By Bob Clark
The Spider-Man character is now celebrating its 50th anniversary in the pages of Marvel Comics, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko in the pages of Amazing Fantasy before being granted a full book of its own that would eventually become one of the flagship titles for both that particular publishing house and for superhero comics in general. It’s almost surprising that it took until 2002 for the first full-fledged motion picture starring Peter Parker, the science-geek turned teenage hero after a fateful bite from a radioactive spider, especially considering that before then there were no less than four Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, four live action Batman films with three different Bruce Waynes (and another eventually on the way courtesy of Nolan & Co.), one big-screen X-Men adventure and countless animated versions on the small-screen, as well as a handful of live-action series like The Incredible Hulk (there was also that movie Ang Lee did, but whatever). But then Spider-Man, like most of the Marvel superheroes, relied on powers that weren’t quite so easy to put on screen given the limitations of physically captured special effects in the 70′s and 80′s. It’s really not that difficult to make us believe a man can fly, or make us wonder where a vigilante gets such wonderful toys, but asking us to buy that a high-school kid can climb a skyscraper with his bare hands and swing from the rooftops with spinneret silly string? All one has to do is look at the live-action Spider-Man series from the 70′s to see how dreadfully silly it could look without the right tools at your disposal.
Anyway, that 2002 Spider-Man film directed by Sam Raimi managed to put the character and his fabled origin story on the screen and reach a mass audience, most of whom probably already knew the basics from any of the various animated series, video games and comic books themselves. Hell, by 2002 you could’ve already been introduced to Spidey through the mainstay Marvel series, 40 years strong by then, or 2000′s revamp Ultimate Spider-Man, under the long-running stewardship of writer Brian Michael Bendis, who managed to successfully update the old stories to a new millennium and captivate a whole new generation of fans. Bendis mixed a skillful degree of contemporary revisionism and respect for the original source material in his weaving of this modern Peter Parker, creating a surprisingly convincing story over more than a decade with a beginning, middle and end all its own that both alludes to the storylines and characters of the original series while arranging them in ways that both streamline the narrative and pump up the drama throughout in ways that resonate both in terms of its 2000′s setting and overall, as well. It’s saying something when you can make even the wretched corporate-franchise mess that was the “Clone Saga” into something readable, much less fun to read, but Bendis did just that and more, allowing his version of Spidey to stand on its own in something of the same calibre as Frank Miller’s or Loeb & Sale’s takes on Batman, or Chris Claremont’s definitive stamp on the X-Men.
As such, when the time came for Raimi to direct his big-screen version of Spider-Man, one could be mistaken for thinking he and screenwriter David Koepp might’ve taken some of their cues from Bendis and his revolutionary efforts at updating the classic character from the increasingly remote flavors of the early 60′s to just around the corner of a new millennium. Then again, considering the generations that had grown up expecting a Spider-Man film that best reflected the spirit and style of the classic 60′s incarnation, it’s by no means surprising that Raimi’s film was more of a retro affair. Yet popular as it was, I could never quite shake myself of the distaste for how much it missed the mark, both in terms of telling the story and finding some kind of footing in a modern world. In both the script and visual style, very big things are gotten wildly different, if not outright wrong. Raimi especially failed to capture anything even remotely resembling a real New York City onscreen, instead favoring a digitally cleaned-up metropolis on the order of the spic-and-span graffiti-less Paris of Amelie, yet with none of the fairy-tale flair. In that sense, and for how it ascribed hero-worship deification to proud Manhattan cops and firemen it almost seemed to presage both 9/11 and the cult of New York’s Finest in its wake, and the eventual Disney merger with Marvel Comics in the ways that Raimi’s version of the city more and more resembled the Times Square remodeling project invited upon the city by the house of the mouse. It got even worse when those movie urbanites were asked to open their mouths, with accents and attitudes as authentic to New York as Mockney is to Cockney. It wasn’t a comic-book version of New York, but the Giuliani version of it– by far the more artificial and distasteful incarnation.
Besides that, there’s all manner of ways in which the Raimi & Koepp film failed spectacularly with its storytelling, even while breaking box-office everywhere it went. Shooting in 1.85, the director’s action set-pieces and the coverage he uses to capture it are both fairly limited and in some cases wrong-headedly boring– it’s increasingly frustrating to have fights take place shot in an aspect ratio that doesn’t properly allow for both superhuman characters to be on the screen at the same time. Raimi would correct that mistake and shoot his two sequels in 2.35, granted, but it only underlines both the problem of the mis-en-scene there and the choice of the high-flying Green Goblin as the film’s villain to begin with, especially considering the ways that it deviates from the fabled Gwen Stacy story (which was the only thing that ever made either of those characters remotely interesting in the first place) and the way he’s put on screen. What’s the point of casting Willem Dafoe if you’re just going to put a fixed mask in front of his face? Casting itself is a major problem throughout the Raimi trilogy with Tobey Maguire’s scoop-of-vanilla-on-white-bread-with-mayonaise Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst’s lame bottle-redhead Mary Jane, though to be fair they’re both failed by the script long before they get a chance to lack any evidence of chemistry onscreen. Koepp’s version of Parker is more of a limp stoic and far removed from the bouncy, wisecracking teenage vigilante of any issue from the comics (the closest we get to a classic Spidey quip basically amounted to a weak, ugly bit of homophobic gay-bashing), just as his MJ lacks any of the spitfire, catty attitude that made her captivating on the page, instead settling for a depressive hand-me-down girlfriend vibe that would seem more at home on 90210 or its ilk.
As such, I could hardly have been less disappointed when Sony announced plans to reboot the franchise, just barely ten years after the first film debuted, a move that most critics attacked as a cynical effort to push Raimi out after the lackluster reception of Spider-Man 3 and to keep the character out of Marvel’s hands as they began building their own blockbuster cinematic enterprises, culminating in The Avengers from earlier this year. Time will tell if Spidey will ever swing into action with the rest of those corporate superhero entities (as I’ve said before, he was never really one of that team to begin with, so it could mean less to me), but at least by now we’ve finally seen what a proper Spider-Man movie can look like when done right, and with an eye for both capturing the classic and modern for new audiences. Though working from a sometimes disjointed Frankenstein-script inspired largely by Bendis’ Ultimate run from Alvin Sergant, James Vanderbilt and Steve Kloves, music video and (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb manages a cinematic version of the 50 year old superhero that’s both current to trends in the real world and cinema while managing to remain true to the roots of the character’s mythology and deliver one of the most impressive feats of comic-book action storytelling this side of Richard Donner’s original ode to the Man of Steel.
By now, of course, there’s already been the obligatory accusations that Webb’s style aims for more of the dark and gritty style of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and that kind of tone is at least somewhat wrongheaded for the comparatively bright and zippy atmosphere of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original. That’s both true and misleading– yes, The Amazing Spider-Man has a more shadowy vision than the candy-coated Raimi films, but that’s more owing to the relative realism on display here. Though shot primarily with studio-sets in Los Angeles and occasional location work in Manhattan, Webb’s vision feels much truer to the look, feel and spirit of New York than anything from the prior films. Even when Webb indulges in the same kind of sentimental all-American hogwash from the Raimi films, he manages to both ground it and play with it in ways that make it feel like a perfect blockbuster ode to all walks of city life, from the intellectual know-it-all high schoolers to the rough-and-tumble hardhat construction workers. It helps that Webb and his screenwriters allow Spidey to get into some crisply choreographed fight sequences with New York cops and SWAT teams– bringing back a little of the anti-establishment fire that ran through the comics even back in the Lee and Romita years– and that those authorities are invested with a genuine narrative dynamic via the character of Captain Stacy’s efforts to capture the red-and-blue vigilante in the interests of law and order.
Captain Stacy’s just one of the classic comic-book characters more or less overlooked in the Raimi films who gets a second-chance here in the Webb film, though he’s the only one to get a significant revisionist update for the modern world (James Cromwell’s appearance in the last Raimi flick is closer to the character as an elderly policeman than Dennis Leary’s shotgun toting smart aleck with a badge). Rhys Ifans’ take on the sympathetic, but demented Dr. Curt Conners– mild mannered scientist turned into a megalomaniacal mutant lizard upon injecting himself with a reptilian formula to regrow his amputated arm– manages to mix both classic mad-scientist insanity and gravitas in equal amounts, allowing his character to better blend in with a long-term backstory involving Parker’s mysteriously absent scientist parents. Sally Field and Martin Sheen may at first be a little distracting as Aunt May and Uncle Ben, but their loving, no-nonsense blue collar spirit helps give them more dimension than the lifeless cardboard cutouts of Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson from the Raimi films, and without ever going quite as overboard in modernizing them as Bendis did in the comics (no pony tail for Uncle Ben).
Best of all the recasting, however, are Andrew Garfield’s Peter, balancing awkwardness and charm in a way that Tobey’s stiff take could only ever hypothetically approach, and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, which manages to elevate her not merely to the pretty-damsel-in-distress level that John Romita’s illustrations provided on the page, but far in a way makes her a living, breathing character of her own. Though the script mainly just gives them empty pauses to awkwardly share together between the action beats they zig zag through, the two of them share enough of a natural, winning chemistry to make the prospect of a full telling of the Gwen Stacy arc good and bad in all the best ways. And given the creative ways in which Webb and his team conceives, stages and executes epic superhero action sequences from beginning to end (and in native 3D, no less), what it all boils down to is not only one of the most dramatically and emotionally fulfilling comic-book movies in years, but easily one of the most visually stunning ones. Webb displays a gift for putting together action set-pieces that are both engaging, inventive and clear that even seasoned vets like Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan have been mostly unable to approach in their movies– from the clumsy trial-and-error discovery and experimentation with his powers to the acrobatic fights shared with crooks, cops and the Lizard alike, Webb’s Spidey is one that dances across the walls and ceilings of the screen in ways that ought well stand among the very best of superhero set-pieces.
Far in a way, Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man at the very least a stronger debut than the 2002 original, and if things keep up we might even see something better than Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (though I doubt we’ll get as impressive a Doctor Octopus as Alfred Molina). Damned if it isn’t the best Marvel movie I’ve seen yet, and at least as good as anything from DC.