Because it's being released in such close proximity to THE AVENGERS, the temptation I'm sure many critics and civilians will face is comparing that film with director Marc Webb's THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. And what I'm hoping you all do is be sophisticated enough to realize that both are very strong movies for almost entirely different reasons. Of course, the other temptation will be to compare Webb's relationship-heavy take on the life of young Peter Parker with Sam Raimi's trilogy. This is unavoidable but would still be doing the new film a great disservice.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN does something almost unheard of in the superhero arena: it treats its relationships with reverence. And in that sense, this film is like no other superhero movie I've ever seen. These characters care about each other, and as a result, we care about them. I always got the sense the Mary Jane Watson loved Peter Parker but was turned on by the suit; but in Webb's version of things, Gwen Stacy (beautifully played as the most mature, emotionally stable character in the film by Emma Stone) is madly in love with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, who captures the shy, awkward, intelligent, jokester so much more convincingly than Tobey Maguire ever did--and I say that having always been a fan of Maguire's work).
Chemistry is a tough thing to define or explain, but you know it when you see it, and from the first moment they converse, we see a connection between Peter and Gwen that is lifted straight from the original comic books. Hell, I don't think a man alive could resist Gwen as played by Stone, complete with the go-go boots, miniskirts and assortment of headbands framing her blonde bangs. But her appeal goes light years beyond her looks. She's caring and protective of her man, but she could also give his intellect a run for its money. She's Parker's complete package, and these two must be together.
But THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN's accomplishments don't end with the love story, which was a natural fit for Webb, director of the wonderful (500) DAYS OF SUMMER. This film is actually three movies: a love story; a family drama involving Peter's sense of parental abandonment; and an examination of the mentor/adversary relationship between Peter and Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who has been written as both an employee of OsCorp (run by the unseen Norman Osborn) and former colleague of Peter's father, Richard (seen in flashbacks and played by Campbell Scott). And all three storylines are fascinating for their own reasons.
The way Raimi treated the relationship between Peter and his Aunt May and Uncle Ben always seemed like a pesky afterthought, something he needed to plod through to get to the action set pieces. But Webb the elder Parkers, as played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen. This place where they live with their nephew is a warm, loving home where Peter must work through everything from being the victim of bullying on a semi-regular basis at school, to first love, to having the crap kicked out of him by various villains.
In the comics, Peter's conversion into Spider-Man was always a metaphor for the angst teens about entering adulthood, both physically and mentally, but never have I seen such a clear representation of that than THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and that's due in large part to Garfield's wonderful acting. Peter is a bundle of jittery nerves, but he's also a skillful skateboarder (even before his spider bite). There's a timid side to him that is balanced by an underlying knowledge that he lives in a time when nerds are inheriting the earth and becoming billionaires.
It's so much fun watching him trial-and error design his webshooters or the excitement he feels as he presents Connors with the missing formula for cross-species regeneration. And when he becomes Spider-Man, as much as he should probably keep that a secret, as an excitable teenager, he can't help but tell Gwen because he loves her. Thoughts of the danger that knowledge puts her in haven't entered his immature mind just yet, but they will.
I realize I'm making THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sound like strictly a character study, but make no mistake, the action sequence are fan-fucking-tastic. There's a playful sloppiness to some of the early scenes where Peter is still figuring out both his powers as well as the webs and web shooters he's built himself. Sometimes his webs don't land where he wants them because he hasn't figured out how to aim them just yet. Another sequence has Spider-Man swinging too low over a New York City street, and as a result, he bounces off buses, cars and buildings. He still has to learn a little more about physics as it applies to him swinging on a web. And of course, this all makes sense. How would he know how to do work with these newfound skills without practice?
Webb features a couple of exquisite POV shots of Spider-Man floating through the city, and it's in sequences like that where the 3-D truly comes to life. There is much of this film that does not benefit from 3-D in the slightest, but the aerial shots are perfection as are the fight scenes with The Lizard, the monster Connors becomes when he decides to make himself the lab rat for his own limb-regeneration experiments. Like many Spider-Man "villains," Connors has some firmly established psychological issues before science turns him into a monster. His ideas about weakness and strength in people is a bit twisted, and Ifans does a convincing job of wanting to help Peter finish the work his father started and encouraging the young man in his chosen field of science. Connors is the secondary father figure as well as being a career counselor.
So what about The Lizard, never one of my favorite foes in the comic books? What I do like about the battles between Spider-Man and The Lizard in this movie is how Spider-Man is forced to hold back and not hurt his friend under the scaly skin, which is not to say their scraps aren't brutal. The way The Lizard moves with such speed and fluidity, incorporating his tail, hell bent on full-on destruction, and it's a blast to watch. I was especially impressed with the slow transformation Connors makes into this creature; it's not an immediate change, and as a result we see Ifans in half-lizard makeup that is almost more monstrous than the final version.
I'll admit, once I realized that THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN would feature another version of the Spider-man original story, it took the wind out of my sails a bit. But there are small, important changes in both the radioactive spider bite scenario and the death of Uncle Ben that make Webb's telling important because those moments fall more in line with the greater story of Peter Parker's life. They don't just happen randomly; they happen because Peter's recklessness and immaturity lead to them. And yes, I know the death of Uncle Ben has always been partly Peter's fault, but the version of that pivotal moment here is so much more tragic.
I really hope Webb finishes out his vision of Spider-Man in sequels. I'd hate to see anyone else continue the Gwen Stacy saga, especially if it plays out as it does in the comic books. He has such a sure and steady hand when it comes to human drama that it would be a shame to let anyone else touch this world that he has meticulously built. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN isn't paced, written or executed like any superhero film that came before it, but in terms of building out these richly realized characters and relationships, I can't think of another director who has handled that aspect better. The action is great too, but we all know what great action and effects look like in these types of films. This movie is an entirely different, more involving experience that I fell in love with.