Successfully answering the question "What if Spider-Man was a generic, mid-grade young adult novel?"
I don’t recall if I had any expectations about The Amazing Spider-Man when it was released. I do recall that whatever interest I may have had in the movie disappeared once I read Ty Burr’s negative review of it for the Boston Globe. According to Burr, the film was essentially a lesser rehash of the Sam Raimi-directed/Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man movies with bad dialogue, cruddy special effects, and a wasted cast. He suspect the movie was probably made so Sony could hold on to the film rights for Spider-Man. This is supported by how it’s mercenary nature bled through every aspect of the film. As a consequence of this profoundly negative review, I gave the movie a skip and didn’t really think about it that much since then. But, I recently had an opportunity to see it, thought “Why not?”, and gave it a shot. So what’s my takeaway?
I didn’t hate it as much as Ty Burr did. I also didn’t like it nearly as much as Roger Ebert, who gave it a surprisingly glowing review where he praised the film’s action scenes and rather relaxed pacing. Despite some strong elements and a good cast, I mostly found The Amazing Spider-Man to be...frustrating more than anything else. For starters, the movie is a reboot (at least technically speaking) of a series that was only a little over 10 years old at the time. Much of that first half of the movie spends its time going over material that this movie’s target audience is likely already familiar with, if only in a general sense. I realize that the movie wants to be as accessible as possible and not just assume the audience already knows Spider-Man’s backstory well enough that they can just skip it or gloss over it. That is, in of itself, not a big problem, especially since The Amazing Spider-Man wants to establish a different status quo than the earlier films and, if nothing else, be its own thing separate from the Raimi-directed movies.
However, this desire to make themselves distinct from the Raimi movies often ends up backfiring on them. The movie makes several changes to how Spider-Man’s origin story plays out. Most of them, like how Peter encounters the spider that gives him his power and how he first reacts to having powers, are fairly minor, mostly differing in terms of specific details. The changes they make aren’t bad, per say, but hey do feel a little arbitrary and unnecessary. Again, it seems like an attempt to make the film not feel like a complete retread of first Raimi movie, which is fine. But this is undercut by how some of them pay off. For example, The way that Peter reacts to getting his powers is played for both for horror and for comedy, but doesn’t succeed at selling either feeling very well. When his new powers cause him to stick to bathroom sink and accidentally tip it off the wall, it works okay, but comes off as more goofy rather than actually funny. Similarly, when the film shows how painful and weird the changes that Peter goes through when he first gets his powers are, it ends up being too brief to have any real impact for the audience. They just end up feeling like difference made for the sake of being different, without any significant weight behind them.
And then there are the changes that really don’t work. Such as how Uncle Ben dies and how that affects Peter’s motivation and his decision to become a superhero. While I’m not a huge Spider-Man fan personally, I do like him enough that I have opinions about how what makes him an interesting character and how he should work within a piece of fiction. And, as far as I’m concerned, Spider-Man has some pretty good motivation and backstory: being a selfish jerk who only cares about himself got one of the most important people in his life killed and trying to make up for that by being a superhero is what drives him. Now, broadly, that is what happens here, but there’s one big difference that significantly changes the character of Spider-Man and how the audience view him.
In this film adaptation, Uncle Ben getting killed has nothing whatsoever to do with Peter being Spider-Man. Which, as far as I’m concerned, completely misses the entire point of what makes Spider-Man Spider-Man.
In the original comic, and the Raimi movies for that matter, Peter has already become Spider-Man when he first encounters Ben’s killer and infamously refuses to stop him for incredibly petty reasons. I like this! It helps emphasize how Peter isn’t using his power in any particularly special way outside of getting famous and making money. It’s a blatantly selfish use of his gifts and when it ends up biting him in the ass and indirectly causing the death of one of the most important people in his life, it gives his change of heart and behavior far more weight. In this telling, Peter fails to stop the thief for equally petty reasons, but it has nothing to do with his powers, being Spider-Man, or anything even vaguely related to that aspect of his life. Furthermore, he only becomes Spider-Man and goes after the thief in order to get revenge. I think that being motivated by guilt and wanting to use his powers for more productive reasons than “make money” is one of the thing that make Spider-Man an interesting character. Removing that aspect of the story and failing to replace with anything even slightly as compelling is a big failing on the movie’s part. It just ends up emphasizing that this film seems to have been made largely so Sony could keep their film rights and not because anyone involved particularly cared about Spider-Man and what kind of stories you can tell with his character.1 In addition to all this, it also serves to make Spider-Man a less distinctive character in another way. Tell me: does a hero who becomes a costumed vigilante driven by vengeance because he witnesses a loved one get murder in front of him sound familiar? It should. It’s the origin story of Batman, one of the most enduring and popular superheroes of the 20th and 21st centuries and main character of what was, for a while, the highest grossing superhero movie ever made. Look, there are a lot of ways that you can change Spider-Man origin story to make him an equally, if not more, compelling character than he already is. Turning him into Batman isn’t one of them.
This leads to another of the film’s issues, which is that the movie clearly takes a lot of cues from various of movie adaptations of popular young adult novels. In particular, this means a more melodramatic tone, a greater focus on the more “teenage” aspects of Peter’s character (i.e. whenever he fights with his aunt and uncle, his angst over his missing parents, etc.), and a romance plotline that seems to be given more prominence that it probably needs given that this is (at least in general) an action movie. Now, none of this is a problem by itself, as this is a movie about a teenage superhero and all of those elements can work in a setting like that without any problem. It might even help the movie, as YA tropes and the concepts could be used to highlight and strengthen the aspects of Spider-Man and his world that would already pretty YA-compatible in the first place (again, teenage superhero). Unfortunately, the YA-derived aspects of the film aren’t particularly well done. Instead of helping the movie, it just makes it feel like the creators took a generic young adult-oriented superhero story, changed all the names to their appropriate Spider-Man equivalents, and didn’t even try to rewrite anything so it felt more distinctly like a Spider-Man movie. As a consequence, the movie often feels very generic. Not necessarily bad, but also lacking a real identify, which ends up significantly hindering the movie. It almost suggests that the studio came to the rather condescending conclusion that the primary audience of teenagers and young adults would watch any superhero movie they put out so long as it resembled other popular movies that appealed to that age bracket.
Aside from these story issues, there are some weird structural problems that movie has. For one, the whole movies feels needlessly drawn out. It spends a lot of time going over Peter’s motivation and backstory. Apart from one brief action scene that mostly played for comedy, almost an hour passes before he gets to put on the Spider-Man suit and do anything remotely resembling, you know, actual Spider-Man behaviour. Swinging around, making dumb jokes, hassling criminals, etc. Now, this would not be a problem in of itself...if the movie were about three or four hours long or if this was the pilot to a longer TV series. As it stands, the movie is only a little over two hours with credits and spending half the movie going over character beats that the audience is likely to be already familiar with doesn’t do it any favors. Worse yet, all this early character-building and plot set up is just...okay to watch. It feels very workmanlike, competently made without having an particularly spark or punch to it. It’s not painful to sit through, but it does feel like time that could have been spent on almost anything else instead.
Another issue is that, ironically, the second half of the movie feels very rushed.2 Once Peter becomes Spider-Man, it speeds through a how bunch of plot and character development. This includes setting up and developing the main villain, exploring Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy and her dad, Captain Stacy, dropping hints about villains and plot lines that are going to pay-off in future sequels, examining the effect of being Spider-Man on Peter’s relationship with Aunt May, how the public reacts to Spider-Man, and it just never ends. It’s like the movie suddenly realized it had spent too much time on the pre-Spider-Man story and had to go through everything else as quick as it could so the movie could still clock in at about two hours. This is compounded by the apparent shift in the genre at the center of the movie, which makes the film feel unbalanced. As it stands, the movie watches like half of a teen drama movie and half of an action movie that were badly edited together rather than a successful blending of the two styles.
Additionally, none of this meshes well with the movie’s attempt to be a kind of “Spider-Man’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1,” what with introducing a love interest that knows Peter is Spider-Man and Captain Stacy dying, as well as doing a surprising amount of set-up for both future sequels and the now cancelled Secret Six movie that Sony was clearly hoping this series would lead to. As you might guess, most of this doesn’t work very well due to the aforementioned pacing issues. The whole things comes off as being just crammed full of various badly-executed highlights from Spider-Man’s long history as a comic book character. Case in point: having Captain Stacy die is indeed a dramatic climax to the movie, and is a famous enough bit from the comics that you can buy multiple collections that contain that storyline, but it probably would have worked better if we hadn’t first met him only an hour or so before he kicks it. Why not save his death for a sequel or at least introduce the character earlier in the film so his death has actual impact? Similarly, while Curt Connors/The Lizard’s motivation is explored during the movie, it feels rather haphazard and thrown together in a way that makes a lot of what drives the character seem underdeveloped and not terribly compelling as a result.3
However, I don’t want to give the impression that this movie is all garbage; if it were that bad, I wouldn’t have bothered writing such a lengthy review. There are good things about the film which prevent it from being a complete slog, although they do make it a little frustrating instead. Most of the cast seem to being doing the best they can with the roles they have. In particularly, Andrew Garfield does an excellent job as Peter and Spidey. He really captures the kind of smart-alack energy that helps makes Spider-Man superheroics so fun to watch and read. Another highlight is Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who make the couple seem real and believable and give the early scenes of the movie some nice, if perhaps overly drawn-out, dramatic heft.4 There’s also quite a bit of talent behind the camera as well. In addition to well regarded director Marc Webb, the movie was co-written by Zodiac writer James Vanderbilt, two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, best known for writing the screenplays of the Harry Potter movies. (Though one does wonder if some of the movie’s flaws may be a product of a “too many cooks in the kitchen” kind of problem.) Beyond that, most of the film’s action scenes are very well done and a lot of fun to watch. Unlike so much of the film, which are often content to present this Spider-Man story in the most bland and generic terms possible, the fight scenes seems to have been made by people who wanted to focus what makes Spider-Man unique and choreograph fights that you could only see in a Spider-Man movie. They never feel strongly derivative of any of the recent Marvel Studio movies that the film so desperately wants to be and actually succeed at being their own thing. If you are a fan of solid action film making, you may want to seek the movie out just for those sections, which were by far my favorite parts of the entire movie.
Sadly, those highlights aren’t enough to save the film. I can’t really recommend The Amazing Spider-Man. In the end, the few things that it does well can’t make up for the many flaws the movie has. You might seek it out if the actions scenes sound like your thing or if you’re just interested in seeing adaptations of well-known stories play out, but there isn’t a lot else to commend. The movie doesn’t even have the benefit of being part of a popular franchise anymore, as Sony is rebooting Spider-Man yet again following the relative box-office failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the agreement they reached with Marvel Studios to have Spider-Man start appear in Marvel Cinematic Universe films. The Amazing Spider-Man simply remains a strange, vestigial stump from a franchise that tried to build itself up far too quickly and ended up destroying its own future before it really got off the ground.
1 Ironically, Sony seems to have had the same motivation for making this movie that Peter had to become Spider-Man in the comics: to make money with little regard to the consequences.
2 Curiously, this is a problem this movie shares with Fox’s 2015 Fantastic Four movie, an equally disappointing Marvel adaptation that has many of the exact same issues despite not having any overlapping creative people.
3 Also: not a big fan of the Lizard’s design here. Aside from looking a little too much like either Voldemort's green cousin or one of the Koopa’s from the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie, I miss the reptilian snout that he usually has in the comics and cartoons. It was a nice design choice there and its presence here may have helped the movie, if only in a very minor way.
4 That said, their presence does feel like some kind of weird stunt casting, given the ratio between their own star power and how much they appear in the film. Plus, Sally Field is basically wasted on what ends up being a pretty minor role in the overall movie.