Tuesday, July 3, 2012

With Great Power: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

At last, a big budget superhero movie that doesn’t seem to be holding anything back for the sequel. Unlike the planning and groundwork that consumed so much of even the best of Marvel’s pre-Avengers films – those films were all leading up to the admittedly spectacular climax that was all two-hours-plus of this summer’s biggest hit – The Amazing Spider-man tells a good story all the way through. There are peaks and valleys with escalating, relatable stakes every step closer to a spectacular, surprisingly moving action finale. It’s a film that takes it’s time to build characters, lives with them, thinks through the impact of the plot’s events on them, and creates a wholly convincing fantasy world in which superpowers can come along and be the biggest blessing or the most horrible curse. This is one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen in a long time.

That’s funny, since the biggest problem I, and I’d guess many will, have with this newest big screen Spider-man is the timing. Oh, not the pacing of the plot, but the timing of its release. It’s only been ten years since Sam Raimi helped kick off the superhero blockbuster craze with a buoyant, charming, action film, only eight years since his Spider-man 2, quite possibly the greatest superhero movie ever made, and only five years since his Spider-man 3 was a modest disappointment to fans like me. That series, with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the teen nerd who gets bitten by a radioactive spider to become the titular hero, is still so fresh in my mind that the biggest problem I had with this new version was clearing the old out of my mind. It didn’t take too long before I had and soon enough I was swinging right along with this fresh take. It may not contain anything as iconic as the rain-soaked upside-down kiss, but it has plenty of emotional heft to call its own.

Director Marc Webb made his debut three years ago with (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory. He may not be the most obvious choice to helm such a colossal effects-oriented undertaking, but he handles that showy, explosive material quite well. The impact of his first film can be felt in the nicely observed early stretches of this film where we’re introduced to our new Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) as he shuffles and mumbles his way through his average life with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). It’s been said many times before, but bears repeating, that Spider-man is the best of all superheroes precisely because of his everyman qualities. He has problems with family, with school, with girls. For him, being bitten by that spider (the exact details of the new version need not be recounted here) is both an exhilarating puzzle of an athletic workout, puzzling over new skills and powers, and a deeply dangerous worry.  Swinging from building to building may be fun, but once you start to take on greater responsibility, danger to himself and the ones he loves become all too real.

The plot of the film (the screenplay is from James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent, who worked on Raimi’s Spideys and Steve Kloves, who adapted the Harry Potters) involves Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), a man without an arm who is desperately trying to find a way to regenerate tissue in humans by crossing with a patient’s genes the DNA of animals like lizards, who can grow back lopped off limbs whenever they please. Peter’s late father used to work for Connors, so he’s drawn into the scientific plot fairly early, and is soon after committed to help fix things after they, of course, go wrong, as they must in a superhero movie. One thing leads to another and the good Dr. becomes a slimy villain. At least his schemes doesn’t grow too outlandish and, though his own physical attributes gain something like superpowers, he can’t exactly be called a supervillain, He’s a mad scientist who becomes a force of nature. Complicating the issue is that his intern is one Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a pretty girl from Peter’s school who picks up on his Spidey confidence and asks him out. Their relationship develops tenderly, in beautifully played scenes that dance between comedy, romance, and awkwardness. Peter woos her, even confides in her, to a point, despite the tension of her police chief father (Denis Leary), who is currently on the hunt for both Connors and the masked vigilante known as Spider-man.

As you can tell, the movie tells a fairly routine superhero origin story, but it tells it with such a depth of feeling and passion. The effects are convincing, yes. But the real attraction here is the warmth and emotion behind the suit and mask, the real sense of physicality and danger in the chases and confrontations. The cinematography from John Schwartzman is nimble and acrobatic, swinging through New York’s concrete caverns and slipping with clean, clear movements through fast-moving, mostly comprehensible action sequences. The actors are uniformly terrific, from the parental compassion in Sheen and Field, to the beautiful brainy Emma Stone and her pragmatic, funny tough-guy dad in Leary. And Garfield, for his part, carries the movie, selling the transformation from socially paralyzed underdog to superpowered, sometimes overconfident, underdog as well as his soft romanticism, sharp smarts, and heavy guilt.

I never expected to like The Amazing Spider-man to the extent I did, loving as I do two-thirds of what Raimi did with this classic comics’ character over the past decade. (As much as I liked it, Amazing has nothing on Raimi's first two Spider-man films.) And yet this happens all the time in comics where one writer or illustrator ends his or her run on a series and a new artist (or group of artists) comes on board to make the character new again. That’s what happens here, thrillingly, refreshingly so. Marc Webb has made a terrifically compelling superhero movie with genuinely tense action set pieces, many with vertiginous heights and scary drops, and a welcome focus on characters that helps ground it all in very high stakes. What a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. At the risk of sounding too corny, this Spider-man is amazing, indeed.

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