The Amazing Spider-Man — a reboot? Prequel? New chapter? It's hard to decide what to call it — is pretty much different in every way from the staggeringly successful Marvel Comics-inspired trilogy that preceded it.
The basics are the same: A high school kid gets bitten by a scientifically modified spider, discovers he has newfound super powers, decides to use them as a vigilante crime fighter and takes to the streets of New York in an unforgivingly tight red-and-blue suit.
But in terms of tone, characters, performances and even visual effects, The Amazing Spider-Man feels like its own separate entity. It may not be as transporting or genre-altering an experience as those earlier films, especially the first two, but it finds a distinct voice. And a great deal of that has to do with the central performance from Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.
In the hands of Tobey Maguire, who originated the role in Spider-Man a decade ago, Peter was nerdy, scrawny, insecure — that's how his everyman relatability manifested itself. Garfield plays Peter as more of a misunderstood outsider, a rebel with a chip on his shoulder, a guy who wasn't afraid to stand up to the class bully even before he underwent his transformation. And that slightly arrogant attitude gives the whole movie a restless, reckless energy and a welcome sense of danger.
At the helm, Marc Webb is a very different sort of director. He may not have sounded like the most obvious choice for a hugely anticipated blockbuster based on his only previous feature, the romantic comedy charmer (500) Days of Summer. His big set pieces may lack some of the imagination that director Sam Raimi brought previously, but they'll do. More importantly, though, he conveys an emotional truth, a pervasive sense of humanity, which may be an even tougher feat in this kind of fantastical scenario.
Webb's deft touch is especially clear in the scenes between Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter's classmate Gwen Stacy, who has to be the cutest, best-dressed science geek on the planet. (In this version of the Spider-Man universe, we must be pre-Mary Jane Watson.) Emma Stone radiates the cute, bright, quick-witted presence we've come to know and love in films like Easy A and Crazy Stupid Love, and she and Garfield have a sweetly flirty chemistry. (The scene where he finally asks her out without really asking her out is adorably awkward.) But there's depth and sensitivity there, too, since she's the only one who knows his secret for a long time.
The script from James Vanderbilt, Steve Kloves and veteran Alvin Sargent begins when Peter was a boy. A sudden threat forces his parents to leave him with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) before disappearing forever. As Peter grows into a teenager, be begins to ask questions about who they were — especially his mysterious scientist father (Campbell Scott). (If you hadn't noticed, it's a great supporting cast. All these longtime actors show what total pros they are by finding just the right balance in tone and never over- or under-playing their parts.)
This brings him to the gleaming high-rise where his father's former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), is deeply involved in some groundbreaking — and unproven — genetic research. When Connors finally tests his latest formula on himself, the results don't exactly turn out the way he (or the unsuspecting residents of Manhattan) might have hoped. The destruction he causes in his altered state, and Spider-Man's attempts to stop him from causing even more, provide the basis for the film's obligatory noisy showdowns.
Which brings us to the use of 3-D: The Amazing Spider-Man didn't need it. I realise I say that a lot but it's an observation that seems especially true this time around. Webb barely applies this de rigueur trick — maybe to make the background pop here and there, or in an aerial shot of the city, but he never puts the technology to its fullest use to make you feel immersed in this world.
Basically, the 3-D feels like an attempt by the studio to sling more summer moviegoing dollars into its web; you should resist, especially since, based on a quick tease during the closing credits, a sequel is clearly being hatched.