The Amazing Spider-Man
Mild spoilers follow, but nothing too shocking if you’ve seen the trailer.
So I caught the second installment in the Garfield-Webb Spider-Man film series last night, and after viewing it, I can confidently say, without any sort of hyperbole, that it is the fourth-best Spider-Man film of all time.
I know, right? I’m sure Marc Webb feels immensely honored, even though he couldn’t be reached for comment.
Just to be clear, when I say fourth-best, I’m ranking the films in this order:
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Amazing Spider-Man
Yes, I would rank all three Maguire-Raimi films ahead of either of the Garfield-Webb films, even the deeply flawed (though unfairly maligned) third film, for one simple, yet fundamental reason. It’s something that bothered me, even though I couldn’t really explain until other people pointed it out. But now that they have, I have a hard time seeing past it.
Garfield’s Peter Parker is a dick.
There are other reasons I prefer the Maguire-Raimi trilogy, of course (and Bruce Campbell makes up most of them), but ultimately I think that’s the main weakness. The appeal of Spider-Man has always been that its protagonist is a normal, likable guy, forced into situations beyond his control. And while the Garfield-Webb films have done well enough with the second half of that sentence, in my opinion they’ve messed up both the “normal” and “likable” parts.
Conversely, this was where the Maguire-Raimi trilogy shined. Through the first two films, Maguire is wonderful as the big, lovable dork. It’s probably not a perfect comparison, but to me he seems like the science geek version of Tony Horton (the P90X guy, for the uninitiated) in that he’s prone to doing and saying dumb things. Things that are so dumb, the only reasonable response is an embarrassed laugh. Laughing at him, sure, but mostly laughing with him. In short, he’s endearing, despite being kind of dumb and annoying (for some crazy reason I find that type of character relatable). Maguire is decidedly less likable in the third film, which is a large part of what makes the film so much less likable. Even before the symbiote begins influencing him, he’s kind of an ass. But at the same time, that film takes place after Peter’s been Spidey for a few years and has reason to feel he’s figured his life out. It seems natural he would have acquired some arrogance as a result.
On the other hand, Garfield’s Peter Parker is just so… cool. And not in a good way. He seems more inclined to bring his acoustic guitar to parties hoping to impress chicks than to stay up all night because he got caught up on a science project. He has his likable moments and his vulnerable moments, sure. But they’re outshined by his way too “cool” moments. The skateboarding scene springs to mind. Denting the goalpost with a football. Heck, 10 minutes into Amazing 2, he rushes in late to his graduation ceremony, makes out with his girlfriend on stage, and hi-fives the dean on his way offstage rather than stopping to shake his hand.
…Does that sound like something Peter Parker would do? And I don’t want to sound like I hate the film or the actor, or that I’m in love with Maguire’s performance. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses (and both pale in comparison to Josh Keaton in the unjustly brief TV series The Spectacular Spider-Man. Seriously, check it out). But in terms of personifying the fundamental character traits of Peter Parker, Maguire got so many things right that Garfield totally eschews.
Well, what about Spidey being a normal guy, then? In other adaptations, this is what most distinguishes Spider-Man from other heroes. Unlike certain other characters, Peter lives in a dumpy little apartment, he can never quite come up with monthly rent, and he struggles to even pass his classes despite his immense intelligence. These are all plot threads that the original trilogy incorporated naturally and often humorously (and that Spectacular Spider-Man did a fantastic job with. Seriously, it just came out on Blu-Ray. At $30 it’s a steal). Between the two newer films combined, they’ve so far appeared twice. Both times it was Aunt May, not Peter, struggling to make rent, and neither film was impacted at all by this. The only effect is that we see Aunt May working as a nurse at the end of 2… I guess because nursing school is cheap? Or only takes a few days to complete?
Then there’s the love interests. Maguire’s Peter took two full films before he could finally get together with Mary Jane, enduring multiple humiliations along the way. Garfield’s Peter, by comparison, was barely through the first half of his first film when he first kissed his dream girl. I won’t spend too much time on this. In the end, we knew Peter and Gwen were going to get together, maybe it’s better not to drag it out. But it all just seemed so easy. That’s not how Peter’s life is supposed to work, nor is it typically considered good story-telling.
But far more significant, to me, is the story arc involving the Parker parents. The story told in the original trilogy was… Well, there was no storyline. Peter’s parents just weren’t there. I’m not even sure they mention them in any of the three films, or if we’re ever told if they died or just skipped town. Peter’s just another kid being raised by someone other than his birth parents. But take this new series, and right off the bat we get some pretty blatant hints that his parents were involved in secret, probably illegal, research on spiders. By the end of the second film, we’ve learned that because of this research, only Peter could ever have become Spider-Man.
Maybe I’m crazy, but to me the former makes for a much more compelling tale than the latter. In the former, Peter isn’t “meant for greater things,” it’s not destiny, he isn’t the chosen one. He’s just a guy, no different from you or me, who through, as Spidey so spectacularly puts it in Spectacular Spider-Man, “a twist of fate, bad luck, a random bug bite” is given the opportunity to change the world. And we get to see his growth and struggle as he comes to understand what this means. That’s a much more interesting story than Peter being fated to become our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, or at least being the only one who could have.
It’s entirely probable that the story told in these new films is closer to the comics. Despite spending the majority of my life obsessed with the webhead (21 years… and counting), I’m actually not familiar with his comics. But even if that is the case, I refuse to see that as a justification. If your source material tells an uninteresting story, tell a different one. What’s the point of even making a film if you’re going to stick rigidly to the story of the comics? We already have that story, we don’t need someone to tell it again.
All of that aside, and despite everything negative I’ve said about the film, I did still enjoy it a lot. While I have problems with Garfield’s Peter, he is a very good actor. From a pure acting standpoint he may be better than Maguire. Emma Stone gives a typically superb performance (as a love interest she’s superior in every way to Dunst’s Mary Jane). Jamie Foxx, despite being horribly miscast as Max Dillon (Topher Grace as Venom was honestly a better casting choice) holds his own, and is even great at times, once he becomes Electro. The action scenes are great, probably the best to appear in a Spider-Man film even though they rely too much on CGI at times. It’s worth noting that, much like the first film, none of the villains here have a fleshed-out or believable arc, but there has been improvement this time around.
Thinking back on this film, I feel mildly conflicted. Part of me still loves the idea of seeing my favorite super hero in movies ad nauseam, but it’s locked in combat with the part that can’t help but feel others could (and have) told this story better. I hate to be that guy in the theater going “Seen it!” but, well… I have seen it before. We all have.
At the same time, if the second effort from the Garfield-Webb team is an improvement over the first, can it really be considered a negative? I guess not. I’m mildly skeptical about the future of this franchise, but for now call me a fan.
The latest Spider-Man film doesn’t quite make it to “amazing,” but it’s worth a watch.