Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m only a blogger, and not a Sorkin-approved paid journalist with official opinion-having credentials, because if I had to review Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man for an actual publication, it would be my last. Sure, I could add a synopsis, which would account for about 52-67% of what I write, and I could talk about how much I like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as performers in general, and I could talk about the history of the character a bit, throw in some stats about how popular he is around the world, maybe draw a comparison with The Avengers or speculate about its chances against the impending behemoth that is The Dark Knight Rises, but other than that all I can write about is tiny tiny details, nitpicking and highlighting and basically turning the whole thing into a pro/con table. 
Is it bad? No, not really. I’ve been engaged in a Twitter chat with the very lovely friend-of-the-blog Gally Freya about Green Lantern this morning, which led to a repeat of my usual unedifying frothing rants about why that movie is the barrel-scrapings of the superhero genre, a betrayal of the character, a bone-headed focus-grouped overthought and cowardly monster of a movie that should never have been allowed onto the screen. Probably the only really bad thing I can say about The Amazing Spider-Man is that it’s way too long and a bit boring. Sadly, the best thing I can say about it is, “Hey, good work Columbia and Sony on doing the bare minimum to keep hold of those valuable Spidey film rights!”
It’s obvious that the movie was made with affection for and awareness of the character, and some effort has gone into it, into thinking about who Peter Parker is and what motivates him to become a hero, and for that we should be grateful, even if the studio’s motives for rebooting the series are a little shaky. What’s most egregious is the lack of life in the movie. For a character who is meant to be an expression of youthful exuberance, a way to release a young science geek’s inner confidence in the most obnoxious/lovable manner possible, this is a dour, slow movie that very rarely perks up. I do not relish the thought of watching it again.
It’s impossible to talk about Webb’s movie without comparing it to Sam Raimi’s incredibly successful trilogy.  Though generally thought of fondly, there are many dissenters (at least, in my Twitter timeline) who dislike Raimi’s Spider-Man series. If they think they were too goofy or too garish, this Spider-Man might be the version they have been waiting for. For the rest of us, this bleak movie runs counter to Raimi’s (and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s) vision, a bright and sunlit New York patrolled by an exuberant, colourful wise-ass in contrast to Webb’s shadow-coated city and the out-of-place flash of red-and-blue who spends an age deciding to look after the citizens; almost as long as Hal Jordan in that goddamn Green Lantern movie, in fact.
Even fans of Raimi’s movies would admit that his Three-Stooges-inspired wackiness could get in the way — even before we get to that dancing scene in Spider-Man 3 there’s the “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” montage in 2 and the Power-Rangers-iness of the Green Goblin’s costume in the first movie — but that heightened comedic tone worked because the character is inherently ridiculous. Not just in the sense that the idea of a man with the powers of a spider is daft, but that he’s meant to be jokey and irreverent. Considering Marvel’s popular Ultimate Spider-Man series features a modernised version of the character, Brian Michael Bendis eschewed any foolish ideas about ejecting Webhead’s comedic persona, keeping him silly instead of adopting a modish personality change, all without reducing the comic’s dramatic heft in any way. Spidey is fun; Raimi remembered that. 
Which is not to say Webb is wrong or fit for censure for trying something new with the character, especially as the history of Spidey includes many dark periods that can inform the reader’s mental image of the character as much as the early years with Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr. Even then the comics still featured the deaths of beloved characters from time to time, most notably Gwen Stacy. However the general air of melancholy in Webb’s movie, and the first half in which Parker is basically a total dick, are horribly stodgy. 
Things pick up later in the movie with some heroics, wisecracks, and gravity-defying FX sequences, but liking Parker is really hard work — a necessary narrative move to power the late-movie conversion to heroism, but a real slog to get through. It didn’t seem that hard when Raimi did it, and he still managed to create that powerful scene with Uncle Ben dying in Parker’s arms without abandoning the lighter tone. In fact the only thing that harks back to the tone of Raimi’s series comes near the end, when some citizens of New York rally around their hero and help him out, but it’s a trick that doesn’t have the same soaring effect as it did before. The laboured scene here is no match for the emotional aftermath of Spider-Man 2‘s train setpiece.
It doesn’t help that maintaining this down-to-earth tone is incompatible with the presence of an over-the-top villain. Just as Batman Begins‘ goal of breaking down its main character and rebuilding him in a more recognisably real world isn’t helped by adding a supervillain who uses a microwave weapon to activate a madness-generating gas, all of the effort put into grounding the Spider-Man mythos is damaged by introducing The Lizard and getting Rhys Ifans to intone every line with ALL THE DRAMA, like a parody of what a supervillain would sound like. While Garfield fills the screen with his quiet competence, Ifans tries very very hard and makes no impression at all.
Of course Dr. Curt Connors is meant to be a tragic figure undone by his own hubris, but even before that Ifans sounds like he’s doing a bad impersonation of a depressed Christopher Lee villain from a Hammer horror movie; portentous intonation and stony expressions, which later give way to cackling, speechifying, and convenient character-erasing insanity. His motivations are present and correct and yet mean nothing on an emotional level, mostly because The Lizard is a boring threat already, and a few gruff internal monologues to add direction where there was none isn’t satisfying. Connors wants to put an end to weakness, and luckily he has some handy weakness-destroying technology lying around, giving Spidey something to battle against in the finale.
Again, compare that to Willem Dafoe’s brilliant work as The Green Goblin. Dafoe played Osborn as a vain and foolish megalomaniac whose worst impulses are accentuated by magical sciencey things, but the motor for his evil — wounded pride and jealousy — is a richer motivation than Connors’ frustration over his weakness. It’s more of a leap for Connors — who seems decent enough, despite hints of past wrongdoing — to go from wanting to heal the sick to poisoning New York, than it is for the fundamentally flawed Osborn to go from wanting to control everything and wreak vengeance on the people who wronged him to wanting to control everything and wreak vengeance on the people who wronged him but this time using superpowers.
Dafoe also did a great job of shading his demented villainy with comic notes, a touch of pathos, and some wonderful physicality. Heartbreaking though it is that for the majority of the film he’s hidden behind that ridiculous mask, that voice, those movements, those funny little additions — the moment he melodramatically drinks the serum, smashes the vial, and then lets out a little complaint about the machine’s restraints being cold on his skin is utterly perfect – all of those things add up to something that transcends the suit. I’m already having difficulty remembering Ifans’ work in this movie and I only saw it four hours ago.
Andrew Garfield is a good enough actor that the decision to play him as sour and petulant for the first half of the movie and haunted but increasingly heroic in the second doesn’t obscure his work. It’s a direction I don’t much like, but within that framework Garfield is terrific, playing Peter Parker as an angry young man who accidentally finds his calling. And if that’s not enough for you, the script — credited to James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent (writer on the last two Spidey movies) and Steve Kloves — makes sure to stress that Parker’s character arc is his search for himself by having one character say to him, as he looks for a name badge, “ARE YOU HAVING TROUBLE FINDING YOURSELF ZOMG THEMATIC MOMENT?” and finishing the movie with a teacher saying the only plot that exists is, “Who am I?” GEDDIT?? 
Even better is Emma Stone, despite getting to do very very little. She pops up every so often to ineptly flirt with Peter (very charming), get into trouble, and even get in a bit of Lizard-bashing, but her primary function is to be the object of Peter’s desire. It says a lot for Stone’s performance that I missed her whenever she wasn’t onscreen, even if being there meant she would just be Supportive Girlfriend, but anything would have been better than more interminable scenes with Ifans booming his lines at the walls, or Irrfan Khan making vague references to Norman Osborn, or Peter forgetting to buy eggs. Denis Leary is a nice surprise; his Captain Stacy is more interesting than his daughter, and makes a lot of what little screentime he has. His final scene is one of the highlights, giving some emotional charge to what is otherwise a ruck on top of a building while a doohickey counts down.
But the main crime of the film is that it wasn’t diverting enough or competent enough to make me turn off the part of my brain that was noticing a million trivial little things that pissed me off. How many scenes with Peter letting down Uncle Ben and Aunt May do we need?  Was the scene with him finding his powers on the train added later in the shoot, because he seems to go through another big discovery scene right after it? How did he get into the car when the car thief he’s ambushing needed a big technological doohickey to unlock the door? Is Peter Parker going to find Rodrigo Guevara and apologise to him for ruining his life? How did Connors get all of that equipment down into his sewer lair when he is, by that point, basically going, “Wibble madness blurg” all the time? A removal service? If I move to New York, I’ll use those guys.
How blind is Peter that he doesn’t notice the enormous patch of green skin on Connors’ neck during a long and boring conversation? Why does his Spidey-Sense only work about half the time? Do the filmmakers think we’re dense when they keep dangling Peter off the side of buildings as a big scary threat moment when we all know that he can just stick to the windows? Is that the most anti-climactic mid-credit scene ever? Will James Horner’s insipid soundtrack ever shut up? Will future Blu-Ray versions of the movie airbrush in whoever they cast as Norman Osborn in the sequel, considering the lengths they go to to include him while conveniently obscuring his face? Didn’t Gwen object to Peter turning up at her house covered in shit at one point? And why does she even like him? They spend about 15 minutes together before they’re in love. Garfield and Stone make it seem to work through charm alone, but looking back I realise I didn’t really buy it at all, certainly not as much as I did Tobey Maguire’s desperate longing for Kirsten Dunst, and her slow realisation that she loved him all along.
And my God, didn’t someone at Oscorp think it was a bit weird that some guy was ordering tons of their biocable cartridges, which I doubt come cheap? And even if they didn’t pick up on this ordering anomaly, wasn’t someone in the NYPD a bit curious about where all of the webbing left around the city was coming from? There were all sorts of controversies about the organic webshooters in Raimi’s movie (I’ve already seen people rejoicing at the inclusion of mechanical webshooters) but at least it simplified things. Here it’s just one of the many elements introduced that has to be jammed into place, like the costume and the growing sense of heroism  and his father’s work and Norman Osborn and Gwen and her dad and a poorly-designed lizard thing and a million other things.
None of this is organic. It’s all just pushed into place, with no narrative momentum to carry it. Koepp’s script for Raimi’s Spider-Man has lovely flow, and part of that was because Peter had a friend and romantic rival in Harry Osborn, a man who loves him and resents him for recognisably human reasons. The threat from Norman/Goblin — and Peter’s need to do the right thing to honour Ben — jeopardises his relationships with his aunt, his best friend and the woman he loves. Norman targets them knowing he can hurt Peter, and their confrontation at the end is only possible because he knows he can hurt Spider-Man most by using the tension between his heroism and his love of Mary-Jane Watson against him. All of the character work ties together, each choice builds to a crescendo in the last act and makes emotional sense. The big showdown in the new movie is between Spidey and a guy with a canister of gas. Who cares? Only the use of Captain Stacy makes this work at all, and even then it’s a shadow of the moment on the Queensboro Bridge, or Spidey dropping Norman’s body off at his house, thus turning Harry against him. 
There’s even a misguidedly similar moment between Gwen and Peter and Raimi’s final scene with Peter turning Mary-Jane away, but while Raimi and Koepp make this a grandiose, tragic choice on Peter’s behalf, Webb and whoever wrote that scene fluff it by making Peter exasperatingly quiet on why he has made his choice, giving Gwen enough smarts to see through Peter’s silence (negating the point of his exasperating silence), making her go along with it without question (guess she doesn’t really care for him after all), and then having Peter maybe possibly change his mind at the end, who knows? The narrative simplicity of Raimi and Koepp’s movie is one of its greatest strengths; this just feels like a lot of clumsy storytelling to make a malfunctioning plot work. Spider-Man was a smooth ride. The Amazing Spider-Man stalls and stalls and stalls.
Remember, it’s not bad. It has moments to celebrate — Stan Lee’s hilarious cameo, good performances here and there, a lovely line or funny line-reading, some perfect visual iconography, especially in the customary “I’m swinging around the city like crazy” scene before the credits — but the overall impression is that Webb either didn’t have enough of a coherent vision of what he wanted to do with the character, or he did and the studio got in the way too much. At times his approach works; taken as an intimate movie about a tortured boy it works okay, and Webb has a feel for creating male protagonists who are miserable (see also Tom from 500 Days of Summer), but to do that he has to lose something else, and that thing might have been what makes Spider-Man appealing in the first place.
This is obviously going to be one that the fanboys argue over for a very long time.  By not being an out-and-out calamity, and also by being so low-key and kind of anonymous, The Amazing Spider-Man will have its defenders, and it will generate a fanbase and money and sequels. But without a strong authorial voice, or more primal iconography such as that upside-down kiss, the memory of it is already fading. Raimi may have alienated some fans with the force of his zany vision, but at least his movies were vibrant, odd, memorable, flashy, weird, stirring, exciting, funny, confident and memorable. This Spider-Man movie is just a semi-competent film about Spider-Man, and that’s not enough.
Update: This morning I had a long conversation with blogger and fellow John Carter enthusiast Bassim El-Wakil, which can be found here for the sake of openness. If you don’t want to look at it the point of contention was with my use of Raimi’s Spider-Man as a comparison point with Webb’s reboot, and that I shouldn’t have damned TASM for not doing what another movie did. I argued that my problem was not that Webb failed for not making the same movie or the same choices as Raimi, but as Bassim said, “If Webb makes choices for angst vs Raimi for exuberance, it’s fallacious to then say ‘It fails because it’s not as exuberant’”. My intention in comparing these movies was simply borne of convenience, and I didn’t intend to say that Webb’s movie was a failure because it wasn’t the same as Raimi’s, or to say that if he had done the specific things I noted that Raimi did right or approached the movie from the same direction as Raimi, he would automatically have made a better movie. I apologise if I gave that impression.
As I said during the conversation, there were a number of things I think Webb did wrong, and have tried to express that. The script, also, is a tangled knot, and comparing it to Koepp’s script was merely a way of sorting out my thoughts. I don’t wish to imply that TASM‘s script is a disappointment because it doesn’t do what that one specific script did right; it’s just handy to have that comparison point around, especially as I only just watched the first Spider-Man again and it was fresh in my mind. I could’ve compared TASM‘s script to any number of films, or just said this: The script just doesn’t do a good enough job of creating emotional links between some of the characters, which is frustrating when some of them — Peter and Ben, for instance — work fine. The relationship between Gwen and Peter seemed almost arbitrary, though perhaps that was simply because early reviews hinted at a greater focus on this relationship, in a Twilight-audience-placating way, and I didn’t really feel that.
But the question of tone seemed to become the main sticking point, and the point I tried to make, and hoped that I had, was that Raimi’s vision of the character was more consistent with the idea I have of Spider-Man, but also that there are different takes on Spider-Man even in the comics: see my point about Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, and the two visual takes on Spider-Man during J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the character. My focus was more on the movie because I was talking about the movies, but Peter Parker, in the traditional version of the character, is a light character — compare him to, say, The Punisher, or Daredevil — who suffers terrible tragedy and copes with it by donning a bright blue and red costume and becoming a sassy, confident version of himself.
Within the run of the character he has suffered further tragedy, and with different writers/artists has had different tones (look at the Venom period, with the black costume), but primarily he’s a wisecracker in a slice of the Marvel Universe that’s not particularly dour. He has ups and downs, but those are against a cheerier backdrop that doesn’t hang oppressively over him the way it does for some characters (Batman is the most obvious instance of that). I happen to think Raimi depicts that very well, but let’s ignore that now. As Bassim said, and I didn’t clearly express, this Spider-Man does indeed crack wise. He sasses Flash Thompson early on, and has many jokey moments throughout the film. One throwaway line — while swinging through New York he yells at a cab driver, “Hey, I’m swinging here!” — made me laugh heartily. Some of the jokes are great. But tone alters the context within which the jokes are received, and while Peter tells jokes, within this interpretation of the character, those jokes come off as more aggressive, more rooted in anger and frustration, than usual.
Again, I will stress, Webb is within his rights to take the character down this path. However, this Spider-Man may lack something that made the character so popular, as I stressed within the review. The key scene, which made me realise I just didn’t really like this Spider-Man, was the showdown with the car thief. Some of it is very funny — the knife joke was great — but having Spidey go so far as to cover the thief’s mouth and nose with webbing while ascertaining if he is the man who killed Uncle Ben troubled me. I get that Spidey is mad at the guy, but it’s sadistic, and his jokes suddenly seem like taunts. I’m not saying Webb turned Spider-Man into a monster; he’s still Webhead! Yay! But the decision to paint the character with darker colours means everything comes off differently.
I’m not even sure it’s the thing I disliked most about the movie — a movie I didn’t actually hate, but think is hollow and inelegant — and it’s not like Webb turned Spidey into Spawn or Rorschach, but it is the thing that stuck in my mind, and informed my review the most. I think I did enough to express that what Webb did — independent of Raimi’s movie — is come at the character from a place that I think distorts him, and makes him less appealing. So what I’m saying is that Webb’s movie fails for many reasons, but also because exuberance — an exuberance not confined to Raimi’s movie, but is intrinsic to what Spidey is — has been replaced with angst, not because that’s not like a movie I once liked, but because humour coming from a place of angst and aggression comes off more as sniping and arrogance than it does the chirpy, irreverent mocking of a Spidey I find more entertaining. My error was in drawing a direct comparison to Raimi’s version when in fact this is a widely recognised take on our wall-crawling hero, but I stand by my opinion that once you put Spidey in a darker context, be it in The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man 3, or any number of comic versions, the guy comes off as kind of an aggressive jerk. And I don’t like aggressive jerks.
Return 1. Synopsis: It’s another origin story for Webhead, but this time with The Lizard. Actors: I really like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. They are great. The history: this is pretty loyal to the well-known origin of Spidey, though despite its punishing length much of the canonical detail (look, a wrestling ring!) feels shoe-horned into a plot that’s mostly interesting in pointing out just how depressed Peter Parker is. How popular is Spidey? Very! This movie is already packing them in the countries in which it opened early, despite inspiring numerous shrugging reviews and barely any noticeable excitement. How about them Avengers? Oh man, I loved that movie. What about The Dark Knight Rises? This movie has a couple of weeks to make its money and then it’s over.
Return 2. Before you ask, yes, this is significantly better than the appalling Spider-Man 3; easily the worst movie Raimi has ever made, and one of the very worst superhero movies ever inflicted on the world. And not just because of the dancing and the Hitler hair-do either. Nothing in it works. Fuck that movie.
Return 3. Still, saying that, Raimi’s movies are sadder than a lot of people seem willing to admit. There’s a tragic element to all versions of Peter Parker; there has to be, with an origin that includes being made an orphan and being indirectly responsible for the death of the man who raised him. Nevertheless, Raimi is assured enough to let that darkness play in the corner, allowing Maguire to come into his own in the foreground. Webb, on the other hand, swamps the film in blackness, almost smothering his lead actor. As I say, that’s a valid interpretation. It’s just one I find less interesting.
Return 4. If Raimi’s movie has a visual equivalent in comics, it’s John Romita Jr.’s bright work on Spidey back when J. Michael Straczynski was writing about Spider Totems. Webb’s movie, on the other hand, looks more like Mike Deodato Jr.’s gloomy issues with all of that malarkey with Norman Osborn fathering two super-powered children with Gwen before she died; a true low point for the character, aesthetically and narratively.
Return 5. If I were to believe this, it means The Amazing Spider-Man 2: 2 Amazing 2 Spider is kinda screwed already because Parker finds himself the end thanks to some graffiti or something. The end.
Return 6. Martin Sheen is so goddamn lovable and noble as Uncle Ben that I’m now torn on which is my favourite interpretation. He’s crabbier than Cliff Robertson’s version but as Garfield’s Parker is so much brattier than Maguire’s enthusiastic doofus I was grateful that someone was willing to call him on his crap. Sadly Sally Field’s Aunt May makes much less of an impression than Rosemary Harris, who was so perfect in that role that she basically owns it forever.
Return 7. Gotta give a shout out to the movie’s best scene, with a panicky Spider-Man struggling to save a young boy from a burning car which is seconds away from plummeting into the Hudson river. Garfield brings his A-game to the scene, and — as regular readers will be sick of hearing me mention — if there’s one thing I love about superhero movies it is unapologetic heroics. I don’t watch superhero movies to see superpowered individuals getting into tussles with each other. It’s not the “super” I’m interested in, it’s the “hero”. Any affection I will have for The Amazing Spider-Man will be from this scene, and Peter’s subsequent adoption of the hero’s persona, as he realises Ben was right about the responsibility of the good person. And yes I cried at that scene get off my back just be glad I had an emotion during the movie that wasn’t annoyance!
Return 8. If it seems unfair that I keep comparing this movie to the previous origin story, I’m sorry. But it’s hard not to, considering how often it treads on the same territory. Unavoidable for an origin story, yes, but even when it looks like it’s going to skew away from the Raimi version, Webb’s version just moves back toward it with some new narrative (but not tonal) similarity. Compare that with the Nolan reboot, which came eight years after Batman and Robin (the gap between Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man is only five years). Again we see something colourful (in the hands of Joel Schumacher, at least) replaced with “realistic” and dark, but as the four Burton/Schumacher Batman movies never directly addressed Batman’s origins, Nolan’s use of the same iconography didn’t seem as familiar, especially as he also brought in Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows; something very unfamiliar for many audiences. Webb, on the other hand, is at times replicating beats the audience knows all too well. Much as I watched this new movie in the spirit of it being a clean break from Raimi’s movies, coming home and writing about it just made me want to write about how much I liked Raimi’s first two movies, and why I thought they worked so well; not just as an interpretation of a certain superhero, but also as well-plotted character dramas with strong emotional cores. Raimi (and Koepp and Sargent) gets a lot right that I think Webb (and Vanderbilt, Sargent and Kloves) got wrong, and it’s worth putting the two approaches together for comparison. If that makes me seem like someone who walked into The Amazing Spider-Man determined to hate it for not being Raimi’s , I can only assure you, dear reader, that this was not the case. I really hoped this would be a new franchise that I could love. Maybe the sequel will be good enough to silence my doubts.
Return 9. If I were to compare The Amazing Spider-Man to anything in terms of quality it would be last year’s X-Men: First Class (which I wrote about here); another franchise reboot that contained the germ of a good movie but squandered it by hiding a simple story under too many ideas, too many characters, and a divisive tonal choice.