Monday, July 9, 2012

Good, But Not Quite Amazing....

In order to give a proper review to “The Amazing Spider-Man”, I must get the basic synopsis of the movie out of the way first.  The movie revolves around Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), an “average” high school kid in New York City who loses his parents at a young age and ends up growing up with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).  One day, Peter is nosing his way around an expensive science lab when a genetically enhanced spider bites him.   Later on, Peter wakes up with abilities similar to that of a spider (climbing, jumping, and precognitive abilities).  Peter spends a little too much time chasing a girl named Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), behaves a bit selfishly, and puts Uncle Ben in a dangerous situation where he ends up dead.   Peter is then inspired by this tragedy to fight crime dressed as a masked vigilante known as Spider-man.
Meanwhile there is a misguided scientist named Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) who gets a little overzealous and ends up making a monster of himself.   He has a couple run-ins with Spider-man and eventually plots a huge city-wide catastrophe.   Low and behold, Peter Parker’s personal life mixes with his secret identity and he has to save the city and the girl of his dreams.

Without telling you any great detail, that is what you would expect from a Spider-man movie, correct?  This is where the film’s director (Mark Webb) makes a big mistake.  He tries too heavily to give his audience what they don’t expect.  This leads to what is often known as an expectancy violation.  People predict the future and form expectations based upon pre-established beliefs, ideas, and history.   When someone behaves or something occurs that doesn’t follow the expected path, people can have two very different reactions.  They either take to it favorably or find that it just doesn’t sit well with them.  An expectancy violation isn’t always a bad thing, but it almost always warrants a significant reaction.

(Although I won’t make any direct descriptions of plot, some people might say I am getting spoilery in the coming paragraphs)

In the case of “The Amazing Spider-Man” audiences are likely to be annoyed by the creative liberties taken by the film.  We expect the basic plot as is described above.   However, we expect certain details of the characters and the intricacies as well.  For example, fans familiar with Spider-Man expect that Peter Parker needs to be drastically different than his masked alter-ego.  He needs to be socially awkward, average looking at best, have poor vision, and carry around the personal baggage of losing his parents.  Well, this movie decides that they need their Peter Parker to be an overly handsome young man with great hair, the athletic ability to skateboard like a pro, wear contacts, and appear generally charming.  Yes, I am saying that Andrew Garfield does not come off nerdy enough.  He was three times as nerdy in “The Social Network”.  Also, he doesn’t seem to appreciate everything his Aunt May and Uncle Ben have done for him.  Peter Parkers doesn’t give off the vibe that he owes his aunt and uncle everything.  Anyone who knows Spider-man knows that this is a pretty big component of the hero’s arc.

Now I understand that it is a reboot and an origin story at the same time, so they had to do some things differently.  What may have been more effective for them would have been to just speed up the whole origin aspect of the story and dropped with the dramatic changes to it.  Give the kid his super powers, throw in the new love interest, have the new villain show up, and take it in a new direction from there.  Instead they messed with the foundation of what made the Sam Raimi Spider-man movies work (not the 3rd one.  I won’t admit to that one existing).  That foundation was the ongoing internal struggles of a young man with more power than he should be allowed to have.  “The Amazing Spider-Man” makes Peter Parker look like a show-boat with his powers.   That only works half-way, which is when he is Spider-Man.

From everything I have ever seen and read about Spider-Man, I know he is a smart mouthed, fast talking, almost-comedian while he fights crime.  The comics, cartoons, and video games all have done a great job of showing this.  Webb’s version of Spider-man does this as well.  In fact, this is the one part of the Spider-man story he totally owns in comparison to Sam Raimi.  Kudos should be given to Andrew Garfield for his delivery of the lines behind the mask.    However, when the mask comes off, I felt like it was a clip from the CW’s Tuesday night line-up.  I was warned about this by a colleague of mine before I saw the movie, so I was probably looking out for it.  However, when a friend is right, he’s right.

Also, for those of you who consider yourselves Marvel Comics traditionalists, there is a major swerve from the general accepted histories of Peter Parker’s parents.  They apparently were super secretive and super scientist-like.   Mr. Parker had worked with Curt Conners.  Some of Parker’s work contributes to Conners’ transformation into The Lizard (the big baddie) and if you are connecting the dots, even Peter’s transformation into Spider-man.   If you take this stuff seriously, that won’t sit well with you.

Now I didn’t dislike the movie.   On the contrary, I enjoyed most of it.  I just wanted to like it more.  It deserved to be better.  It deserved to build on what already worked with this hero.  In fact, let me share what I specifically liked about the film.

The movie is visually stunning.  It looked better than any of the other Spider-man movies.  It always didn’t get stuck in the tendency of all the fight scenes taking place at night.   There are some great scenes in broad daylight and even at locations you wouldn’t expect.

Emma Stone shows once again that she has the charisma to steal every scene that she is in.  Also, it appears she may have lost that whole raspy voiced thing she had going on for a while.   Her portrayal of Gwen Stacy makes her the most likable and engaging character in the entire movie.  Also, Sally Field does what she can to make Aunt May likable.  The writing of the character wasn’t the most solid, but she at least plays the part so well that you root for her to bitch slap her nephew.

Ultimately, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is hard to swallow if you have any previous experience and/or admiration for the character.  It is by no means bad, but suffers because real fans have expectations.  Overall I give it **1/2 out of 4 *s.  It would get the other half of that star of Andrew Garfield wasn’t so pretty.