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The Reboot Rebuttal: Marc Webb’s pleasantly pointless The Amazing Spider-man (2012) – cinema review

July 11, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in In Cinemas with 1 Comment

A film of lovely textures but a hollow, pointless core.  Incremental advances over Raimi’s vision – especially note-perfect Garfield – can’t possibly justify this reboot.

The Amazing Spiderman 2012 Marc Webb Andrew Garfield

The Amazing Spider-man
(Marc Webb, 2012)

I’m nearly in revolt over having to write this review.  Nearly ten ago, I made a pact with myself that I would review every film I saw, gradually amassing both experience and a portfolio.  The reward would be, occasionally, I’d get to rewatch something I’d seen before and not have to go through the rigmarole of sitting down at a computer afterwards to jot down what I thought of it.  And then along comes The Amazing Spider-man.  I ‘did’ Spider-man in 2003, and yet here I am having to do the bloody thing again.

Well, it’s a different film, isn’t it? Or is it?  I’m still confused. The Amazing Spider-man represents modern movies in all of their weirdness.  At times, the film resembles an expensive, subversive art project of the kind Hollywood hasn’t attempted since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, highlighting what casting brings to a project, wryly satirising the production line nature of a commercial medium.  At other times, it seems crass and cynical, a literal application of the cookie-cutter thinking behind so many execs’ thought processes.  It’s bold and ambitious in many ways, pointless in others.

The film gets so much right. Andrew Garfield is a delight, an actor at once gawky and watchful who looks like a test-tube teenager but has a genuine knack for nuance.  Unafraid to be petulant and brattish, Garfield’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity motors some surprisingly tough and hard-fought character growth.  Garfield’s Peter Parker has to learn responsibility (unlike decent-from-the-start Tobey Maguire, who now looks like a square in comparison), but he never becomes dour.  There’s enough glint in Garfield’s eyes to register the profound discovery that being a child-saving good guy is as much fun as getting revenge on the class bully.

Add Garfield’s charisma to Stone’s irrepressible cheekiness, and here’s a superhero film you want to cuddle. The choice of (500) Days Of Summer director Marc Webb pays off here, in a film that’s genuinely romantic – not in a touchy-feely, chick-lit, Twilight-y way, but in the old-fashioned Byronic sense of being receptive to emotion.  There’s the nagging doubt that the producers probably wanted a touch-feely, chick-lit, Twilight-y take on things, but Webb’s got too much good taste to play to the gallery. When Garfield takes off his mask, he looks noble: a modern-day knight in Spandex armour.

And yet, and yet… the film is too delicate and shoe-gazing to even contemplate narrative revolution. Webb scrawls his poetry in the margins, but the bindings are too tight to replace: the bite; the demise of Uncle Ben (doomed, like the mythical Prometheus, to endless death by plot expediency); the costume; the villainous Doppelganger to fight.  The screenplay makes sensible adjustments to the pacing, with a backstory that gives Peter some emotional investment in his transformation rather than just a random thing that happens to him. Similarly, there’s a decent rationale and symmetry to the villain’s simultaneous origins, giving Garfield’s rivalry with Rhys Ifans (enjoyable) an edge lacking from so many CGI bust-ups.

The problem is the writers like tying everything together so much they use Gwen Stacey as a web-slinger – she’s Curt Connor’s intern! She’s the policeman’s daughter! – until the narrative ties itself in knots.  Just like Avengers Assemble, there’s no sense of a wider world here.  You’re either super or you know someone who’s super, especially when C. Thomas Howell, the one recognisable face amongst the civilians Spidey saves, suddenly re-appears later on to effect the stupidest set-piece in years.  This film really misses the Daily Bugle (and especially J. Jonah Jameson) to act as a handbrake and a bullshit detector on the superhero movie’s propensity for looking inwards.

And looking inwards is the problem here. In the old days, recasting a major part – from James Bond to Doctor Who – was an opportunity to strike out and shake things up. Imagine Garfield in Spider-man 4; he’d be a breath of fresh air, a complement to Maguire rather than a veiled criticism.  In contrast, rebooting is an unpleasant prospect, the same Orwellian rewriting that has blighted Star Wars and turned Blade Runner into a multi-tentacled monster of a movie.   For all its lovely textures and flourishes, it’s hard to warm to a movie that feels like a pod person.

It also has the weird effect of casting doubts on Sam Raimi’s achievements – maybe the 2002 vintage wasn’t that good, after all – without comprehensively bettering it.  Maybe, in another ten years time, a director will devise a screen equivalent of the cross-genetic splicing techniques seen in this film, taking strands of Raimi and slivers of Webb to create the ultimate Spider-man movie. And then I suppose I’ll have to review the fucking thing.

The Amazing Spider-man is in cinemas now. Thanks to Showcase Cinema De Lux for the screening.

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One Comment

  1. Ian RobinsonJul 11, 2012 at 1:31 pmReply

    I’d largely agree with this (although I enjoyed the ‘crane’ set-piece). However much good it does, it’s stuck with the reboot stuff that drags it down. Worst thing is the time it takes to reboot – you shouldn’t spend the first hour wanting a sympathetic, well-played character to die. But Garfield’s good, and at least it has a hummable theme tune.

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