Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Columbia/Marvel/Ziskin, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Amazing Spider-Man is an odd movie because for some reason the “suits” at Columbia Pictures (including the late Laura Ziskin, who was the principal producer and whose last film this was) decided midway through the planning process to junk the plans for a Spider-Man 4 with the original director (Sam Raimi) and star (Tobey Maguire) and instead “reboot” the franchise with a different director (Marc Webb) and star (Andrew Garfield, whose most important previous credit was probably as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network), working from a story by James Vanderbilt (though the script is credited to Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, indicating that they platooned at least two more writers and had them do rewrites of Vanderbilt’s material) which went back and told yet another version of the Spider-Man origin story. In this one, Norman Osbourne, the founder and CEO of OsCorp (which is headquartered in a huge New York skyscraper whose design by J. Michael Riva and his team of art directors is a dead ripoff of the still-unbuilt design for the huge tower that’s supposed to replace the World Trade Center on the original site of Ground Zero, adjacent to the reflecting pools marking where the original Twin Towers stood until September 11, 2001), is near death; for 15 years he’s been funding research scientist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) in search of a regeneration formula that will restore him to his original state of health and youth. Dr. Connors originally worked with another scientist, Dr. Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), who mysteriously disappeared from his home in the middle of the experiments, along with his wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz — that’s what the cast list on imdb.com says her name is!), leaving their son Peter Parker (Max Charles) — and no true Spider-Man maven needs two guesses as to who he’s going to grow up to be! — in the custody of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Then Richard and Mary Parker were killed in a plane crash and Peter grew up to be a high-school science student at New York’s Midtown Science High School (and to be played by Andrew Garfield) without any clear idea of who his parents were or what they had done before they died.

He doesn’t even know his dad and Dr. Connors were research partners until he finds a briefcase that belonged to his father and sees a picture of him and Dr. Connors together in it, and he decides to crash an internship program Dr. Connors is giving — only he’s caught, he ends up in Dr. Connors’ most secret lab, and he gets bitten by not one radioactive spider (as in the original comics and the first Spider-Man film with Tobey Maguire) but a whole pride of them, though only one actually penetrates — and in this version he even brings the spider home with him. It’s not radioactive this time, either; it’s been genetically engineered in Dr. Connors’ lab because his whole research approach is to isolate genetic traits that enable other species to regenerate themselves and insert them into human genomes. Dr. Connors is in the middle of animal tests on this formula, and he’s bred a race of three-legged mice as his research subjects. Most of the mice died, but when one lives and successfully grows an additional limb to match the complement of them mice have naturally, the formula is snatched away from him by Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), who announces that large-scale human trials must begin at once so the formula is ready before Norman Osbourne croaks. Dr. Connors balks at this, and Ratha tells him that at one point his associate Dr. Richard Parker had similar ethical concerns, only they removed him — and Ratha tells Connors that the human trials will begin at once at a local veterans’ hospital to which OsCorp’s charitable arm contributes. When Connors refuses to go along, Ratha simply orders his entire department closed and everyone in it fired. (In the earlier Spider-Man movies I noted the presence of a sort of nervous-tic anti-corporatism, and here it is again: a movie whose production budget is probably bigger than the gross domestic product of at least five sub-Saharan African nations is railing against the immense, unanswerable and irrevocable power of the 1 percent.)

Meanwhile, Peter Parker is developing super-powers from his close encounter with Dr. Connors’ super-spider, and at first he can’t control them — he turns his bathroom into a wreck the first time he tries to use it post-transformation — and as in the earlier versions of the story he doesn’t understand that with great power comes great responsibility. He uses his powers mostly to get back at the tall, blond, hunky star athlete Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) who’s been bullying him at school — I suspect the writers called him “Flash” as an homage to Flashman, the bully character in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days, which set the clichés for virtually every depiction of high school since — and to win over Flash’s girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who’s not only a hot-shot science student but also the daughter of police captain Thomas Stacy (Dennis Leary). One imdb.com contributor noted that Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first girlfriend in the comic books, but she wasn’t; Peter’s original girlfriend was Betty Brant, a trick of Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to have the three principals in the stories (including J. Jonah Jameson, Peter’s boss at the Daily Bugle — a plot element completely eliminated from this version, probably because newspapers are so 20th century) have alliterative names; later Betty was dumped from the comics and Gwen replaced her, and Gwen was actually killed (giving the comic writers a powerful story arc showing Peter’s grief) before Peter got to graduate from high school, go on to college and start dating Mary Jane Watson, the name of his light o’love in the Maguire/Raimi films. Anyway, Peter Parker’s disinclination to get involved when a robber sticks up a bodega leads to the death of his uncle Ben, and the shock and grief smacks him to attention and he gets serious about the superhero business.

Meanwhile, rather than allow Ratha to use the poor old veterans in the nursing home as human guinea pigs, Dr. Connors decides to inject himself with the rejuvenation serum — and in the great tradition of self-experimentation gone wrong stories, including the great-granddaddy of them all, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the injection turns him into the Lizard, a 400-pound living dinosaur but with Connors’ brain intact. (Charles said he had no trouble suspending disbelief long enough to accept Peter Parker’s transformation but he had a great deal of trouble with the Lizard because he’s three times the size of Connors — Marvel had already pulled this gimmick with the Incredible Hulk but at least in his case he was a creation of radioactivity, which presumably could have expanded his atoms so he would be physically larger than he was as Dr. Bruce Banner while still having the same mass — but the Lizard is not the result of atomic energy.) The rest of the movie is typical superhero stuff, as the Lizard causes a wreck on the Brooklyn Bridge (he’s trying to stop Ratha from getting the serum to the veterans’ hospital) and Spider-Man has to spin his webs (in this movie they’re a mechanical/chemical device, not an intrinsic property of Spider-Man’s body; the comics started out with Parker inventing a device that spun his webs, later shifted to an organic one, and the Maguire/Raimi films made the webs organic from the get-go) and Spider-Man has to rescue a kid from a burning car. The Lizard hides out in the sewers under New York and Parker figures the only way to vanquish him is to invent a device that will freeze him, since like real lizards he’s cold-blooded and will suffer immobilizing paralysis from extreme cold.

The film times out at two hours and 16 minutes, but it’s half over before Peter Parker finally gets around to becoming Spider-Man and it’s at the two-thirds point before he has to deal with the Lizard — who quite frankly isn’t a particularly interesting super-villain (but then that’s been a weakness of all the current run of Spider-Man movies; aside from Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, they haven’t used most of the really imaginative villains from the comics) — but overall it’s a good but not great entry in the current comic-book superhero genre, with some marvelously campy moments (notably a fight scene inside the Midtown Science High library, in which one of the librarians is lost in a classical music piece he’s listening to over headphones and is totally oblivious to the fight between super-hero and super-villain going on just behind him) and a refreshing let-up on the miseries and angst that the Maguire/Raimi films emphasized (Spider-Man 2 made the title character so doggedly unhappy and unlucky I joked at the time it could have been called It’s a Wonderful Life, Spider-Man) — though I had an odd problem with Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man: he’s too good-looking, too sexy, to be believable as the nerd. Still, no one goes to a movie like this for the acting, and the ending (Thomas Stacy is killed in the final confrontation between Spider-Man — whom he’s been trying to arrest and prosecute as a vigilante all movie — and he extracts a promise from Spider-Man never to tell what really happened) is not only well directed and well acted but genuinely moving, ending the film on a sigh and a heartache rather than a baroque action climax.

Like most movies today, it draws as much or more on older, better movies than it does from life (even the weird, twisted version of it we get from comic books); like just about everyone who makes a superhero movie today, Marc Webb owes a lot to Tim Burton and the urban-Gothic look he got out of his London-built sets of “Gotham City” in the 1989 Batman, and as Charles pointed out the experiments in Dr. Connors’ lab hearken back even earlier, to H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and the three films made from it. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man is good entertainment, blessedly lacking the forced “seriousness” of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and Watchmen — Webb and his writers remain aware that their story isn’t a great vehicle for making insightful comments on the human condition; it’s just a super-powered cop chasing a super-powered crook across a recognizable but stylized cityscape, and though it probably could have been cut to about two hours without suffering anything, it’s fine (and fun) the way it is.