Marc Webb’s (500 Days of Summer) take on spider-man is tighter, less hokey than Sam Raimi’s, and feels more like it’s own movie rather than a comic book adaptation. It has plenty of references to the source material, but does it in a far more organic fashion that doesn’t rely on comic book logic. Those of us who know the story will be presently surprised when it comes to how the film handles the finer details, including where his web shooters come from and how he tests out his powers, as well as an interesting variation on the much repeated mantra about power and responsibility.
The story is much more focused on Peter’s sense of identity, which comes from the loss of his parents at an early age, and the discovery of an old acquaintance Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who worked with his father. After a visit to his lab, he’s bitten by a spider being used to test the application of cross-species genetics, and ends up able to stick to walls and finally stand up to the various bullies at his high school.
At first he’s merely content to use his newfound powers to perform better tricks on the half-pipe, but when a moment of selfishness results in the death of his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) he becomes a vigilante searching for the man who’s responsible. He attracts the attention of a classmate Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) whose father George Stacey (Dennis Leary) is the chief of police and is also hunting Spider-Man, making for some awkward dinner conversation when Gwen invites Peter over for dinner. But the hunt for Spider-Man is put on hold after a dangerous creature appears in the city and threatens to unleash a biochemical weapon, and necessitates that Peter must spring into action and become the hero that until now he has only been playing at.
This new Spider-Man is more fun and snarky, and treats the apprehension of criminals as more of a game than a job. He quips his way through fights, tying up enemies with webbing and performing aerial acrobatics that may even rival Tobey McGuire’s 2002 performance. One particularly neat sequence features him cocooning a bad guy in web by crawling spider-like over and around him. However, his abilities are also better defined, so that he does not come across as an invincible spider-ninja as in the first one, but more of a very skilled hero whose power comes from his proficiency with them.
The kid behind the spider-mask is a very different from the Peter Parker from before however. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) invests him with a kind of nervous determination, and then gradually peels back the layers to show how the losses in his life make him all the more determined to find his place in the world. Garfield’s portrayal really does feel like it will resonate with the current generation more thanks to his flaws being subtler and his troubles far more relatable than just the quiet genius that gets picked on a ton.
He’s also not much of a geek this time around, with the exception being his hobby taking pictures and his construction of his web shooters. His relationship with Gwen Stacey is one of uncertainty, yet sweetness, with Emma Stone portraying an everygirl sort of presence (As opposed to Mary-Jane’s unobtainable beauty) and her relationship with her father adding a deeper dimension to her relationship with Peter. The ending moments insure that they will have plenty to grow and develop as the series continues, which is a welcome reprieve from the “tortured hero” of past films.
While not forgettable, the villain Peter faces is both complex and sadly stunted. Rhys Ifan’s works to elicit sympathy based around his desire to re-grow his lost left arm, and his connection with Peter is better elaborated thanks to him knowing his parents and sharing a genuine sadness for the boy. When he goes full-scaly though, he loses his complexity, and though his creature design is quite impressive, it’s a shame the directors show so much of him since he would be far more effective if his presence were merely suggested. His ultimate goal is not a terribly original one, but given Connor’s condition and desire to “bring an end to weakness” it actually feels like an organic motive, even if it is, pardon the expression, straight out of a comic book.
Two other factors stick out as highlights of the movie, the first being it’s humor, which contrasts well with the darker aspects of the narrative. This is probably best exemplified in a cameo by (who else?) Stan Lee, who is entirely silent like he was in Iron Man, but manages to be hilarious thanks to the background and the way it pauses the action.
The second is how much this Spider-Man feels like the first part of an actual story, with various elements of the 2002 film only given cameos from the background (Such as Norman Osborne and Oscorp) and the hints after the credits of a deeper plot that is connected with Peter’s parents. Like them or not, Raimi’s films were largely stand-alone movies which carried certain conflicts and characters from each to the next, but mostly centered on a unconnected villain each time. But by the time the credits role by, the film alludes to a larger story that will involve Peter more intimately and perhaps weave a more amazing story than it’s predecessor