The reason why great comic book superhero movies stand out from the bad ones is simple: if they get the man behind the mask right, the rest of the film will work. We’re still talking about how great Christopher Reeve was as Superman because, sure, he played The Man of Steel well, but he made Clark Kent an endearing figure and gave a rich dual performance. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale are justly singled out for their complex depictions of Bruce Wayne and, really, the best scenes in Iron Man are with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, not his CGI stand-in.
Whether it’s an origin story or a stand-alone tale, these films tend to grab us with their effects and wishful thinking fantasies (who wouldn’t want to Hulk out?) but if there’s no human center, it doesn’t resonate. The biggest thing The Amazing Spider-Man gets right is putting a wonderful new actor into the role of Peter Parker and making the man behind the mask matter to us even more than his tussle with a CGI monster.
Andrew Garfield plays Parker as a viciously bullied high school student whose acquaintance with his high school crush Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, touching and adorable) leads him to accidental contact with a radioactive spider. Once the metamorphosis begins, so does a testy relationship with a scientist, played by Rhys Ifans, whose own transformation presents a threat to Parker and the entire world.
Coming just a decade after Sam Raimi’s initial blockbuster, I was hesitant to embrace a reboot of something that worked fine the first time. However, the comparisons are in the new Spidey’s favor. I liked Tobey Maguire’s winning, understated Parker, but he seems catatonic compared to the tour de force Garfield gives here. Playing Parker like a high school Hamlet, Garfield is flush with angst, inner torment and believable teenage sulk. While initially jarring to see the character played as such a strange, moody teen, Garfield’s performance is always believable and rich with depth.
He and Stone have a potent chemistry and the love triangle of the past three films is thankfully gone. While a long film, in which Parker doesn’t don the mask until well into the running time, the narrative isn’t rushed and gives the human story as much room to breathe as the fanciful turns of the second and third act.
Ifans is mostly upstaged by his CGI likeness, which eventually takes over his performance but terrific supporting work by Martin Sheen (as Parker’s compassionate uncle) and Denis Leary (as Stacey’s no-nonsense father) add flavor to the more low key scenes. The initial scenes of Parker discovering his new powers are slapstick heavy and the film’s biggest misstep, while Garfield’s mannered performance will likely cause the most fanboy debate.
Director Marc Webb stages some exciting set pieces, with the standout arguably an astonishing sequence involving Parker creating a vast gossamer in a sewer system. There’s also a brief but brilliant scene in a high school music room that cleverly utilizes Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. The action is breathtaking but the attention to character and the core love story is what makes it soar. The closing scenes between Parker and Stacey left me choked up and surprisingly moved.
Back in the 1990s, James Cameron had planned to make the first Spider-Man film but went with True Lies instead. With its unique James Horner score, huge action set pieces, touching love story, and ambitious scope, this feels like the Cameron comic book epic we almost got to see.
The Amazing Spider-Man
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated PG13 / 136 Min.