Stillanerd’s Retrospective: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) review


A reexamination of Sony’s first attempt in restarting their Spider-Man franchise. Was it really worth the effort, or worth it to leave well enough alone?

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There is one reason and one reason only for why Sony made The Amazing Spider-Man (2002) … greed. When Marvel sold the studio the film rights during their bankruptcy in the 1990s, part of the agreement stipulated if Sony didn’t produce Spider-Man movies by certain dates, those rights would revert back to Marvel.  At first, everything was going well. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was a box office smash (yes, even Spider-Man 3), with Spider-Man 4 already in development.

Unfortunately, the script kept undergoing constant rewrites. Worse, Raimi decided to leave over creative differences in part because he wanted the Vulture, ironically, as the next villain and Sony didn’t. If Raimi wasn’t on board, then neither were Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, or any of the returning cast. However, Sony had a contingency plan: reboot the franchise with a new cast, director, and crew. After all, it worked for Warner Brothers for Batman.

I can still recall the internet flame wars which erupted over this announcement. Even before its release, fans of the Raimi trilogy blasted the movie and everyone involved. Sony’s supporters began condemning the Raimi trilogy despite their enthusiastic support for it five years earlier. Meanwhile, the producers and ad campaign promised this new Spider-Man movie wouldn’t be a rehash. This would be an “untold story,” with a more “grounded” and “realistic” wall-crawler—the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

$230 million dollars in production costs later, Sony’s summer blockbuster of 2012 wound up being an average film. It wasn’t a great film, or a terrible film—just an average one.

I’ll admit, having re-watched the Raimi trilogy before this, it’s hard not to compare The Amazing Spider-Man with those earlier movies. As a fan of the comics, I didn’t care for some of the creative decisions made by director Marc Webb (who I suspect got this gig because of his last name) even while he also brought back elements from the comics like the mechanical web-shooters. Then again, OsCorp makes the web-fluid in this film.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

as Spider-Man, [Andrew Garfield] finally gave us the quick-witted, wise cracking, friendly neighborhood web-head we always wanted.

Take for instance this film’s Peter Parker. If you’re wondering what James Franco’s Peter would’ve been like in Spider-Man 1, watch the first five minutes when Andrew Garfield’s hipster Peter appears on screen. He’s skateboarding the halls against the school rules? What a rebel! He defends a student bullied by Flash Thompson before getting his powers? A hero in the making, I tell you! Oh, he’s sitting in the back of the class looking all contemplative and mysterious! No wonder Gwen starts flirting with him, right ladies?

The opening scenes are stuffed with needless “saving the cat” moments like those, none of which fits with Peter’s personality, his origin as Spider-Man, or even his development as a character. Fortunately, this changes the moment Peter arrives home to his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. By the time Peter starts manifesting powers and becoming his web-spinning alter ego, Garfield completely embraces the role in ways Tobey Maguire never did.

It just so happened Garfield was a life-long Spider-Man fan. You only need to watch his 2011 San Diego Comic Con speech to understand how important playing the web-head meant to him. Such devotion accounts for why, in his performance, we can tell he so fundamentally understands this character. As Peter, he does a masterful job depicting a shy teenager, intelligent beyond his years, who learns to grow in confidence and maturity. As Spider-Man, he finally gave us the quick-witted, wise cracking, friendly neighborhood web-head we always wanted.

No doubt some will point to the parking lot scene (where  Spider-Man ridicules and shames the carjacker) as Garfield’s definitive moment. For me, it’s when Spidey saves the little boy at the Williamsberg Bridge. Removing his mask to show he’s “just a normal guy” already makes this a great scene. When Peter tells the boy to put on the mask, promising “it will make [him] strong,” it becomes one of the most powerfully symbolic moments (to me) in defining Spider-Man.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy surpasses her comic book counterpart and then some…Even better, she takes an active role in the story.

On the other hand, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy surpasses her comic book counterpart—and then some. Unlike Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen from Spider-Man 3, this Gwen really is Peter’s perfect match on every conceivable level. Even better, she takes an active role in the story. Stone and Garfield also became a couple during the filming. The reason why she and her co-star do such a fantastic job portraying two young people falling in love is because they actually were.

In fact, all the performances are solid throughout. Rhys Ifans injects true humanity and pathos as Dr. Curt Connors. Chris Zylka’s Flash Thompson, while still a jerk, is more rounded than Joe Manganiello from Spider-Man 1, with an actual arc to boot. Sally Field does a wonderful job playing a younger, but still matronly, Aunt May. And while Denis Leary as Captain Stacy is essentially the same character Leary always plays, he still does it well.

Of all the supporting players, you will not find a better casting choice than Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. Cliff Robertson may have encapsulated the wise old sage, but Sheen shows why Peter would see his uncle as a great dad. Not to mention, Garfield and Sheen play off one another brilliantly in every scene they’re in. It’s easy to see where this Peter gets his values and sense of humor from, and why he feels devastated when his uncle dies. The movie doesn’t tell us Ben Parker is a good, hard working, responsible man—it shows us.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

… my problems with The Amazing Spider-Man are not with its actors. My problems rest entirely with [the] script, and the direction itself.

No, my problems with The Amazing Spider-Man are not with its actors. My problems rest entirely with James Vanderbelt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves’ script, and the direction itself. Most of the film’s problems originate almost entirely from changes made purely for the sake of making the film look “different” from the Raimi films. Ironic, considering there are moments where the film feels like a remake of the first one.

Case in point: how this movie handles Uncle Ben’s murder. Here, the catalyst isn’t Peter exploiting his new powers for a quick buck. Instead, it’s his helping Dr. Connors with his cross species genetics research. Peter only finds out his uncle’s killer is the same robber he allowed to get away earlier after looking at a police sketch. The only reason he even becomes Spider-Man is so he can hunt down his uncle’s killer, whom he never catches (until the licensed tie-in video game, that is).

Even worse is the pointless “mystery” behind the disappearance of Peter’s parents. Its intention as a recurring subplot for a potential new trilogy is all too obvious. The film’s very prologue suggests Richard Parker created the radioactive spiders that gave Peter his powers. Almost everything Peter does stems from wanting to learn more about his father and why he left. And after going through such pains establishing all this, the film drops it entirely halfway through.

The movie also underwent extensive re-shoots, with entire scenes left on the cutting room floor. Nothing unusual about this, as this is common filmmaking practice. The problem is you can tell where this extensive editing took place. It inexplicably chops up, for instance, the Spider-Man point-of-view sequence whereas that same sequence from the trailer is seamless. It sets up the character of Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan) as the film’s secondary antagonist, only to make him disappear after the Lizard’s first attack.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

… yes, Spider-Man’s costume in this movie still looks horrible.

Yes, Spider-Man’s costume in this movie still looks horrible. I get the attempt was to create an outfit a seventeen year-old could realistically put together from scratch. The grimy textures, dull color palette, and needless tweaks give it an awful appearance on screen. It doesn’t even look good when Spidey moves. Is there any wonder why we never saw it again after this film?

Oh, and if you thought the Raimi films were over-sentimental and histrionic, those were paled by comparison with the sequence involving the crane operators during this film’s climax.

I’m not saying Webb is a terrible director. He creates some inspired, visually hypnotic scenes like when Spider-Man creates his web-net in the sewers. His fight choreography, and his ability to integrate practical effects (when it comes to Spidey’s abilities) is fluid and coherent. He also makes great use of physical comedy, such as when Peter first discovers his powers on the subway, or when he challenges Flash on the basketball court. The crowning moment definitely goes to the library scene, which also has one of Stan Lee’s best and funniest cameos.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

… it strikes me just how conventional and safe [The Amazing Spider-Man] is…Even James Horner’s musical score sounds like he cribbed it from Danny Elfman’s b-side track.

Still, it strikes me just how conventional and safe this movie is. It’s not only another “hero’s journey” involving an orphan of special parentage destined for greatness, it’s another teenage romance between the misunderstood outsider and the sweet but saucy daddy’s little princess. It hits every single beat from every single superhero movie made up to that time, especially in the third act. Even James Horner’s musical score sounds like he cribbed it from Danny Elfman’s b-side track.

What’s truly amazing about The Amazing Spider-Man is how well-received it was by audiences and critics at the time. Five years later, it’s almost forgotten. If remembered at all, it’s never with the same reverence or yearning as the Raimi trilogy. Then again, Marvel’s The Avengers also came out during that same year. It’s easy to overlook a mere reboot in the wake of that cinematic juggernaut.

Next: Stillanerd's Retrospective: Spider-Man 3 (2007) review

Would I ever watch The Amazing Spider-Man again? Maybe if there was nothing else on television. It has its merits and moments, but it doesn’t have a uniqueness to make it truly stand out among other superhero movies. In trying so hard to look “different,” it wound up being the same as all the rest. It’s also easy seeing, in hindsight, why Sony’s doomed itself for failure with this reboot. That, of course, happened much sooner than anyone (even Sony) could have possibly imagined.