The UnPopular Opinion: The Amazing Spider-man
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Here's something to ponder: What made Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN so great? Was it the somewhat cheesy acting or the candy-colored cinematography? How about Willem Dafoe's way over-the-top performance as Green Goblin? Despite some things that many fans would consider flaws if it were not for the widespread acclaim and love for Raimi's films, SPIDER-MAN is looked at as the template for what a good superhero movie should be. Marc Webb's THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN meets all of the same benchmarks plus has a better cast and is yet looked at as lesser than the Raimi version. I contend that not only is THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN better than Raimi's original, it is very close to being the best of all the SPIDER-MAN films.
I do hold SPIDER-MAN 2 as the best in the series because it eschews the origin story and gets right into dealing with Peter Parker facing off not only against Doctor Octopus but as well as the growing suspicions from his friend Harry Osborn. The crux of Raimi's trilogy has always been Tobey Maguire and James Franco whose story culminated successfully in SPIDER-MAN 3. What Raimi's films never got right was Peter Parker and his relationship with Mary Jane and Aunt May. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN manages to hit all of those notes as well as setting up a franchise that matches Stan Lee's original vision for the character.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN keeps Peter Parker in high school for the duration of the film, the setting from the comic book that fostered his development as a hero and a character. Forcing Peter to deal with bullies, girls, and all of the rest of the typical American teenager problems faced every day by Spidey's fans. SPIDER-MAN jumped right past high school and into the college years which skimped viewers on the ideal setting for the webslinger. While I am not sold on the rebooted origin featuring Peter's parents as integral parts of his superpowers, we now have an angsty teen who is swarming with hormones which is a fertile ground for multiple future stories. I was among numerous fans who cried that we didn't need yet another superhero origin movie, but without Maguire or Dunst returning, there was no choice. Raimi had beaten the story for all it was worth. The only other setting possible with college and high school ruled out would be a working class Parker and that doesn't jive with PG-13 audiences.
Tobey Maguire was 27 years old when SPIDER-MAN was released while Andrew Garfield was 29 and yet Garfield is a much more convincing high schooler than Maguire ever was. Is Andrew Garfield the better actor? It is too soon to say yet, but I will absolutely say he is a better Spider-man. Spider-man was always a sarcastic smart-ass on the written page, something Maguire barely scratched the surface of. Garfield has all of the full of himself vigor and devil may care attitude that makes Spider-man both a hero and incredibly reckless. He also bears the scars of an embattled hero better than any comic character on screen aside from Christopher Nolan's Batman.
And then there is Emma Stone. Oh, sweet Emma Stone! What a perfect piece of casting genius! Stone was originally expected to play Mary Jane Watson, taking over from Kirsten Dunst, based on her famous red hair. But we were wrong and instead got a true interpretation of Gwen Stacy, much different from the wasted performance from Bryce Dallas Howard in SPIDER-MAN 3. Stone, like Garfield, feels like a believable high schooler. In keeping with Spider-man's eternal flaw in logic, once again the hottest girl in school falls for the geek. We all have dreamed of this happening, but this version of Peter is less a dweeb than an outcast. If Marc Webb and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN got anything perfect, it is the dynamic and chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. The real life couple have a connection that jumps off the screen and you really believe they are in love. Webb, who directed another electric couple in Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, knows how to direct conversations and relationships which is why those seem to be the best parts of the film and what Raimi's lacked.
Even Aunt May, as played by the great Sally Field, feels more like a real person than the old biddy she has been in the comics. Martin Sheen's fleeting role as Uncle Ben still achieves what it set out to and get Spider-man rolling with his true calling. Aunt May has always been Peter Parker's rock and Field drives that home much like Diane Lane did in MAN OF STEEL. Instead of giving us a two-dimensional mother image we have a character with layers who can communicate with our hero and do more than expound narrative. Aunt May is now a major part of Peter's circle who know his true motivation.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN wanted to emulate THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy by setting a superhero in a realistic setting. It seems to have worked quite well. The Lizard may not have been the best choice to launch a "realistic" franchise, but everything else sets up nicely. I know they didn't mean that the movie would be feasible but rather not look like Raimi's candy universe. Ten years is a lifetime for franchises like this and these two SPIDER-MAN films are markers for very different universes. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN presents a universe that could conceivably be shared with the X-MEN films if a crossover were ever possible.
Which is why with some separation between the initial release of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and now I can admit I actually like that Peter Parker reveals his identity to multiple characters. At first I thought it was an idiotic decision that ruins the secret part of having a secret identity. But, in a world where a teenager has no one on his side, divulging who he is to his closest friends and family would not only be possible, but it also removes the stupidity that characters wouldn't be able to figure it out. Aunt May and Gwen Stacy are not stupid and they would be able to discern that Peter Parker was actually Spider-man based on simple deduction. The majority of New York City doesn't know Peter so they would never figure it out. Finally we have a movie that doesn't treat those around our hero as morons.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN may not have created the most visually striking villain in Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard, but they continued their streak of casting high caliber actors for a goofy role. Rhys Ifans brings the most humanity to a Spider-man villain since the great turn from Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus. Sure, Willem Dafoe was good, but incredibly over the top. What The Lizard shares with Doc Ock is a back story and a motivation that is sidetracked by their insanity. I don't think I can find higher praise for Ifans peformance, despite it's shortcomings. I have no doubt that if that was one of your weakest spots in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that whatever comes next has a great first step.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 through 4 are coming over the next half decade and each will build on an overarching back story initiated in this first chapter. Where Raimi's trilogy is connected by the Peter/Harry/Mary Jane triangle, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN series will benefit from being planned in advance. It is tough to rank Raimi's trilogy without including the bad SPIDER-MAN 3. It is too soon to tell if THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN will suffer a chapter as lacking as that one, but if you compare the first entry in both series, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN has the higher potential for success.
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