“Where are you coming from, Spider-Man? Nobody knows who you are!”
So went the lyrics to “Spidey Super Stories” on PBS’ The Electric Company — possibly my earliest introduction to the web slinger, unless it was the 1967 animated series, which I watched in reruns every day. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Spider-Man was. Over the years I’ve seen him imagined and reimagined in different ways, and, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed them all, from the classic Marvel Universe comic books to the new Ultimate Marvel series; from the live-action 1970s CBS series starring Nicholas Hammond to the recent Spectacular Spider-Man animated series (one of my favorites).
In principle, I’m happy to see a new movie come along and put a new spin on my favorite superhero. I don’t think it’s “too soon” for a big-screen reboot or even a new origin story. I never thought the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire movies offered a definitive or perfect take on the character anyway. Spider-Man 2 achieved something like comic-book movie perfection, but the series’ interpretation of Peter himself could always have been better: smarter, more reflective, more decisive.
The Amazing Spider-Man has some good ideas in this direction. In some ways, it improves on the previous trilogy. With caveats, I generally like Andrew Garfield’s darker, more ironic take on Peter; it isn’t especially my conception of the character, but it could reasonably be someone’s conception. The awkward flirtation between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is more emotionally fraught than the shallow romanticism with MJ in Raimi’s trilogy.
Martin Sheen is terrific as Uncle Ben (I like him at least as much as Cliff Robertson, though partly it’s a matter of writing), and Uncle Ben’s murder is cleverly restaged in a way that emphasizes Peter’s responsibility even more. Director Marc Webb (yes, Webb!) creates a few memorable images, some re-creations of comic-book art, others inspired by the hero’s arachnid iconography.
For all that, the new film bungles who Spider-Man is, where he’s coming from. This isn’t the only problem (there are notable issues around the plot and the interpretation of Spider-Man’s reptilian foe, the Lizard), but, for me, it’s the most intractable, because it undermines the hero’s moral center.
Here is the crux of who Peter Parker has always essentially been, at least in his origins: A brainy high-school outcast unexpectedly bequeathed with extraordinary powers, Peter initially uses those powers for personal gain — until the murder of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a thug Peter could have stopped but didn’t. Blaming himself for his uncle’s death, Peter learns a lesson his uncle tried to teach him: that with great power comes great responsibility. From then on, Peter seeks to use his powers responsibly to protect people generally. With his uncle gone, Peter’s Aunt May becomes an even more crucial figure in his life, and he worries over and cares for her in her widowhood even as he also draws inspiration from her strength of spirit.
The Amazing Spider-Man includes some of these key markers, from Peter’s brains and outcast status to Ben Parker’s murder. Yet 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.
Instead, Peter’s sense of responsibility emerges in connection with the Lizard — partly because no one else is in the Lizard’s power league and partly because (for reasons I won’t spoil) Peter blames himself for the emergence of the Lizard in the first place.
This is not dramatically equivalent to Peter blaming himself for his uncle’s death, for several reasons. First, the act for which Peter blames himself in connection with the Lizard is not an irresponsible or selfish act. There’s no way he could have foreseen the trouble it would lead to, whereas anyone could foresee that letting a thug escape could lead to further thuggery. Second, it is not a failure to use his powers that Peter blames himself for here. It is crucial to who Spider-Man is that a failure to use his powers leads to consequences that impress on him the importance of using his powers responsibly and selflessly.
His uncle’s death has always served as a deeply personal inspiration for Peter’s sense of responsibility and heroic duty. The Lizard thing is much less personal — less connected to who Peter is. Indeed, in this telling, the murder is hardly necessary at all and makes little impact on the rest of the story. (It’s telling that the best scene in connection with the murder takes place the next day at school.) It’s true that Peter first dons the mask to protect himself while seeking to track down his uncle’s killer, but the movie could just as easily have skipped all that and stepped up the Lizard rampage, with practically the same results.
After the murder, poor Aunt May (Sally Field, looking nothing like the iconic character) practically drops out of the movie. Peter has brief, sullen exchanges with her in passing as he comes and goes, and when she expresses concern about his bruises, late hours and general unavailability, he practically snaps at her. Yes: In her hour of grief, Peter disses his widowed aunt for being concerned about him. And he never shows regret for this — never apologizes or manifests real concern or solicitude for the woman who raised him. That’s. Not. Peter. (It was at that moment that my 14-year-old son David turned to me and whispered what I’d been thinking for some time: “He’s kind of a jerk, isn’t he?”)
Yet for some reason at the end of the film is a strange scene in which May solemnly attests to her nephew that he is “a good person.” I’m not saying it isn’t true. Peter has improved by the end and can fairly be called a hero. Yet May hasn’t been privy to his improvement, nor has she been the beneficiary of it in any real way, which is another way of saying he hasn’t improved enough. (There is a peace offering at the end, but it’s not enough. On a side note, money worries don’t fit into this story; apparently, the Parkers are living comfortably in Queens on Ben’s pension or whatever.)
It doesn’t help that the villain’s character and motivations are muddled to incoherent, with less than successful echoes of the Raimi trilogy’s Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus. Nor does it help that the climax feels like a retread of both X-Men and Batman Begins. Some business about his parents’ mysterious disappearance promises a new angle, but, by the end, the promise is mostly invested in a sequel.
None of this makes The Amazing Spider-Man a bad film. It’s watchable, if half-baked, and sometimes enjoyable. A terrific sequence under the Williamsburg Bridge during Spider-Man’s first encounter with the Lizard is a better character moment than anything in Raimi’s series. There are some nifty reptilian touches around the Lizard, though the regeneration bit is overdone, making him practically unkillable.
If it were the first Spider-Man film ever, I suppose I would take what I can get, like I did with the first Raimi/Maguire film a decade ago. But times have changed. We live in a glut of super-hero movies, and a new interpretation needs to justify its existence. Too much of The Amazing Spider-Man plays like what it is: a project of expedience created by Sony to prevent film rights from lapsing to Disney/Marvel. Spider-Man deserves better. And so do I.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Much intense comic-book violence; a few crude words; some sensuality. Teens and up.