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The Amazing Spider-Man: If Only It Were Amazing

According to the trailers for The Amazing Spider-Man -- Sony's attempt to reboot their lucrative Spider-Man franchise in the wake of their high-profile split with the series' original director Sam Raimi -- this new take on the iconic Marvel Comics hero is supposed to explore heretofore untold secrets about who the teenage wall-crawler is and how he came to be. As it turns out, the movie's biggest secret is that it's the exact same origin story you already know from Raimi's 2002 original (not to mention the five decades worth of comics), just played in a slightly different key. But if they told you that in the ads, there's probably little chance that anyone would fork over good money to see what's essentially a remake of a ten-year old movie. And they'd be right.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. There are things about The Amazing Spider-Man that, while far from amazing, work fairly well. And maybe my overall disappointment is partly my fault for getting hung up on the tantalizing promise of seeing a new take on a well-known hero's origin story when few Hollywood studios would willingly venture out too far on a creative limb with one of comicdom's most beloved heroes. (After all, when they do, bad things like Halle Berry's Catwoman occasionally happen.) That said, Christopher Nolan showed that it's possible to bring a new angle to a familiar origin story when he re-started the Batman series with Batman Begins, which is an obvious model for The Amazing Spider-Man.

But Nolan had two key advantages going into his reboot: first, the full story of Batman's origin had never been told onscreen before, as Tim Burton had chosen to begin 1989's Batman with Bruce Wayne already in the suit (a short flashback reveals the instigating incident behind his transformation, but that's the extent of the backstory). Secondly, he expanded the scope of the character in a fresh, compelling way (in terms of Batman's various big-screen incarnations at least) by connecting Batman's fate to the fate of the city he had sworn to protect, Gotham. This relationship was central to his blockbuster sequel The Dark Knight and once again appears to drive the story of the series' third and final chapter, The Dark Knight Rises. In contrast, there's no new big idea driving The Amazing Spider-Man and whenever it seems like the filmmakers are on the verge of making a really bold creative choice, they quickly step back from that ledge as if terrified that the legions of fanboys in the audience will express mail them crates of the Green Goblin's pumpkin bombs.

The overall creative timidity of The Amazing Spider-Man is especially unfortunate in light of the fact that several of the riskier decisions they made actually paid off. Chief among them is the casting of Andrew Garfield as the new Spider-Man and his alter ego Peter Parker; I'm on record as enjoying Tobey Maguire's take on the character, but Garfield's smartest choice is to not try and imitate his predecessor in any way. (That's a big part of what extinguished poor Brandon Routh cape-and-tights career, after all; he was so hemmed in by trying to pay homage to Christopher Reeve that he never became his own [Super]man.) His Spider-Man comes armed with a quicker wit and set of combat moves, while his Peter is moodier and more tightly coiled then Maguire's good-natured nerd; even before he gets his powers, he's not afraid to stand up to the bullies of his school... even though he inevitably gets his ass handed to him.

Peter's inner turmoil stems from the disappearance of his parents when he was a young boy, particularly his beloved father Richard (Campbell Scott). And while his adoptive parents Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) have tried to raise him as best they could, the loss of his dad is a wound that has never fully healed. Early reports suggested that Parker Senior's legacy would play a bigger role in this revised origin story, but apparently the filmmakers decided against going down that road as Richard's presence fades to a background hum once Peter is set on the all-too familiar road that leads him to the spider bite -- which in this case happens at the offices of his dad's old employer, Oscorp -- that grants him his arachnid powers. (Without spoiling anything specific, halfway through I did start to wonder whether we were being set up for a huge, franchise-altering final twist regarding Richard's fate and how it relates to Oscorp, but it never came.)

The other new and improved element in The Amazing Spider-Man is Emma Stone, who finally gives the Spider-Man movies a love interest worth caring about in the form of Gwen Stacy. The actress's crack comic timing and distinctive delivery go a long way towards creating a real character out of a role that's written as little more than a plot device. The romance between Mary Jane and Peter was always one of the weakest elements of Raimi's three films as Maguire and Kirsten Dunst couldn't seem less interested in each other. But the longing that radiates between Gwen and Peter comes across loud and clear here. In fact, their romance is far more nuanced (and funnier) than the one at the center of director Marc Webb's last movie, the wildly overpraised (500 Days) of Summer.

Stone is so good here, I found myself wishing she could take a more active role in the action sequences instead of always witnessing them as a bystander or girlfriend-in-peril. Honestly, I wouldn't have minded had Gwen gotten the spider bite instead and the movie became The Amazing Spider-Woman, with Peter left standing around as the obligatory love interest. (Yes, yes, I know that Spider-Woman has a completely different origin story and set of powers -- that doesn't change the fact that Stone might be an even better Spider-Person than Garfield and Maguire combined.) And while we're still on the subject of things about the movie that work, I want to briefly congratulate Webb on the action set-pieces, which are handled quite nicely considering that he's a first-timer at this sort of thing. Where Raimi went for big moments of derring-do, Webb keeps the camera in close, emphasizing Spider-Man's agility and physicality in one-on-one combat. (He also noticeably relies more heavily on practical stunts than CGI-assisted feats, which is always welcome.)

Two great stars and a director who proves dexterous at juggling both the action and the talky stuff should be enough to make The Amazing Spider-Man really swing. But again, the utter familiarity of the material adds a layer of tedium to the movie that eventually consumes it entirely. Missed opportunities at shaking the story out of its torpor abound, from a potentially promising plotline involving Peter's search for the killer of his Uncle Ben (yes, of course he dies again) that's completely dropped to the appearance of a high-ranking Oscorp flunky (Irrfan Kahn) who seems to hold the key to an important secret only to be literally left hanging... off the side of the Manhattan Bridge. And then there's the movie's chief heavy, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a self-important scientist who chugs an untested concoction that transforms him into the scaly, violence-prone Lizard, a story arc that echoes Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin from Raimi's movie almost beat-for-beat, right down to the aforementioned bridge attack. In both his character design and overriding motivation, The Lizard is an utterly generic villain -- a green-colored CGI blob where a formidable opponent for our hero should be. Even if Raimi's movies had never existed, The Amazing Spider-Man would still feel distinctly second-rate; it's a safe, unambitious interpretation of a hero whose boldness in the face of great risk is one of the reasons behind his lasting appeal.

Check out an interview with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.

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