‘The Amazing Spider-Man’: Back to the web

July 5, 2012

Spider-Man was an angsty teen that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in “Amazing Fantasy” comics in August 1962 – a character that’s apparently a perfect fit for Andrew Garfield in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

Garfield sweeps aside memories of Tobey Maguire as the web-spinner. He captures the personality split – incipient do-gooder trapped in the body of a nerd – playing Peter Parker in Marc Webb’s reboot of the comic-book franchise.

After three films about Spider-Man guided by Sam Raimi, Webb takes over and takes off. The director of “(500) Days of Summer” uses all the visual and digital tools at his disposal, just as Raimi did – except the tools are slicker, glossier, more digitally seamless than those long ago days of 2002.

Webb and his writers, James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac”), Alvin Sargent (whose credits go back to “Julia,” “Paper Moon” and further) and Steve Kloves (all the “Harry Potter” movies), capture that strange blend of the cartoony and the operatic that was always endemic to the original material. Taking the story back to zero, they imagine a new origin tale, one that occupies much of the film’s time. As a result, some may find the level of exposition during the first hour too high for their taste.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” were the words of wisdom from Uncle Ben, played by the late Cliff Robertson in the first version. This stand-in father is played by Martin Sheen, with an antic streak, in the new version. But his message is much the same.

This time around, Peter is the son of a genetic scientist, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), who vanished mysteriously when Peter was 4, then died in a plane crash shortly afterward. Peter was left with Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his parents, on a night when someone broke into the Parkers’ house in search of Richard’s research.

Now a gangly, tongue-tied high schooler, Peter is the type whose spirit forces him to stand up to the school bully but whose skills result in him getting smacked down for his trouble, because he’s kind of a dweeb. While helping his uncle clean out a flooding basement, he uncovers his father’s briefcase, which features some hidden formulas and a picture of his father’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).

Intrigued because he’s never heard of Connors, Peter goes to visit the scientist, disguised as an intern. Connors, who has lost an arm, is studying trans-species genetic manipulation; he hopes to graft the DNA of a lizard, which can regenerate a missing limb, into a mammal – such as himself. But he’s been missing a piece of the puzzle, until Peter turns up with Richard’s research.

Oh yeah – and Peter is bit by a radioactive spider while snooping around Oscorp, where Connors works, and develops a spider’s powers. A bit of a mechanical whiz, Peter invents little wrist devices, which he loads with spider-strength instant filament, sort of super-human wire that can support a car dangling off a New York bridge.

As you can see, there’s a lot of exposition to get out of the way – including Connors’ eventual desperate decision to conduct a human trial on himself, injecting his lizard serum directly into the stump of his right arm. The arm grows back – right before the serum transforms Connors into a green, scaly mini-dinosaur who becomes known as simply the Lizard.

Get it? They’ve both been transformed by science – one to serve the forces of good, one to do evil. But the best comic-book movies always come down to that most basic of choices.

The eventual battle scenes between the Lizard and Spider-Man, which have them fighting all over Manhattan, are beautifully crafted, the model of linear action that is as exciting to watch as it is easy to follow. Instead of slicing and dicing, Webb and cinematographer John Schwartzman, along with an army of effects artists, make the action swoop around New York, whether it’s Spider-Man skittering up the side of a skyscraper or swinging from building to building like Tarzan spouting his own vines.

Most of the most impressive action scenes are obviously shot against digital backgrounds – and many are populated with figures who are digital versions of the characters. Yet the integration of live-action and CG shows no flaws.

Andrew Garfield plays Peter as an inarticulate kid, unable to spit out his feelings to would-be girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Put on the Spider-Man mask and add the super-powers and he’s a fountain of wise-cracks, goofing on his opponents even as he’s battling with them in a way that seems natural to the Parker character, rather than a writer’s final polish to add punchlines.

Stone brings an innate warmth to Gwen, the popular girl who spots a diamond in the rough in Peter. Denis Leary, as her police-chief dad, gets to bluster and finds the aggressive comic edge to a straight-ahead character. Ifans plays Connors as a slightly effete genius who spots a kindred spirit in Parker.

The choice to focus on emotion rather than surfaces animates this film in a way that seems real, rather than spoofy. Garfield’s Peter is a sensitive kid forced to become a hero; Field’s Aunt May is anxiety ridden, not daffily unattuned to the fact that her nephew comes home late every night covered with bruises.

Is the Spider-Man story – the transformation of one man, given the power to battle evil – the kind of urban myth that bears retelling, even through remaking essentially the same material 10 years apart? We’ll see. As it is, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is solid and entertaining, taking a familiar story and polishing it up for a new audience.

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