When I heard they were rebooting Spider-Man, a decision that seemed unconscionable with the spectacularly successful Sam Raimi series so fresh in everyone’s minds, I joined most of America in asking, “Wait, what?” I’ve generally considered the popular sentiment against remakes and reboots to be rather silly, but this is certainly one of the most egregious examples I’ve seen.
Then the trailers started coming out, and I found myself (against my better judgment) thinking, “Actually, this doesn’t look half bad.” The more trailers I saw, the more cautiously optimistic I became. Then an enterprising fan cut together all of the publicly available footage of the not-yet-released The Amazing Spider-Man into an “abridged version” of the film itself. The idea was that there was so much publicly available footage of Amazing Spider-Man that the entire movie was basically already out there. (This was basically right, incidentally.) And what I saw in this 25-minute reel did not please me. It was here that I first saw what I imagined would be my biggest problem with the film: who the heck was this guy in a Spider-Man outfit, and why was everyone calling him Peter Parker when he clearly wasn’t Peter Parker?
This is never a good sign, but like an elementary school teacher I want to talk first about what Amazing Spider-Man did well. The trailers made heavy use of “point of view” footage of Spider-Man web slinging, and my brain screamed, “Gimmick! 3D! Money!” pretty much every time I saw one of those shots. That being said, having now seen the film (in 2D, thank you very much), I have to say those shots were extremely well done, and integrated well with the more conventional shots of Spider-Man swinging on his webs. They were actually some of the best shots of the film.
There’s a scene where Spider-Man saves a child, and in the process of doing so he has to encourage the child to help him even though he’s very scared. The way he goes about this is genuinely awesome.
The action scenes were pretty well done, and the film’s final act in particular was (I can’t believe I’m using this word) excellent. Not so much the final confrontation which was somewhat anticlimactic, but an injured Spider-Man having to struggle his way across the city was pretty much the only time in the entire film that he seemed particularly heroic. Really, it was the only time he seemed interesting in any way–oh, sorry, I forgot this was the part where we were being nice. The soundtrack was also pretty great, especially during the action scenes.
I actually really liked the character of Captain George Stacey. He was a bit one-dimensional, and clearly there because the scriptwriters needed someone to initially dislike Spider-Man and then change his mind about him since they lacked the nuance to actually take any kind of “show, don’t tell” approach to the character. Actually, it’s pretty clear that I shouldn’t like him at all since he’s there just for the sake of convenience (just like everything else about this film), but for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on I really did like him.
Finally, we come to the most backhanded compliment I’m going to give, but the decision to take an extremely minimalistic approach to the film’s romance was both merciful and very, very smart. There was actually quite a bit of Peter/Gwen footage in various trailers and television spots that doesn’t seem to have made it into the film. I obviously don’t actually know this, but it really leaves me with the impression that during editing the film’s creative team realized, “Okay, wow. These two are just not that interesting,” and decided to essentially gut that part of the film. Maybe that’s what happened, maybe it’s not, but the upshot of it is we got a very streamlined love story, the centerpiece of which was the pair’s first kiss followed by Spidey jumping off into a great action sequence. You know what? It really worked for me.
As I alluded to earlier, I thought my biggest problem with this film was going to be that Peter Parker wasn’t in character at all. That may still have been my biggest problem with the film, but it actually has a major competitor: a general lack of logic that pervaded the entire film, especially evidenced in glaringly unclear character motivations. Throughout the entire film, my internal monologue went a lot like this: “Why did Peter follow that random guy?” “Why did Peter walk into the spider chamber?” “Why is this gang of random thugs chasing Peter onto the roof when he’s clearly superhuman?” “Why are Gwen and Peter hanging out by football practice?” “Why did Lizard go aboveground and get shot up when he’s shown he can move underground with impunity?” “Why is Captain Stacey focusing on capturing Spider-Man when Lizard is literally destroying the city and his police force and Spider-Man doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone?” “Why didn’t Aunt May call Peter at all during a citywide catastrophe?” “Why is there liquid nitrogen on the roof of a skyscraper? That doesn’t even work. You have to fill those things from trucks.”
The real answer, in every case, is “convenience.” Peter followed the random guy and walked into the spider room because he needed to become Spider-Man. The random thugs chased Peter because the action scene needed to continue. Gwen and Peter hung out by football practice (something no one who isn’t friends with someone on the football team ever does ever in real life) because it gave them an interesting backdrop for their conversation and so Peter could use his reflexes to catch the ball and chuck it into the goalposts and have a cute “oops” moment. Lizard went aboveground so he could be shown to be in possession of the cloud of green gunk that turned people into lizards. Captain Stacey chased Spider-Man so he could make his dramatic turn. Aunt May didn’t call Peter because then she might put two and two together and realize he’s Spider-Man. And we all know why there’s liquid nitrogen on the roof.
The problem is, that makes the in-story answer, “…” Nothing anyone does in this movie makes any sense at all. I’m willing to forgive the usual lapses of logic (“It’s very important to Peter that he find an opportunity to change into his silly costume before continuing his fight with the giant lizard destroying his high school.”) because that’s just what superhero movies “do,” and because there’s at least a certain cinematic necessity to these lapses in logic. Outside of this? The rest of the film should make sense. And don’t tell me it’s “just a superhero movie.” The Avengers came out this summer, okay? Okay.
Now, my other huge problem with this film: just who the heck is this guy and what did he do with Peter Parker? One of the things that has made pretty much every version of Spider-Man successful (notably the Animated Series and Sam Raimi’s films) was that people in general, and especially geeks, could relate to Peter Parker. He was a nerdy, generally good-natured guy with normal problems. This film couldn’t decide who Peter Parker was, but he definitely wasn’t that guy. He was a punk, a hipster, an emo, a skater, a bully (at times). We’re told he’s smart but don’t ever really see that as a defining part of his character, it’s just something we’re told is true so it must be true. It just never really feels “right.”
But the truly unforgivable part of this film? It seems like they tried to show Spider-Man “joking around” during fight scenes like he did in the cartoon show, but instead he ends up coming off as a sadistic bully. At one point, when he already has a criminal immobilized against a wall, he keeps shooting webs at him, hitting him over and over (including in the crotch) and finally covering his nose and mouth, before checking to see if the criminal is Uncle Ben’s killer. Only after discovering that he isn’t does Spider-Man remove the webbing from his nose, enabling him to breathe. The implication here seems to be that Spider-Man would’ve let him suffocate if he were his uncle’s killer. And, you know, either way he definitely sort of tortured him.
Right, speaking of Uncle Ben. First of all, Martin Sheen was not an especially great casting choice. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sheen as an actor, but he seemed much more intellectual than the character he was portraying. Even in this universe, it’s kind of clear that Uncle Ben was supposed to be wise, not intellectual (he even says so in the film, more or less), so I don’t really understand casting Sheen in that role. If only that were the biggest problem with this part of the story. For some reason the creative team decided they needed to drastically alter the circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death, and the role it plays in Peter’s eventually becoming Spider-Man. Really, the entire focus of the film seems to shift from Uncle Ben’s death and Peter’s responsibility for it (which the film essentially glosses over) to Peter’s obsession with his missing parents (actually mostly just his father, he doesn’t seem especially interested in his mother, which sort of mirrors how the film doesn’t seem especially interested in Aunt May) which leads him to help Dr. Conners (while taking credit for his father’s formula for no apparent reason), which leads to the Lizard, which leads to Peter’s sense of responsibility. Do you see how this dramatically changes the character? Uncle Ben’s death isn’t the reason he makes his dramatic turn into a “good guy.” Really, there isn’t all that dramatic of a turn. It’s just, “This is my fault, I have to fix it.”
The thing is, even if I were going to buy that, even if I were going to shrug my shoulders at the character’s defining attributes being completely changed… it still doesn’t work, because for as much as it’s supposed to be essential to his character’s motivation, it was hyped up by the film’s promotional material much more than it was ever actually dealt with in the film. Dr. Conners’ dramatic line in the trailer, “If you want the truth about your parents, Peter, come and get it”? Never spoken in the film. It seems like that was exclusively to make the trailer more dramatic.
Which brings me back to my original question… why a reboot? Even if you don’t want to continue Sam Raimi’s film universe (understandable), why tell Spider-Man’s origin story again? Even if this is a separate continuity, there’s no reason to tell Spider-Man’s origin story again. We have comics and cartoons and a film series that happened basically yesterday. Can’t you trust as as an audience at this point to know who Spider-Man is? (Especially since most of us appear to know better than these filmmakers.) Why start at the beginning? If you must, give us a two-minute voiceover of, “Hey, I’m Peter Parker, I got bit by a spider and then my uncle got shot…” and then jump into something awesome like the Sinister Six or a more faithful adaptation of Venom. Instead, you end up completely bungling the origin story of one of the most iconic superheroes of all time for no real reason.
Don’t worry, though, they’re turning this thing over to the writers of Transformers, so I’m sure it’s all uphill from here.