The only people The Amazing Spider-Man is remotely necessary to is Columbia Pictures, which decided to reboot the franchise shortly after Tobey Maguire finished up his run in the webslinger’s unitard in order to hold on to its rights to the character. It’s a by-the-numbers execution of the formula that worked so well in the prior trilogy, from Spider-Man’s skills as an exaggeration of the physical changes of adolescence, to the luminous, leggy girlfriend, to the scientist who falls too deeply in love with his creation who’s restored to himself by Spider-Man’s intervention. As formulas go, though, this is a pleasant one, and The Amazing Spider-Man is a charming, good-looking way to spend an afternoon, particularly give the chemistry between its co-stars, Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, and a typically fun performance by Dennis Leary as NYPD Chief George Stacy.
The Amazing Spider-Man’s innovation is to give the absence of Peter Parker’s parents some context: after a break-in at the Parker family home, his parents deposit young Peter with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt Mae (Sally Field) and never return. Peter learns nothing about his family until years later when he discovers his father’s briefcase in the family’s flooding basement, and finds notes on a scientific project tucked in a secret project in the lining, which eventually lead him to his father’s former collaborator, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Ifans, who lost his right arm, presumably to one of the reptiles he studies, has been investigating the possibility of crossing human and animal genes: he dreams of “a world without weakness.” Peter seeks him out with disastrous consequences: his father’s notes help Connors perfect his formula, and under pressure to prove the project is viable because his company’s founder, Norman Osborn, is gravely ill, experiments on himself, and becomes a giant, clawed lizard-man in the process.
For all this is a repetition of previous Spider-Man iterations, it’s still an interesting variation from other superhero movies. Batman fights ideological absolutists, the X-Men debate differing approaches to the same problems, intensified by the fact that the disputants are the best of enemies, and the Avengers wrangle gods. Spider-Man’s opponents are good men with big dreams who become intoxicated by the things their mistakes turn them into. Connors was clearly a hugely accomplished scientist even with one arm, but with not just two working arms, but superhuman strength, his fantasy of a world without outcasts turns into a dream of transcending humanity altogether—and forcing everyone else to come along with him, permanently. It’s never quite clear what these movies are trying to say about science other than that hubris and need can be dangerous things, though here there’s a whiff of criticism for companies that pressure scientists to bypass proper trials. Normally such imprudence just kills people, but here, the consequences are more dire—but the movie cuts away before OsCorp itself experiences any of them.
The movie spends more time exploring another problem: what happens when the police get fixated on the wrong target? Peter Parker’s life is complicated enough when he first becomes Spider-Man, but things get worse when he discovers that the lovely girl he’s been dating is the daughter of New York’s Police Chief George Stacy—and that Stacy has a particular vendetta against the web-slinger. “I wear a badge,” Stacy spits, contemptuous of a man who won’t stand publicly behind his actions. “He wears a mask.” It doesn’t help that he has a legitimate grievance: Parker, attempting to track down the man who killed Uncle Ben, disrupts a department operation to track a car thief that Stacy hoped would lead him to a larger operation. When Connors goes on a rampage, Stacy wastes time tracking down Spider-Man, and when Parker tries to warn him of the real danger, Stacy makes a show of not believing him. “Recently, he gave Gwen [an OsCorp intern] a glowing college recommendation. It was beautiful. When I read it, I cried,” Stacy snarks. “And you would have me believe he spends his free time running around dressed up like a giant dinosaur. Do I look like the mayor of Tokyo to you?” Leary’s born to play both the bitter and tough sides of New York law enforcement, and he does wonderful work here.
Stone is equally wonderful as Stacy, the kind of lovely girl who can defuse schoolyard fights and whip up an antidote to a biological weapon. She has a real sexual fizz with Garfield in a way Maguire and Kirsten Dunst never quite achieved as Peter Parker and Mary Jane. And Stone and Leary are a believably quibbling father-daughter pair. “I do not want cocoa,” she snaps irritably at him, concealing the fact that she’s cleaning Peter’s wounds and smooching him in her bedroom after he sneaked up her fire escape. “I remember someone saying last week that her fantasy was to live in a chocolate house,” her father reminds her. The competition between George and Peter for Gwen’s heart and loyalties is the best thing about the movie, though of course George inevitably surrenders. “Your boyfriend is a man of many masks,” he concedes. “I get it.” Aren’t they all?
For those veteran comic book fans who are curious how the movie handles the most famous Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man story, which I won’t spoil here, there are visual allusions galore. It’ll be interesting to see if they have the courage to carry it all the way through.