“What’sa diff’rence between a hero anna coward? There ain’t no diff’rence.
It’s what a guy does makes ‘im a hero; it’s what he don’t do makes him a coward.”
I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as “a bad story”. There are “good” and “bad” ways of telling any story, but the story itself is inherently neither. Any basic storyline can be brilliant or horrendous depending on who’s telling it. Take the classic story of Moses and The Exodus from Egypt: despite the magnitude of the events described, the version found in scripture is pretty dry. When put in the hands of Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg, the story became the classic films The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, respectively. When placed in the hands of hacks, we got that shitty CGI version where Christian Slater voiced Moses.
In spite of this belief, I have since come to the unfortunate conclusion that no creator of motion pictures will ever make a good story about Spider-Man.
I spent the better part of my youth dreaming of a film starring my favourite wisecracking wall-crawler. A proud devotee of Wizard magazine, I knew that it had been in the works since the early ‘80s. I knew rights were tangled in a proverbial ball of wire that wouldn’t be undone until the turn of the decade/century/millennium. And, most appealing of all, I knew the director’s chair for the film had been promised James Cameron, director of Terminator 2 (or, as well called it then, “The coolest movie in the history of time and space!”).
When the new millenium finally brought Spidey to 24-frame life, I must say that it was one of the biggest cinematic let-downs of my life. All those years waiting to see the wallcrawler on the big screen, what did I get? A lifeless performance by Tobey Maguire, scene-chewing performances by Willem Dafoe and JK Simmons, some red-wigged mannaquin named Kirsten Dunst, a muddled script that seemed to want to tell 15 of Spidey’s 30-plus-year history in a mere 90 minutes, character actions that made no sense nor had any motivation, and – worst of all – an eyesore of a CG-animated stuntman who gets more on-screen time than the lead actor it replaced. I was not happy.
What could be worse than Spider-Man, you ask? Spider-Man 2, that’s what. When I first saw this shitty sequel, I simply didn’t like it – no skin off my nose. When people began declaring it “the greatest comic book movie of all time”, by casual dislike turned into the burning rage of a thousand suns. If one more person tries to defend this flick – with its inconsequential Russian girl, its powers that stop-and-start as a matter of plot convenience, its astronaut left at the altar, its lame Hal Sparks cameo, that GOD AWFUL subway train scene, and even shittier CGI (to name but a few of its myriad flaws) – then I will simply not be responsible for my actions.
To this day, I’ve never seen Spider-Man 3. Raimi had already burned me with the first two, he wasn’t gonna get me again. From what I hear, I’m not missing much.
In an attempt to, I suppose, cover their (critical) losses from that film, Sony have rebooted the Spider-Man film franchise anew. In the contemporary Hollywood climate that should come as no surprise. In fact, considering that fellow Marvel properties Hulk and Punisher were rebooted after one film apiece, Sony’s decision comes off as stoic patience by comparison. Besides, this could be a chance to do the character right where Raimi failed: to make a film that had us caring about the characters rather than constantly deferring to the F/X department; to take a cue from Iron Man and make a comic book movie that 1) paid tribute to the source material without being constrictively beholden to it, 2) grounded in some sense of reality, despite the fantastical elements in abundance, and 3) Fun! A Spider-Man movie should be fun! I know that Sony announced early that they intended this to be a darker take on the character – what with The Dark Knight breaking records – but neither Spidey nor Iron Man, Superman, or any other character of that ilk should be “dark”; they should be fun.
The Amazing Spider-Man is not fun; not at all. In all fairness, it isn’t very “dark” either. It’s just really, really dumb.
Our story begins with a six-year-old Peter Parker being dumped by his 50-year-old parents (including indie film character actor Campbell Scott) into the custody of his 60- and 70-yearl-old aunt and uncle. The reasons for this will never be explained, save for a post-credits teaser that expects the audience to find out in a sequel. This plot hole – the first of many – is abandoned in the first five minutes as the boy suddenly transforms into a 28-year-old who’s still in highschool.
As per Hollywood teenager cliches: he wears glasses, is adored by teachers, is picked on by nameless bullies (I only knew it was Flash Thompson from knowing the comics), rides a skateboard, and is awkward in the presence of cutest girl in school. Cue Dawson’s Creek theme (or Degrassi if you’re from up North).
When she’s not being hassled by her police chief-dad (a very bored-looking Denis Leary), she’s being, like, so very smart as well as pretty, so she, like, works in a lab with a smart, one-armed professor (Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors) who -wouldn’tcha know it – used to know Peter’s dad. Peter sneaks into the lab, stalks both the girl and smart professor, and winds up in a special lab where he gets bitten by a nest of radioactive spiders. I know what you’re thinking: how did he get into a restricted area (he observed the numeric access code… from across a 200-foot corridor), manage to not be spotted by security, and get into a room that apparently didn’t even have security cameras for their multi-million dollar experiment? Once again, these questions will never be answered.
He goes home feeling ill, acts like a dick to his aunt and uncle, and – in a scene that I’m sure was taken from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (’cause there’s a masterpiece you’d want to imitate) – he accidentally destroys his bathroom without the least bit of remorse. He also meets the professor at his home and gives him the formula to help him regrow his arm. Peter returns home for the one scene in the film I truly enjoyed: his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) telling the just how much of an obnoxious little prick he’s been to the people who love him. This moment proves too real for Peter, so he runs out of the house to whine in private. His uncle follows, there’s a robber, blah blah blah, you know what happens from here.
I find it incredibly difficult to describe the rest of the plot without spoiling the film… that, and I was just bored out of my skull. There are so many plot holes and ridiculous leaps in logic – even for a comic book movie – that when I wasn’t bored I was actually offended by the film-makers constant talking down to the audience.
To be fair, there are a few moments that I genuinely liked (I can only recall the following two off-hand): the aforementioned scene of Uncle Ben telling off Peter and a scene where Peter first practices his powers by swinging off hanging chains in an abandoned factory. The chain scene got me really excited in the midst of all the CGI because this was clearly an actual human being performing it, not a CG stuntman. This was someone pulling off an impossible feat (it was clearly wirework, but well done) that showed the real laws of physics and gravity at work. That’s what I’d been hoping to see since I was a kid, and it’ll probably be the closest I get to a “real life” Spider-Man without seeing a bloated Julie Taymor production.
But those moments are few and far between. The rest is a textbook example of what’s known as “The Idiot Plot“. How is it that Peter spends the night fighting a 23-foot-tall Lizard man, but doesn’t immediately realise that it’s Connors (especially when Connors has clearly grown serpentine scales on his face whilst talking to Peter)? Who does no one notice that there’s two-foo-tall mutant mouse skittering around the lab? Hell, does Connors work in the building alone, despite the fact that we always see him around people there?
Probably the most irritating thing was a blatant contradiction to one of the most fundamental rules of the superhero genre: the secret identity. Dear reader, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that Spider-Man spends of 40-50% doing his job with his mask off! What, was Andrew Garfield worried people would just attribute everything to his stuntmen (real or CG)? He spends the first half of the film as regular Peter showing off his powers in open public and spends the latter half taking his mask off for no discernable reason other than to show off his haircut.
Oh, and do you remember that cringe-inducing scene from Spider-Man 2? The one on the subway train? The “Don’t worry, Spidey – we won’t tell scene” that made you want to tear your hair out with its incredulity? Well, there are two scenes like that in The Amazing Spider-Man. One you may have seen with the kid in the burning van (which also suffers from bad scientific log, but whatever) ending with a ragged-looking C. Thomas Howell. The other is blatantly contradictory to what the film had already established about its characters, you’d expect it to happen in a bad soap opera.
Before I wrap things up, I want talk about the poor choice of making Gwen Stacy the love interest in this film. I know, I know: Gwen was there before MJ and her death was one of the key moments in Spider-Man history. That doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day Gwen was just another one of Peter Parker’s girlfriends. Oh, he loved her – and she clearly ranked higher in his heart than Felicia or Betty – but Gwen wasn’t “the one”. They two were never meant to spend the rest of their lives together. Her death, which is debatably a “Woman-in-refrigerator” moment (I wonder what Gail Simone thought of this movie?), solidified the fact that she was never meant to stay around. The climax and epilogue of this film involve a situation that I found insulting because it was devoid of tension. It’s the film-makers’ way of acknowledging Gwen’s inevitable fate and thereby making that her only real level of character development. I’m a guy and I’m offended by that bullshit.
On the other hand, Mary Jane IS the love of Peter Parker’s life. Not only have the past few generations (say, from the ’80s onward) gotten to know only her, she’s clearly had the greatest affect on both them and Peter. That’s why everyone lost their shit over “One More Day” and why it made national headlines when Marvel tried to sell a demeaning, over-sexualised statue of her. MJ is “the one”. What’s more, from a narrative standpoint it makes sense to have her as the love interest because, even though she’s still the “damsel in distress”, her fate isn’t sealed the way Gwen’s is. Doing Spidey’s origin with Gwen is as tension-free as a watching a young Darth Vader. Watching Spidey use all of his powers to protect his one true red-haired love? Now that piques my interest.
All said, my biggest problem with this movie was the way everything was dumbed down. Fiction, by its very nature, is dependent upon the suspension of disbelief, but if you take it too far you eventually wind up insulting the audience’s intelligence. No matter how much people love “dumb fun” (myself included), no one likes being told that they’re stupid. And this movie is one big “dunce” cap for everyone that paid to see it, myself included.