Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stacking The Deck Does Not Always Make A Winner: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Good: Great acting, Moments of character development, Special effects
The Bad: Very predictable plot progression, Telegraphing music
The Basics: As Peter Parker explores his father’s legacy, he struggles to find his own identity and come into his own as a vigilante superhero and a young man.

For those who do not read my many reviews, there are two things at the outset of my consideration of The Amazing Spider-Man that you ought to know: 1. I was not wild about the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies and 2. I make a pretty firm distinction between great actors and great acting. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies garnered an incredible amount of attention and praise at the time for their special effects and the casting. While it is virtually impossible to come up with a better J. Jonah Jameson than J.K. Simmons and he performed the role exceptionally well, the rest of the acting, plot and character elements in the Spider-Man movies were tired. It didn’t wow me and I was very much not impressed by the series.

So, when I heard about The Amazing Spider-Man, I thought nothing of it. Then, the casting announcements for The Amazing Spider-Man began. Martin Sheen . . . love him, Andrew Garfield . . . I’m a fan, Emma Stone . . . whoah! She even looks amazing as a blonde! Sally Field and Denis Leary have both done things I’ve liked, but I began to worry. When I applied to colleges, one of the schools I went to apply at left me very underwhelmed. They were looking for the best and brightest students and even offered me a full scholarship, the very best financial aid package I was offered. The thing is, when I sat in on classes, I was bored and so were virtually all of the students I met. It did not take long for me to realize exactly what the college was doing; it was getting a higher caliber of students to raise the overall G.P.A. as opposed to investing in good teachers or innovative programs. As casting for The Amazing Spider-Man continued, I had the horrible feeling that that was what might be happening.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

The Amazing Spider-Man does not suffer excessively from stacking the deck; there is enough character development and enough opportunities for the actors to perform that make the film work. While the film occasionally treads close to “mediocre greatness,” The Amazing Spider-Man’s most stifling issue is that the plot follows a very predictable progression and it relies upon the special effects being visually overwhelming at times, as opposed to truly incredible. “Mediocre greatness,” by the way, is my term for incredible casting that does not stretch the abilities of the actors. Related to stacking the deck, “mediocre greatness” casts all of the right people in exactly the right positions and, as a result, there is no room for the performer to actually grow. Instead, even at their best, they can only rise to what the viewer expects knowing their range and abilities. Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben in The Amazing Spider-Man is pretty much that. Fortunately, the rest of the cast (largely) is given room to give viewers something new.

Peter Parker lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, following his abandonment by his parents. He is exceptionally smart, but an outsider as a high school student. He has a crush on the brainy Gwen Stacy, but is quiet and bullied. Parker finds a case at his Uncle’s home that provides him with clues on what his father was working on when he fled. This leads Peter Parker on a journey that takes two forms. He encounters Dr. Curt Connors, who is working on similar research – mixing genetics from different animals in order to try to isolate a single benefit. Connors wants to use lizard’s regenerative properties to regenerate human limbs, a cause very dear to the one-armed scientist.

Peter swipes and modifies a mechanical device from Oscorp that gives him the ability to sling webs, much like a spider (though far, far stronger). He uses this newfound technology and his reaction to being bitten by a spider at Oscorp to help people and, after a few problematic attempts, he creates a costume and alter-ego to become a vigilante crime fighter, Spider-Man. While the police are handed criminals by Spider-Man, NYPD police Captain Stacy cannot abide by a vigilante running around (and causing some collateral damage, in addition to embarrassment for the police), so he begins a nightly manhunt for Spider-Man. As Peter gets his chance with Gwen Stacy, Dr. Connors makes his most bold attempt at scientific advancement, testing a serum on himself . . . with disastrous results.

The Amazing Spider-Man, is very good, but I could not help thinking - even as I watched it – that it was depending too much on giant and impressive special effects. For those who just tool toward the bottom line on these things, I oscillated between the 6.5 and 7 at various points in my analysis. While The Amazing Spider-Man is good, it is not great and the plot, especially, makes it feel quite a bit more average than one wants out of an action-adventure superhero film. If anything, The Amazing Spider-Man might be pioneering a new class for me. Instead of “mediocre greatness” where amazing actors are cast in decent roles for films where they can pretty much only rise to our expectations, The Amazing Spider-Man takes an almost boring and droll plot and makes it feel interesting by populating it with great actors who are portraying characters who are different from those we have seen them as before. This “superlative averageness” is what, at the very least, pulls The Amazing Spider-Man up to a level of film that the prior cinematic Spider-Man was not.

The Amazing Spider-Man is Peter Parker’s story, though Gwen Stacy and Curt Connors have enough to do in the film to make them interesting, at the very least. Peter Parker is delightfully smart and it is refreshing to see a protagonist who uses his wits instead of brawn or an inflated sense of ego. That does not stop Andrew Garfield from taking the role and making it physically and psychologically interesting. Outside the annoying penchant for commentary while swinging around on his webs (Hollywood seems to have a real problem with characters who are quiet when they are focusing on survival), Garfield’s Peter Parker is smart, witty and a good kid. Garfield’s strong dramatic roots play out well for him in The Amazing Spider-Man. While Garfield, no doubt, has the ability to be funny, some of the attempts in The Amazing Spider-Man work too hard to get him to be that way. While he sells some of the funniest moments with a lighter sense of humor (the very popular clip of Spider-Man mocking a criminal about his knife stands out), some of the other lines seem slightly out of place; Garfield could have sold them with his more serious delivery.

Rhys Ifans is good as Dr. Curt Connors, but the caliber of performance in The Amazing Spider-Man is dominated by the performances of Denis Leary and Emma Stone. Denis Leary plays Captain Stacy and while one might predict that he could play a grizzled police captain who has seen a lot on the streets of New York City, it is unlikely that most people could have predicted the authority he would carry in the role. Leary plays Stacy as smart and determined, a true leader and he manages to pull it off. While one or two of his lines seem tailored to Leary’s sense of sarcasm, Leary manages to present them without the acidity he is usually known for.

Emma Stone makes The Amazing Spider-Man into a movie that should make it popular with young women, as opposed to just a comic book geek hit. Stone makes Gwen Stacy smart, funny, and emotionally intelligent. In The Amazing Spider-Man, Gwen Stacy is useful to Peter Parker and the result is that Gwen Stacy is not a damsel in distress who is some form of “prize” for the hero. Instead, she uses her own sense of judgment to try to solve the problem represented by the Curt Connors Lizard and she helps make another Marvel superhero seem anything but invulnerable (which is much more interesting on the character front anyway). Stone is a brilliant choice for the role, as she is ridiculously smart and makes Gwen Stacy plausibly brilliant. She also has the dramatic gravitas to play off Garfield in a way that makes it entirely reasonably that Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy would be interested in one another. In other words, the romantic subplot feels far less like a conceit and more an organic relationship than in many such films. Stone deserves a lot of credit for that.

Predictably, the effects in The Amazing Spider-Man are truly incredible. The Amazing Spider-Man is summer fare; it is big, action-filled, and it has its moments of being both smart and making the viewer care. But on a smaller screen, away from the spectacle and hype, it is hard to imagine The Amazing Spider-Man will appear to be more than a well-made, overly familiar, movie.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
The Avengers
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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