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The New Spider-Man Swings with Ease

The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot in every sense of the word.  The mood and characterization are vastly different from the also excellent Sam Raimi films. Where the original series was fanciful, with an emphasis on comic book styles of antics and high drama, this film feels more grounded.  Directed by Marc Webb (500 Days Of Summer), this summer blockbuster has a more independent tone, despite all the special effects.  This film is rooted in high school angst and is the super hero film that John Hughes could have made in the 1980s.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a typical lonely high school kid, the kind that most classmates ignore or pummel.  His parents died when he was a child, leaving him to be raised by his tender uncle (Martin Sheen) and aunt (Sally Field).  He focuses his energies on decoding his father’s research notes and pining after the school’s popular girl Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).  Peter’s obsession with his dad’s genetic exploration takes him to Oscorp Industries and his dad’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).  While snooping around the labs, Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider, turning him into a mutant-hybrid, both spider and man. These new gifts come in handy when Connors transmutes into a giant lizard bent on world destruction.

Despite utilizing a story that was exhaustively covered in three films last decade, this new film doesn’t feel refried.  Webb fills the screen with wonderment and pathos. As an audience, we feel the exhilaration Peter senses when his new powers emerge and sympathize when he discovers he can’t always protect his family from harm.  Webb films Peter as if he were a drug addict, one unable to manage neither his circumstance nor his dangerous obligations.  When Peter returns home from his “adventures,” he appears to his aunt as twitchy and pale with bruises throughout as if he were strung out.  Webb draws parallels between Peter’s drive for vengeance and Dr Connors’ fixation with removing genetic imperfections.  Like most hero/villain marriages, Peter is the flip side of Connors, containing as many similarities as differences.  The camera draws comparisons to the two with the motif of drug addiction.  However while Peter only appears to others to be abusing drugs, Connors actually is injecting himself with serum that strips his free will and turns him into a megalomaniacal monster. What finally separates them is Peter has the wherewithal to veer his course from retribution to protecting the city from all crime, transforming Peter from a vigilante to a hero. 

Webb captures several clever touches and warm moments.  Peter’s dancing in the hallways after winning a date with Gwen reveals a boyish charm.  In another scene, a glass reflection of the one-armed amputee Dr. Connors shows him a glimpse of a normal body he craves.

What makes the script work so well are the complexly established relationships. The dialogue is honest and heartfelt, adding dimensions to Peter’s love for his uncle, aunt and girlfriend.  Unlike Mary Jane Watson in the first trilogy, who often is relegated to damsel in distress, Gwen Stacy is Peter’s ally and often his sidekick.  She’s his confidant and his extra pair of hands, making their love seem more concrete than just puppy love. Even the school bully Flash (Chris Zylka) reveals a sensitivity not often found in standard two-dimensional tormenters.

When the end credits begin, it’s obvious why the script pops. Besides a story by Zodiac writer James Vanderbilt, the screenplay has been fleshed out by Oscar winning writer Alvin Sargent (also responsible for the splendid Spider-Man 2) and Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves. These are heavy hitters for a summer popcorn release and it is reflected in the quality. 

However, there are a few story lines that go nowhere.  They’re probably being saved for future entries, but the dropped storylines of dying Norman Osborn and creepy henchman Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) will confuse non-comic book enthusiasts.

The cast steps up to the strong material.  Garfield and Stone have perfect chemistry. Though they don’t share the iconic upside-down kiss that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst had, their romance is heartfelt and tragic.  Ifans never sinks into histrionics as the main villain.  There’s a tragic ambivalence as he combats his own primal/lizard instincts.  Sheen lends the fatherly confidence he brought to West Wing for years as Uncle Ben. Field as Aunt May is a loving every-mom, wise and yet stern. 

Reboots have suddenly become all the rage in Hollywood.  Jeremy Renner will soon step into both Matt Damon’s and Tom Cruise’s shoes in re-done Bourne and Mission Impossible franchises.  Luckily, The Amazing Spider-Man has set a standard for success.  Grade: A-

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