The Amazing Spider-Man

Nominative determinism is a theory in psychology that supposes a person’s name has some influence over what they do with their life. Mr Field might grow up to become a horticulturalist, for example and Mr Payne a glazier, or a dentist. So it was predestined that Marc Webb, in only his second feature, would direct The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Comics’ hasty re-imagining of their superhero franchise. Even that mild coincidence won’t be enough to distract attentive cinemagoers from the fact that they’ve already seen this film, exactly a decade ago, when Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s film (the first in a dwindling trilogy that finally exhausted itself in 2007) kick-started the current renaissance in comic-book blockbusters.

Since Raimi’s Spider-Man, almost every spandex-clad superhero has had a cinema outing: Batman, Superman, Iron Man, even second-tier champions such as The Green Lantern and Captain America. Just last month, Marvel Comics crammed as many of their characters as could possibly fit into one film, and made another billion at the international box-office. So, perhaps understandably, the industry giant thinks the time is right to reinvent Spider-Man for a new generation; anyone under the age of ten and hopeless amnesiacs. Myths and legends are designed to be told and retold, I suppose, but in a market saturated with superhero origin stories, blockbuster sequels and special-effects derived fireworks-displays, The Amazing Spider-Man really needs to live up to it’s over-confident billing.

Maguire has been replaced by the taller, leaner Andrew Garfield – the likeable British actor best known for his supporting role in The Social Network – but apart from a few tweaks, the story is stultifyingly familiar. This time it opens with young Peter Parker being separated from his parents, Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) who leave him in the care of their relatives Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field, a great pairing) when Richard’s scientific research causes the family to be threatened by sinister forces. Growing up safe in suburban anonymity, Garfield’s lanky, awkward and now orphaned Peter is skateboarding around his school while tinkering with electronics and throwing forlorn glances at his crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

You already know the rest: Peter visits a laboratory and is bitten by a radioactive spider. Suddenly, he’s no longer a geeky beanpole, but a faster, stronger, stickier teenager; a development neatly captured in a scene on a subway where his abilities surprise himself as much as a potential mugger. Having acquired his red spandex suit, and started his campaign against evildoers, the story brings him into the orbit of one-armed geneticist Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose sense of right and wrong has been clouded by his obsessive scientific experimentation.

Where once superhero movies aspired to little more than recreating the experience of reading the comic-book; a series of set-pieces arranged as flat, highly-detailed tableaux, the genre has matured over time to incorporate credible, well-acted drama that adds credibility to their character’s emotional lives. Webb’s previous film 500 Days of Summer was a lightweight indie rom-com but it had heart and soul, something he carries with him to the superhero franchise, successfully combining shaded, complex characters with grandstanding spectacle, something Raimi’s brightly-coloured rollercoaster struggled to achieve. There are exhilarating moments of airborne acrobatics to enjoy as the whooping hero swoops through the Manhattan skyscrapers at the end of a silvery thread, but the 3D effect is too sparingly-used to justify the extra couple of euro on the ticket price.

In re-building Parker into an introspective, uncertain teenager more typical of his debut, Webb has cast well in Garfield, who might be ten years too old to be a high-school student but brings an air of genial befuddlement that helps to smooth out the bumps in the fantastical, sometimes illogical storyline. Opposite him, Stone’s Gwen is far more than elbow-gracing eye-candy, but a complicated, smart and high-achieving heroine with parental issues of her own to work out. Together, they make for a charming, charismatic screen couple. As Peter Parker struggles to adapt to a changed existence, he must endure meaty dramatic crises, abandonment, grief and sacrifice, given a commendably credible treatment by an in-form ensemble. However, as the plot scurries along, Webb introduces elements of a glossy corporate conspiracy thriller which he then more or less forgets about; leaving the strands of that sub-plot dangling amongst a frayed web of narrative dead-ends.

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