Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Dutiful

The Amazing Spider-Man makes for a nice comic fantasy -- which is both a pleasant surprise, since it could have been so much worse, and a bit of a let-down, since the memory of Sam Raimi’s films stands fresh as an example of just how compelling this story can really be. But Sony apparently had some valid business reasons for “rebooting” this franchise so soon after the last trilogy. (Having typed that sentence, I will now take a shower.)

The new film’s chief virtues are a charming romance and some occasionally glorious 3-D spectacle (at least when there isn’t any action to worry about onscreen). The director, Marc Webb, had his breakthrough with the indie break-up flick (500) Days of Summer, which was a bit too insistently impish but also displayed nice chemistry between its leads, It Things Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. So too his Spider-Man is a decidedly romantic one – this time, the chief object of high school nerd Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) affection is his smart, gorgeous classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

The chemistry between Garfield and Stone is remarkable – they not only look good, but they look like they’d be good together. (This stands in sharp contrast to the romance between Maguire and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson in the Raimi films – it worked early on, when she was a wannabe model and he was just a pining dork, but later, despite the fact that he had flowered into a superhero, they felt strangely misaligned.) In the original comic books, Gwen actually met a notoriously tragic fate, but it’s too early for that, this being another origin story. Also because the film is so weightless, almost bubbly – nobody in the world of this Spider-Man feels vulnerable, even though a couple of major characters do buy it by the time it’s all over.

That may be in part because Webb doesn’t seem particularly able to direct action, or to build meaningful onscreen suspense (or offscreen suspense, for that matter). The fights between Spider-Man and his chief villain in this film, The Lizard, nee Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), look nice but have little impact. Webb also commits the borderline unforgivable crime of botching the “Uncle Ben” moment. The iconic scene where Peter’s beloved uncle (Martin Sheen) is killed by a petty criminal the boy has just let go is shot so clunkily (complete with awkwardly delayed reactions and some weird spatial cock-ups) that you might understandably think it’s meant to be staged in the movie as well. I say “unforgivable” because this scene is the moral fulcrum on which pretty much the entire superhero universe turns. If it doesn’t work, then all these guys are just nutty vigilantes in tight suits.

Beyond that, there’s a tonal issue as well. Raimi’s films, especially the first one, achieved a kind of highly mannered realism (or “realism”). They could indulge in the slapstick of Peter Parker discovering his powers one minute, then give us Willem Dafoe hamming it up in a mirror the next. All the various, seemingly disparate elements of the Spider-Man story – the faux working class grit of Peter’s life with his aunt and uncle, the high school angst, the Kabuki posturing of the supervillains, the boisterous wish-fulfillment fantasy of swinging through the air – felt like they all genuinely belonged in the same film. And Raimi invested each moment with the discovery of the new – I still remember the giggling fit I had when J.K. Simmons’s J. Jonah Jameson (my least favorite Spider-Man character as a kid) suddenly appeared, doing his mile-a-minute His Girl Friday shtick.

In contrast, Webb’s film lurches between obligatory tonal blocks, with varying success – the scenes between Peter and Gwen work marvelously, as do Spider-Man’s eye-popping swings through the city, the lit caverns of Manhattan yawning beneath him. But attempts to give the villain shading – Connors starts to imagine that lizards are the perfect species because they can grow their own limbs – or to set up conflict between Peter and Gwen’s police chief father (Denis Leary) fall flat, like boxes being checked halfheartedly in the screenwriter’s ledger. That said, the film will probably be a hit, and we’ll probably get a sequel. I’ll be curious to see if, freed from the stations of the origin story cross, Webb and his team can stake new ground for these characters.

No comments:

Post a Comment