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You know what, Spiderman?

July 5, 2012

I’ve never been much of a Spider Man fan. If you have to associate me with a superhero book, it’s X-Men, a series whose comics I’ve read pretty much front to back. If you force me to pick an individual super hero, it’s probably Iron Man, the overconfident star, over Spider Man, who’s always been saddled with a hokey premise (Comics Spider Man, one of the weakest super heroes, being saddled with “with great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah. Shrug) and who has never really had a personality I cared a whit for.

I remember seeing the first Spiderman film in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a class trip. It’s a reasonable film: fairly tightly plotted, with some exciting scenes but rarely rising above mediocrity. Of course, it was one of the first of the “modern” super hero films, so it gets a bit of a quality free pass.

Since then, however, we’ve had two more Spiderman films, neither particularly noteworthy, and, more importantly, great advances in super heroism: both The Dark Knight and The Avengers pushed the genre to new heights of quality, showing that super hero movies don’t have to be “comic book movies” so much as they can be blockbusters.

In this sense, The Amazing Spider Man succeeds. It’s going to make Sony a boatload of money. But, read beside other super hero movies, it manages to be astoundingly similar to and yet different from the film it’s rebooting, 2002’s Spider Man.

Much like its temporal cousin, this month’s Brave, The Amazing Spider Man is two films. Both halves flatly refute director Marc Webb’s assertion that “we’re not making Sam’s movie again“. In every term, this is The Same Film Again. Spider Man learns the same lessons. A plot is foiled. Every story beat from 2002’s film is here, in full.

That said, it does a number of things very well. The first half of the film, where an extremely awkward Andrew Garfield romances an extremely attractive Emma Stone, works, in part because you can tell the director knows how to make it so. He manages to explore Garfield, and does so equally well when he finally dons the mask. We get a sense of him, and he becomes the most likable Spider Man since he’s motivated. He does things for reasons beyond, “The comics say so.” We follow him through the first half: we’re pulling for him, and we understand him.

So it’s a shame the rest of the plot drives this goodwill off a cliff.

Let’s start with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, who is capably acted but who completely lacks motivation. Okay, she loves Andrew Garfield, and she loves science. That’s roughly the extent of her character’s motivations. Rhys Ifans’ Curt Conners has exactly the same flaw: he’s well acted (no, the acting’s a net positive) but has no motivation. His actions eventually boil down to, “He’s gone insane!”, which is a pretty dreadful motivation. The less we say about the J. Jonah Jameson character (who’s definitely not J3) and his utterly awful motivation, the better.

In the second half of the film, when the action movie comes in, just my god does everything fall apart. You get the impression no one knows how to the big moments in this film. Peter Parker becomes his comics self, the Lizard does things exclusively to set up the plot, science does things to set up the plot, and the film just falls apart. It feels like the Lizard plot wasn’t in the original draft of the film. It drops a delightfully human plot (Peter searching for his uncle’s murderer, which would be a spoiler except Martin Sheen is playing Uncle Ben, who’s died on every incarnation of Spider Man ever, usually with more speed than he does here) in favor of a “This madman is trying to destroy the city!” one. It leaves Peter Parker and becomes a film about Spider Man.

One thing I will say: the fight scenes work. You get the sense they wanted to create very physical spaces for their combats, which we definitely feel. They’re very clear fights, and I appreciate how long the shots are.

But it comes down to the slow descent into super hero tropes, doesn’t it? The Dark Knight and The Avengers showed the best way to do super heroes was to avoid tropes: to discard the comic book logic that’s long been so integral to the medium. Threats can be smaller (The Dark Knight, while about the whole city, really was about a couple dudes) and relationships don’t have to be so linear (The Avengers weaved its characters together like that). Spider Man feels like a film from years ago, more of a traditional superhero flick than a newer one.

One thing I miss, though: I feel like Garfield’s Spider Man would have fit marvelously (hah) in the Avengers’ framework. He’s interesting. He has a defined approach, a defined character: you’re never sure what he’s going to do, and that’s great. I love that. He’s genuinely likable.

It’s just a shame his film’s so wretched.

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