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Monday, July 16, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Superhero film returns with new cast and story

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The question asked by many is “Why?” Specifically, “Why another Spider-Man movie with a new cast and director so soon after Tobey Maguire's last turn as the accidental superhero?”

The easy answer comes from the accountants who run Hollywood: “Why let a successful franchise lay fallow for too many seasons? There's money to be harvested!”

The good news about The Amazing Spider-Man begins with Andrew Garfield's performance as Peter Parker. His take on the brilliant, diffident high-school kid who harnesses incredible powers after being bitten by a genetically altered spider is as good in its own way as Maguire's performance, and he brings a gravity to the role that the screenplay eventually undermines. Director Marc Webb's previous film was an enjoyably quirky indie romantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer, and for the first hour his Spider-Man promises to be a human-scale story of an ordinary boy from a working-class home faced with extraordinary situations, armed with the values and example of his foster parents, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).

Small visual cues matter to Webb. We can tell at first glance that the girl with whom Peter falls in love, Gwen (Emma Stone), is well above average because she's reading Kurt Vonnegut at recess. A Ramones T-shirt establishes Peter's coolness. Special effects are effectively low-key at first, allowing us to share Peter's disconcerted wonder at his newfound superhuman agility and strength—to feel his unfamiliar powers shoot through his body with the sullen, jubilant confusion of teenage hormones. By the way, Webb stages the giddy emotion of teenage love between Peter and Gwen with humor and keen awareness. Wouldn't all of us have leaped between buildings in exuberance if we had been able?

And then, in hour two, the movie unravels into a mishmash of false whimsy and pyrotechnical wreckage. Maybe some focus group wanted to keep it light while the producers, on the other hand, wanted to cut a computer-generated swath of destruction across Manhattan (in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises?). The result is dull and ordinary.

It's a pity, because the mythic hero's quest of this story raises issues about corporate greed and reckless science. The spider that bit Peter came from a research project at Oscorp, a sinister transnational corporation with an unseen tycoon who is pushing the lab to develop a cross-species genetic transfer to regenerate human tissue—think of it as stem cell research on steroids. Speaking in cushioned Oxford tones, the chief scientist, Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), promises to rid the world of “weakness” through his discoveries. But after injecting himself with the serum, which transforms him into a green lizard resembling the Incredible Hulk on a bad day, he embraces the old dream of radical eugenics—to raise the human species into a new master race. The dream turns nightmare, threatening to sink humanity into the primeval swamp. Can the freak of science called Spider-Man stop another freak of science from destroying the world as we know it? The answer is obvious, but the way to get there should have been more interesting.
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