The Amazing Spider-Man is like familiar sex with someone you used to date. The best part about it is its chance of surprising you; the worst part is its predictability. By pretending the Sam Raimi films never happened, director Marc Webb and his screenwriters waste precious screen time with exposition that feels like half-hearted foreplay. Once the action gets into gear and Spidey flings himself around Manhattan, Webb proves he knows how to craft an action sequence while preserving physical heft. There are some new moves, but not enough to stave off a feeling of disappointment.
The parents of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) are one major difference between Webb’s take and 2002’s Spider-Man. Here he knows who they are, and his father’s mysterious experiment is the catalyst for the inevitable spider bite. Before that, Webb shows scenes where Parker is a high school dweeb who fumbles his attempts to flirt with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) are his caretakers, at least until a mugger takes Ben’s life and motivates Parker to put on the mask. Webb tries to push through his hour by adding a dash of pathos and physical comedy — Parker cannot help but break things with his newfound strength — yet he wastes his energy when we already know precisely what’s coming. At least Batman Begins had the good sense to vary its opening act.
Still, Webb knows how to use Spider-Man’s limitations to wring out suspense. When a car with a child still inside nearly falls off a bridge, there is more physical reality than we’re used to, and the mask itself becomes an intriguing symbol. Spider-Man contends with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), the former colleague of his father who becomes a giant lizard, and their fights have danger due to the lizard’s monstrous size. They do battle in Peter’s high school, and the science classroom is ironically more interesting than a high-tech lab. The Amazing Spider-Man climaxes in the way it must, with a dangerous battle atop a skyscraper, and action fosters enough good-will to make us curious.
As Spider-Man, Garfield is more tough and graceful than Tobey Maguire. Garfield also has more fun with the role, unafraid to add moments of sarcasm and genuine vulnerability. The scenes as Parker, unfortunately, are not as well-crafted. Webb directs Garfield so he’s an inarticulate pissant, one who’s trying to catch his words as if they’re escaping from his head. It’s like a bad Jeremy Davies impression, except with less self-awareness. The other actors fare better — few young actresses are more watchable than Emma Stone, and Denis Leary dials down his persona to play her police detective father — although their archetypal characters never have room to become unique. And Webb wasted an opportunity with Ifans, a reliably kooky actor who deserves the chance to show off his capacity for comic menace.
The Marvel movies now have a predictable, tedious formula. Writers spend half their time laying the groundwork for a sequel, and it’s to the point where what we’re watching here and now is like an afterthought. Had Webb spent less time on the origin story, referring to it with only flashbacks, there would be more time for this film to distinguish itself from its predecessors. Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man goes through the motions as if we haven’t already been saturated with superior comic book entertainment. In fleeting scenes, Webb shows he may have the chops to make us forget about Spider-man 3. He definitely has the right level of confidence — I don’t think Sam Raimi would have the balls to end a movie with a hearty splash of 3D web bukake.