . . . C
Brave . . . . . . . . . . B+
Prometheus . . . . . . . . . . B
Snow White and the Huntsman . . . . . . . . . . B
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: A Fighting Man of Mars! Okay, that’s not a movie. There’s some bat-related thing in two weeks, I might check that out.