Like most of you, I wasn’t exactly clamoring for yet another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story, especially so soon after Sam Raimi’s mostly brilliant (sans the “Emo Hair” all singing/dancing elements of Spider-Man 3) trilogy had so recently concluded. Of course, Marvel forced Sony’s hand as, were the latter not able to do something with the comic publisher’s biggest property by a given date, the rights would then revert to them, robbing Sony of their biggest cash cows. Hence The Amazing Spider-Man; a film that would star two of Hollywood’s hottest young actors (Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone), and be helmed by Marc Webb, who, despite the fitting last name, was known primarily for the romantic comedy, 500 Days of Summer. Obviously, Webb’s hiring had most fan’s spider senses tingling as, not only was he an unproven commodity in terms of action/adventure cinema, but, early on, the director hinted that this new take on Spider-Man would focus more on the drama of high school and the love story between Peter Parker (Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Stone) than the web-slinging, wall-scaling antics we’d all grown to love. With a release date smack dab in the middle of a summer already crowded with tier 1 superhero fare (including the finale of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy as well as Marvel’s own Avengers), it was obvious that this new Spider-Man certainly had his work cut out for him.
Had the writing team actually stuck to the established Spider-Man’s mythos, I’d probably skip over recapping the whole origin story here as, by now, everyone reading this most certainly has it memorized. However, this time out, there have been a few modifications that, while not without precedent (elements of it were carried over from a standalone “alternate” history published by Marvel a few years back), tinker with our hero’s past just enough to make things interesting (and potentially infuriate purists).
The film opens with a young Peter Parker stumbling into the freshly broken into home office of his father, Richard (Campbell Scott); a brilliant geneticist who, until recently, was working for Oscorp. Richard fears for the safety of his family, and he and his wife, Mary (Embeth Davidtz) drop Peter off to stay with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) until they can straighten things out with their former employers. As Peter watches his parents flee into the stormy night, we see his reflection in the glass morph into the teenage version of himself; a gawky skate rat with unkempt hair and a penchant for running afoul of local bully, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka). While on the receiving end of one of Flash’s patented beatdowns, Peter is saved by the lovely Gwen Stacy, the brainiac daughter of the NYPD’s own Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), who also serves as Flash’s tutor and moral compass. Peter is as obsessed with Gwen as he is with the fate of his parents who, according to the press, died in a mysterious plane crash shortly after leaving him with his aunt and uncle.
Peter comes home that afternoon, battered and bruised, but jazzed by Gwen’s intervention, and is summoned to the basement by his Uncle Ben to help clean up the mess left behind by a ruptured water heater. While moving things to higher ground, Peter discovers an old briefcase with his father’s initials on it, and sneaks off to his room to examine the contents. What he finds leads him to seek out Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former research partner, still employed at Oscorp. Peter “borrows” the credentials of an intern, and sneaks into the research facility where his cover is nearly blown by Gwen who, unbeknownst to Peter, serves as an intern to Dr. Connors. Gwen tells him she’ll let him stay so long as he doesn’t get her in trouble, but, almost as soon as she turns her back, Peter sneaks off, and finds himself in an off-limits section of the lab filled with the very specimen his father had been working on; spiders. It’s here where Peter is bit, and, as he stumbles out of the lab, he’s caught by Gwen and sent packing.
On his way home, Peter falls asleep on the subway train, and a fellow passenger decides to have a little fun with the unconscious boy. Peter, however, awakens, his senses somehow amplified, and his reflexes enhanced. Oh, and he can stick to ceilings, too. After a humorous montage (as well as a the requisite bit of “bully gets his comeuppance”) showing our hero adapting to his newfound gifts, he once again seeks out Dr. Connors; this time telling him his true identity, and offering him his father’s solution to the formula that has long eluded him. Connors, you see, is an amputee, and, through his research with Peter’s father, had hoped to harness the innate abilities of certain species and adapt them for use in humans. In Connors’ case, he especially hoped to reproduce a reptile’s ability to regrow limbs. Armed with Peter’s formula, Connors feels he’s finally able to complete his life’s work, and appease his increasingly impatient bosses at Oscorp.
Peter, meanwhile, gets so lost in his work with Connors that he begins to blow off his home duties, which leads to a run-in with Uncle Ben that sees Peter storming off in the middle of the night. While Uncle Ben looks for Peter, Peter finds himself in the midst of a robber at a store. While Peter could have easily stopped the robbery, he lets the man go, letting the rude cashier know that it wasn’t his problem. Of course, this same robber crosses paths with Uncle Ben, killing him. Blaming himself for his uncle’s death, Peter vows to make the responsible party pay for his crime, and begins patrolling the streets in disguise in hopes of tracking him down. As Peter gets more invested in his new role as vigilante, he fashions himself a sleek costume, a set of mechanical web-shooters (using a top-secret compound “borrowed” from Oscorp), and a new identity; Spider-Man.
Meanwhile, Connors’ tests are proving successful, but, with Oscorp founder, Norman Osborn, near death, his employers insist human trials be conducted to hasten the process. Connors refuses, but is quickly reminded what happened to Richard Parker when he refused years before, and is told that he’s no longer needed as Oscorp as the local V.A. hospital has plenty of unwitting subjects upon which to test his formula. Fearing for the safety of the patients at the V.A. hospital, Connors breaks down and tests the formula on himself, and, while initially a success (his arm grows back!), it’s not without its share of nasty side-effects. While still in control of his faculties, Connors tries to make his way to the V.A. hospital before Oscorp’s people get there, but, en route, he begins to change, morphing into a massive, volatile reptilian/human hybrid. As The Lizard rampages through the city, Peter is in hot pursuit, knowing that only Spider-Man can stop him.
To call The Amazing Spider-Man a pleasant surprise is a massive understatement. I may be in the minority, here, but, for me, this is the most authentic version of the character I’ve seen presented anywhere outside of the pages of a comic book, and much of the credit goes to the brilliant casting of the exceptionally talented Garfield. No disrespect to Tobey McGuire, as I thought he did fine in the role, but, to me, Garfield IS Peter Parker. From the slight build and awkward, boyish good looks to his shy, borderline eccentric demeanor, he absolutely nails the tortured-teen hero thing, imbuing Spider-Man/Peter with both the smart-ass sense of over confidence and genuine adolescent angst that I don’t feel McGuire was able to quite deliver. Garfield’s chemistry with Stone is also a huge improvement over the awkward dynamic displayed by McGuire and Kirsten Dunst, an actress I’ve always felt was horribly miscast as Mary Jane Watson. The love story here, while not nearly as upfront and center as Webb intimated, is just much more believable, and, if the next film follows comic lore, will be all the more tragic for it.
As far as action goes, Webb proves that all our worries were for naught, as he delivers some very impressive action set pieces, many of which eschew CGI over the always-welcome effects of the practical variety. Still, being a Spider-Man flick, there are some things that can only be done with CGI, and the good news is that the majority of it is simply sublime. The scene in which Peter takes to the rooftops and makes his inaugural swing through Manhattan offers up some of the most dizzyingly effective and breathtaking eye candy of the entire franchise.
Sony’s Blu-ray presentation of The Amazing Spider-Man is every bit as good as one would expect it to be, with an absolutely gorgeous 2.40:1 1080p transfer that is crisp and teeming with fine detail. The version reviewed here is the 4-Disc Edition, which features the 2-D version of the film, the 3-D version of the film, a Blu-ray dedicated to supplemental material, and a DVD/Ultraviolet copy. I first opted for the 3-D version, and, much like the theatrical experience, I found the 3-D to be occasionally impressive, but not entirely necessary. There are a few moments where the film truly embraces 3-D (the aforementioned spider lab and first swing through New York stand out as the best), but, for the most part, I preferred watching the film in standard 2-D as the image is a touch brighter and more defined. Paired with a positively immersive 5.1 DTS HD soundtrack, the overall presentation stands amongst the best titles available on the medium.
Sony loads the film up with a fantastic selection of special features, spread out over the three Blu-ray Discs, including a commentary track, nearly two-hour’s worth of documentaries (in HD, and broken up into easily digestible segments) that cover everything from casting to post-production, a collection of deleted scenes (HD), a lengthy storyboard featurette (HD), concept art gallery, and more!
The 3-D disc also features the same commentary track, as well as two short 3-D specific featurettes.
While The Amazing Spider-Man deviates from established lore, it still somehow manages to be the most faithful translation of the source material thus far. I absolutely love the casting of Garfield and Stone, and feel that their chemistry (along with Webb’s experience with offbeat romantic comedy) elevates this one above mere superhero action cinema. Spider-Man has always been about the geek getting the girl (and then protecting her against his enemies), whether it be Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson, so amping up the love story angle to a certain degree really works with this character. The fact that it doesn’t sacrifice action to so means we get the full package, and, in my opinion, the best Spider-Man movie yet.