Friday, July 6, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: Keeps on swinging

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.6.12

I dunno about the rest of you, but if a geeky, under-nourished kid in my high school class suddenly made an impossible, ceiling-scratching leap to slam-dunk a basketball with enough force to shatter the backboard — in front of dozens of witnesses, no less — and then, a few days later, media outlets began to report a mysterious, unusually strong and limber “vigilante” prowling the streets of my fair city ... I do believe it’d be fairly easy to connect the dots.

As his new powers begin to kick in, Peter Parker (right, swinging on the
pole) finds that he cannot fully control his movements; hyper-strength
turns intended gentle gestures into savage punches and kicks that
destroy furniture and put holes into walls. This proves helpful, however,
when Peter is set upon by a group of thugs in a subway.
I mean, really; Lois Lane might be excused for her repeated failure to see Superman behind Clark Kent’s glasses, but a gymnasium filled with teenagers will get mighty suspicious when rail-thin Peter Parker pulls off a stunt like that.

As it happens, Peter is cavalier about his newly acquired talents in all sorts of ways, but that’s kinda cool; as this re-booted Amazing Spider-Man repeatedly demonstrates, the whole concept of a “secret identity” isn’t something that would come naturally. This film’s writers — James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves — take a looser, messier approach to the Spider-Man mythos, which better reflects the way an angst-ridden teen might adapt to such a situation.

Or so it seems, anyway.

Andrew Garfield — well remembered from Never Let Me Go and The Social Network — is by far this new film’s strongest asset. His Peter Parker is gangly, clumsy, socially inept and wholly overwhelmed by events completely beyond his comprehension. In short, he’s the perfect dweeb, and therefore an ideal underdog: a kid we hope can get the girl and defeat the villain ... not necessarily in that order.

Garfield stammers, stutters, blushes and evades his way through most conversations and interactions, both as we first meet his hapless, hopeless “normal” self, and later, after being bitten by the radioactive spider that unleashes all sorts of havoc within the poor lad’s body. The immediate result may be increased strength and agility — not to mention “sticky” fingers and toes, the better to scuttle up vertical surfaces — but such newly acquired talents certainly don’t come with an instruction manual.

Watching Garfield’s Peter attempt to adapt to these changes — whether trying to dodge irritated thugs on a subway, or reacting with surprise as his adhesive fingertips yank the keys from his laptop keyboard, making typing all but impossible — is a helluva lot more fun than my embarrassed memory of Taylor Kitsch’s idiotic John Carter trying to make sense of Mars’ lesser gravity, by bouncing like a demented rubber ball.

Although what I’m inclined to call Spider-Man 2.0 more or less follows the core elements of the mythos established by Marvel Comics, this film’s scripters take a few liberties. Thus, the early loss of Peter’s parents is tied somehow to a mysterious research institute called OsCorp, where Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), investigating cross-species DNA as a possible means of regenerating his right arm, once worked alongside Peter’s father.

But that was years ago; since then, Peter has been raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Peter’s high school life is a daily exercise in frustration, whether worshiping the gorgeous Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) from afar, or enduring the brutal bullying of Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka).

The chance discovery of his father’s research notes propels Peter to OsCorp and a meeting with Dr. Connors; by coincidence, Gwen also works there as a senior intern. Although it’s clear that Connors is in league with some Very Bad Folks, at heart he seems a decent man who genuinely appreciates Peter’s scientific expertise.

Cue Peter’s encounter with the fateful radioactive spider, and the subsequent tragedy that propels his frenzied transformation into nighttime vigilante; cue, as well, the “mysterious imperative” that prompts Dr. Connors to imprudently test a new serum on himself. The latter results are disastrous; as all longtime Marvel Comics readers know, Dr. Connors successfully regains his arm ... while changing into the scaly, ferocious and totally insane Lizard.

Unlike all other Marvel superheroes thus far brought to the big screen, who operate legitimately within view of the law, Peter’s impetuous and often ill-advised activities as Spider-Man immediately brand him an outlaw. This brings him to the attention of police Capt. Stacy (Denis Leary), who — wouldn’t you know it — just happens to be Gwen’s father.

The stage thus is set for plenty of conflict, both personal and with the increasingly out-of-control monster that Dr. Connors has become. (Indeed, a little too out of control. The Jekyll/Hyde aspect of Connors’ back-and-forth transformation into a scaly rage monster smacks overmuch of the Incredible Hulk, a parallel this film’s scripters hammer far more than the comic books ever did.)

I grew up on Spider-Man comics, and I must admit that Stone is the perfect personification of Gwen Stacy: just the right blend of intelligence, sensitivity and, yes, adorable good looks. As also is true of Garfield, Stone still looks young enough to fit the high school environment with reasonable credibility, and Gwen’s blossoming attraction to Peter feels just right.

Gwen is given a lot to absorb, as this story progresses, and Stone handles the girl’s reactions quite well. One well-timed comment — “Oh ... I’m in trouble!” — is delivered perfectly.

Sheen and Field also are excellent, as Uncle Ben and Aunt May; they share a loving, mildly prickly dynamic that bespeaks a strong, decades-old bond. Sheen, in particular, gives just the right reading to the advice Ben dispenses to Peter, as the poor lad becomes progressively overwhelmed by events.

Leary, as well, makes a great Capt. Stacy: appropriately wary of this rather weird young man suddenly courting his daughter, and wholly believable as a law-and-order advocate who loathes the “interference” of somebody like Spider-Man. And the script grants Leary just enough snarky dialogue to satisfy fans of that long-established aspect of the actor’s persona.

The sad-eyed Ifans deftly handles his character’s violent mood swings: initially sympathetic as a scientist caught between a moral rock and hard place, and then quite scary as a megalomaniac with a vision of how to “purify” humanity.

Indeed, all the characters — and their various interactions — are skillfully handled by director Marc Webb; I’d expect no less from the guy who helmed (500) Days of Summer.

As the narrative progresses, the film gets many things right. Unlike the smooth, math-paper-perfect arcs that characterized the web-slinging in the original three-film series, Peter’s efforts here are sloppy and chaotic, with numerous missed leaps and swings, and lots of slamming into the sides of buildings and other projections. Honestly, that feels more real.

I like the way Flash Thompson’s character is handled, as the story progresses, and this film also boasts the funniest — and most clever — cameo ever granted Marvel Comics stalwart Stan Lee.

And you’ve gotta love the crowd-pleasing sequence during the climax, as a blue-collar construction worker (C. Thomas Howell) finds a way to thank Spider-Man for an earlier act of valor: a heart-warming act perfectly set up by Webb, and which prompted spontaneous applause during Monday evening’s preview screening.

On the other hand, a few plot points and story decisions are puzzling, even disappointing. Crusading newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Daily Bugle who loathes Spider-Man, is nowhere to be found; indeed, we get only brief lip-service to the existence of the Bugle. Peter’s hobby as a photographer also is handled clumsily here: somewhat significant in the first act, wholly forgotten as the film continues.

(By extension, as well, that means Peter never works as a freelance photographer for Jameson and the Bugle, a sorely missed sidebar detail.)

James Horner delivers a rousing, emotion-stirring score, and John Schwartzman’s cinematography is crisp and clean: particularly important, since much of this film takes place at night, and amid dark shadows. Even so, we’re always able to follow the action.

I’m not persuaded, however, that this film benefits sufficiently from its 3-D elements. A final web-swinging sequence, immediately prior to the end credits, unfurls like an exhilarating roller coaster ride ... but that’s about it. Even though Spider-Man 2.0 was designed for 3-D, and made that way, Webb doesn’t do much with the added dimensionality.

All in all, though, this is a well-crafted summer popcorn flick that is further strengthened by adept casting and solid performances. I still don’t understand why Sony felt it necessary to re-boot the character after a three-film series that concluded only five years ago (!), but this new effort certainly won’t tarnish the franchise. Far from it: I’m ready to enjoy Garfield’s second go at the Peter Parker ... which I’m sure is in the works.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy Bang's reviews-Chico CA