Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the comics. Also, I’m going to talk freely. But, let’s be honest, we all know Uncle Ben isn’t going to be in the sequels, right?
Midway through Mark Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a dinner guest at his new high school crush Gwen Stacy’s (Emma Stone) home. Gwen’s father, George Stacy (Denis Leary), is a proud police captain who isn’t too fond of a certain web-slinging, crime-fighting vigilante who is the talk of the town. It’s the requisite scene when the police captain is supposed to pipe some ignorance in front of the alter ego. Except, in this scene, Captain Stacy, while certainly making things awkward for Gwen, seems to play the part of muse. He says to Peter that Spider-Man is more concerned with a vendetta than with protecting innocent people. And he’s right. This Peter Parker is more angst-ridden than powerfully responsible. In Webb’s reiteration, the disappearance of Peter’s parents–and the presumed effects that would have on a high schooler–looms larger over the origin story than does the power/responsibility lesson he’s supposed to learn from his role in Uncle Ben’s death. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t shelved. It’s delayed–made complicated.
The best way to describe the essential difference between the first film in the latest Spidey trilogy to the beginning of its predecessor is to say that Mark Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man ends where Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man begins. “Who am I?” Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker wonders aloud in the film’s first line. It’s the question that Webb’s film ends with. Peter’s still in high school, still unsure of who he is. Allowing this identity question to hang in the air is, presumably, how Webb intends to give his trilogy a darker shade. And, at least when compared to Raimi’s trilogy, his film achieves that tone for the most part, while maintaining its quintessential spidey-sense for charm.
Allowing this identity question to hang in the air at the conclusion of an origin story is a bold move, though. And it’s one that many devoted Spidey fans are not too fond of. One of my favorite critics, Steven D. Greydanus, also happens to be a big fan of Spider-man, and he’s less than enthused about Webb’s take:
Peter’s response to his uncle’s murder — the key turning point in the character’s development — is completely wrong. Instead of blaming himself, or resolving to use his powers to protect others, he directs all his wrath against the murderer, leading to an extended manhunt as Peter tracks down thugs who fit the general description of his uncle’s killer while showing no interest in other criminals.
I’m not against giving Peter a longer learning curve. I get that Peter’s vendetta against his uncle’s killer parallels his earlier retaliation against high-school bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), over which Uncle Ben himself rebuked Peter. The problem is that the movie never gets where it needs to: At no time does the lesson of power and responsibility emerge in connection with Ben’s death.
Steven’s right about how the film handles Peter’s response to Uncle Ben’s death, and, as I mentioned, he’s right that the film closes without this narrative thread tied. Yet, while it’s understandable why some fans might have a problem with the origin story not establishing Spider-man’s essential identity by the end of the first film, the move seemed so purposeful that I’m willing to hold out hope that Webb intends to tidy things up, maybe even have his immature Peter reflectively return to the tragic scene at some pivotal point in the sequel. It’s telling the way Uncle Ben frames the issue in a final reprimand just before he dies: it’s not about choice, it’s about responsibility. That personal choice is our culture’s highest good–superseding moral obligations on our ethical hierarchy–is no secret. And so count me interested in Webb’s revisionist twist for this reason.
But there’s enough reasons for any praise to be qualified, too. The fact is I did feel some too-soon-for-a-reboot fatigue during the film. It was a given that some of the origin story narrative points were going to be similar, but I don’t know if they needed to be so similar. Only five years removed from Raimi, Webb needed to be more committed to differentiating himself. I’m not asking that the essential narrative turns of the origin story be changed–not at all–but I at least wanted more inventiveness with its delivery. For all of the ways that this film distinguished itself, I still had moments of retread-induced ennui. Another issue is that while Webb’s distinctiveness was mostly a positive in the film, he also needed to get out of his own way at certain points. I’ll only mention that the Coldplay song works at first, but then feels tonally adrift by the time Peter is skating around checking out his powers. It was a scene killer. And, look, one person’s unbearably cheesy is another person’s delightfully campy, but any of the scenes involving sports were . . . pretty difficult.
So what worked? According to the source material (I’m told), Gwen is Peter’s first love–even before Mary Jane. And for me, the relationship that unfolds between the two is the highlight of the film. Garfield and Stone are strong leads with undeniable chemistry. Stone’s Gwen has a sharp assertiveness about her that is, in a way, a welcome reprieve from Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane. Peter and Gwen’s (almost) young adult relationship is less characteristic of Twilight tween romance than it is of Webb’s first feature release, (500) Days of Summer. The relationship has an energetic, magnetic quirk about it that the director and his two leads seem poised to grow on. I’m interested in seeing how this now-forbidden relationship unfolds.
Webb also puts his stylistic stamp on the film in a good way when we first see Peter awaken to his spidey-sense on the subway. The way Webb conveys Peter’s newfound sensibility to the audience, coupled with the young hero’s self-deprecating apologies as he humorously tries to come to grips with himself, makes the scene really work. Further, the 3D serves the web-swinging well; in fact, I wouldn’t have been bothered to have more of it from the first-person point of view. The effect provided moments of thrill that only seemed to vanish too soon. And Webb shows himself perfectly capable of delivering the type of fun that is characteristic of the series in a battle between Spider-man and the Lizard in Peter’s high school. Three moments–a scene with Stan Lee’s necessary cameo, Peter’s use of web to tactically evade and tie up the Lizard, and then his quip to Gwen that he’s going to “throw her out the window”–collectively work together in a way that revitalizes appreciation for the reboot.
For most of the movie, Peter keeps forgetting to get Aunt May the eggs she needs–even after Uncle Ben is killed. It’s supposed to be a representative forgetfulness. This is a high schooler who is still haunted by the sudden abandonment of his parents, still wrestling with his Uncle’s death and his role in it, still . . . too self-conscious to be unambiguously good. It’s why, when Aunt May says near the end of the film that “if there’s one thing Peter is, it’s good,” it hangs in the air like a question, with a touch of irony. Is he? And Webb makes the point even clearer by concluding, smartly, with his two leads in the classroom. Will Peter heed Captain Stacy’s demand to stay away from his daughter? Or are “broken promises the best kind?” It’s a tangled web that Peter’s weaving. That responsibility remains a question for Webb’s Spider-man just might be this trilogy’s most formidable foe–and Webb’s slickest trick.