Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me. As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
There is a magic to being the first to do something, even the inconsequential things. It’s not merely novelty; it’s something harder to articulate. That is why I felt magnificent sitting in the theater Monday night/Tuesday morning waiting for a midnight showing of director Marc Webb’s update of my favorite superhero’s film franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man.
However, that is when the specialness of being first turned sour. Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves decided they wanted to be the first to connect Peter Parker’s parents’ story to his superhero journey. Throughout the movie’s runtime, they sprinkle in little nuggets about Richard Parker’s scientist days and drop ominous overtones on top of his and his wife’s mysterious death.
But here’s the thing: Peter’s parents do not, nor should they, matter to his story beyond their tragic early deaths. In fact, by making Richard a scientist with a connection to Peter’s fateful run-in with that spider (and don’t complain about this spoiler, because it’s clear in the trailers), it cheapens Peter as a character. It takes a beefed-up version of the American Dream — orphan comes from nothing and works through constant setbacks to make himself not only a great hero but a brilliant scientist — and turns it into something lesser. Yes, Peter is still an orphan living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man, but it feels almost like he’s a trust fund kid in regard to his mental inheritance from his father. If his dad was PhD material, that makes Peter’s brilliance less surprising, and therefore less impressive. When he’s creating his crime-fighting gizmos, the audience shrugs and thinks, “Oh, that makes sense,” rather than being wowed with how much Peter can do with how little he’s been given. Peter is supposed to be the only person who can do what he does, but having his father be just as smart, if not smarter, tarnishes that specialness. When he’s asked by Dr. Curt Connors to be a de facto lab assistant, it’s because Connors worked with Peter’s father and needs Peter for some of his father’s research; even though Connors is impressed with Peter’s obviously prodigious scientific skills, those are not what Connors wants. Webb and company could have easily avoided all this by dropping the father plot line and just had Peter win Connors’ internship on merit rather than clout.
While that sounds like one aspect of The Amazing Spider-Man ruined my experience, that is not true. Besides Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi’s exemplary 2004 sequel, Webb’s work is my favorite of the franchise. He and Andrew Garfield know Peter Parker’s personality: He’s not the weenie of Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s movies, but he is nervous around pretty girls like most high school boys would be. He doesn’t flaunt his intelligence. He sticks up for those unable to defend themselves. And when he dons that Spider-Man mask, he loves it. He cracks jokes that actually made me chuckle instead of the bad uncle jokes Maguire spouted in the previous trilogy. Overall, he has a blast when messing with low-rent crooks early in his vigilante career. Emma Stone plays a Gwen Stacy who is more than the eye-candy-damsel-in-distress type; she’s capable, smart, and heroic in her own right. Denis Leary, while underutilized, is good when he is on the screen as Gwen’s dad, the tough-but-fair Captain Stacy. Rhys Ifans’ Connors/Lizard is a tragic and conflicted villain who doesn’t resort to simple mustache twirling. I would have preferred to have seen more of Sally Field as Aunt May, but Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben was grounded, loving, and pragmatic; my favorite Uncle Ben since Brian Michael Bendis’ rendition of him in the early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. That said, clunkifying Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility” speech is a colossal miscue, but not Sheen’s doing, so I cannot fault him for that.
The Amazing Spider-Man is both a deeply flawed and surprisingly effective movie. I’m sure a lot of people are jumping on the “IT’S FANTASTIC!!!” or “IT SUCKS!!!” bandwagons, but like most movies, it doesn’t fit in either pigeonhole. The film’s insistence on providing more Parker family history is a massive problem, but the acting is better than any summer action movie I’ve seen in a long time, and its main plot thrust feels like the Spidey adventure of the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko-John Romita days. While messy, the film mostly does the characters justice, which was the only goal I wanted the film to accomplish while walking into the theater. I finally got the Spider-Man characterization I’ve long wanted, the one I’ve cherished more than most of the people in my life, and that is something worth cheering.