Peter (Andrew Garfield) has been rebooted back to high school, where he is a slightly picked-on kid whose hobbies include taking photos and looking wistfully at Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Side hobbies include wondering what happened to his parents — who, in a hurry, left a younger Peter with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and then died, I guess — and building cool inventions (a remote-controlled deadbolt and, later, a web shooter). All of these things collide when Peter sneaks his way into Oscorp — where Gwen is working as an intern — and winds up in a lab with genetically engineered spiders. He’s bitten and finds himself transformed a few hours later.
Norman Osborn (the villain of the last Spider-Man origin movie) is dying off-screen in this one. Here, it’s scientist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a friend of Peter’s dad, who causes trouble. Once again, when a project isn’t going as hoped, the scientist injects his own invention, and chaos ensues.
What would I think of this movie if the Tobey Maguire versions had never existed? I wonder, because it is almost impossible to think of this movie as its own standalone entity. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t create the world anew in the way that Batman Begins did some eight years after Batman & Robin. (And, whatever its problems, Spider-Man 3 wasn’t nearly as bad as the George Clooney Batman.) I couldn’t help but think about the last iteration when I watched The Amazing Spider-Man. The criticism I’ve seen other places about this movie is that it’s good but unnecessary — agreed. We get nothing new, really, about Spider-Man. The Christopher Nolan Batman movies gave us a different kind of darker Batman, and a very specific kind of Gotham that was unlike the one in the Tim Burton movies or even the one in the much beloved cartoon. Her, we get roughly the same New York City and characters who are tonally similar to that earlier series. Sheen’s Ben and Field’s May are younger-seeming than Cliff Robinson and Rosemary Harris in the Sam Rami movies, but they still serve the same purpose of helping Peter find his moral center. Garfield is a less aggressively goofy Peter than Maguire was, but he doesn’t present a wholly different character — he’s still a teenager prone to moodiness and not quite sure how to handle his new powers. This Spider-Man is a bit more of a tinkerer and a bit more of a loner.
Perhaps the real difference between the two movies is evident in the biggest difference between the two stories, namely Peter’s crush: Gwen Stacy versus Mary Jane Watson. Kirsten Dunst played Mary Jane much bigger in the aughts trilogy. She is a would-be actress with big dreams and big loves. Gwen seems more like a smart girl who sees the nice guy in Peter before he gets his powers and the potential troublemaker in him after. Stone is a more engaging actress than Dunst and because Stone brings a much-needed element of humor to the movie, I think I liked her more. She is less epic but more enjoyably down-to-earth.
Which describes the movie itself. Those older Spider-Man movies had Sam Rami’s sense of humor, a more classic comic-book-y romance, a dorkier Peter Parker and more mustache-twirling from the villains. In fact, this movie has less villain — the ultimate bad guy turns out to be a half-speed variation on a Dr. Octopus-type figure. Instead, we get a more contemplative Peter who is struggling with his past (the family mystery is a big element here) and his role as Spider-Man as much as he is with a villain. Instead of “with great power comes great responsibility,” here the mission statement is something more like “if you have it within your power to help people, you should.” Similar ideas, but presented on a smaller, more humble scale. Much like the movie itself. B
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence. Directed by Marc Webb from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves (based on the comic books), The Amazing Spider-Man is two hours and 16 minutes long and distributed by Sony.