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Film review: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN**
Right at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man there’s a scene where Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is taking some Literature class, and the teacher – having first admonished him for being “tardy” – launches into her spiel. My old professor used to say there are only 10 plots in fiction, she pontificates, but in fact that’s false: there is only one plot in fiction. ‘The one about a boy who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into a superhero!’ cries the audience in unison.
I’m projecting, of course. That essential ur-plot is in fact “Who am I?” (i.e. all fiction is essentially about the quest for Identity) – but it still might’ve made a cool self-justification for a film which, to be honest, needs all the justification it can get. Lest we forget, there were three (3) Spider-Man films made from 2002 to 2007. All three were hugely successful, but the franchise was generally assumed to have run its course. The decent thing to do would’ve been to retire Spider-Man and move on to some other superhero – or, failing that, to re-invent him, placing him in some radically new context (Time-travel?). Instead he’s simply been ‘rebooted’, i.e. the same plot played again from the beginning, which – a mere 10 years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man – smacks suspiciously of cash-grab. I know it’s a hit, and I’ve spoken to comic-book fans who can’t wait to see it – but all that really shows is why comic-book fans are Hollywood’s favourite audience.
The film is shameless; yet it works, for the most part. Andrew Garfield is the new Spidey, and he’s quite different to predecessor Tobey Maguire. Maguire had a stillness, a sense of childlike wonder, but Garfield is all puppyish, restless teenager. His eyes dance around, his body alternates between darting and slumping, he has a tendency to babble. “There’s nothing in this. Have you looked in this, there’s nothing in this,” he jabbers, holding up an old briefcase that belonged to his late father. His scenes with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) take inarticulate hormonal longing to new levels. “We could … I dunno,” burbles Peter, gesturing helplessly, “or – we could – do – I dunno – something else. Or…” “Yeah. Either one,” she replies sweetly.
The Garfield-Stone chemistry is the film’s trump card, and it’s no accident that the studio hired director Marc Webb, best-known for the youthful rom-com (500) Days of Summer. He’s less adept at action – and, though the spectacular climax works well enough, some of the smaller scenes could’ve used a more experienced hand. One example is a scene in the subway, right after Peter’s been bitten, when he tries to deal with his newfound superpowers. His sticky fingers accidentally rip off a woman’s top, then his super-strength sends her irate boyfriend crashing – and meanwhile he’s apologising madly, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s a scene from a great slapstick comedy – but Webb’s coverage is all over the place, it’s over-edited so we can’t really see the choreography, and the edge is lost.
All these super-changes are a metaphor for adolescence, of course, the sudden and alarming mutations of the teenage body (“Who am I?”, like the teacher said in that Literature class). Raimi knew that too – and this film, like Spider-Man, makes its villain another mutant, in this case a one-armed scientist named Connors (Rhys Ifans) who dreams of “a world without weakness” and gets carried away after experimenting on himself and turning into a giant lizard creature. Connors also happens to be Gwen’s employer, just like the police chief (Denis Leary) happens to be Gwen’s dad, an unlikely situation that saves the writers a lot of work. It’s notable how little thought seems to have gone into plotting here (though the writing team includes an Oscar-winner and a Harry Potter scribe). The plot might've been tricky to construct if no-one knew who Spider-Man was – why should the police chief trust him, for instance? – so the film simply has Peter revealing his identity, usually a major no-no for superheroes. The pivotal bit when he figures out that Connors must be the Lizard is also quite perfunctory.
In fact, almost all creative energy seems to have gone into building romantic fizz and a new Spidey persona – snarkier and a bit more worldly, something of a smart-aleck as he baits luckless crooks and banters with pursuers (Cop: “Who are you?”; Peter: “No-one seems to grasp the concept of a mask!”). The Amazing Spider-Man is fun for precisely those reasons, getting a pair of charming and personable young actors to flirt and make jokes. That’s the advantage of pretending there are only a few basic plots in fiction: you can fend off accusations of rip-off, shrug at the plot’s familiarity and finally ignore it altogether. This is an often delightful blockbuster, but it’s also quite jaded and cynical. Or maybe it’s the other way round.
DIRECTED BY Marc Webb
STARRING Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans
US 2012 136 mins