Now with 20% more amazement

I’m working on a big post about superhero writing, but I’m not going to post that tonight after all. Because we just saw Amazing Spider-Man and I feel like writing a spoiler-free review while there’s still time to see it in cinemas.

Which you should do. ‘Cos it’s kind of terrific.

The bulk of that terrific-ness can be chalked up to Andrew Garfield, who is fantastic as Peter Parker. He brings a cheeky and impulsive energy to all his scenes, even the ones where he’s miserable or injured, building up a portrait of a smart, likeable teen who’s nonetheless bottling up a wellspring of hurt. It’s a great departure from Tobey Maguire’s emo nebbish, and it spills naturally into the smart-mouthed momentum of Spider-Man when he puts on the suit.

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is the other major pillar of the film, as much of it focuses on their relationship and how it quickly develops. Stone brings nearly the same energy and charm as Garfield, and there’s a real chemistry to the scenes between them that gives the story emotional weight without being too syrupy (despite the best efforts of the intrusive score/soundtrack, but I always bitch about that). I liked the fact that Gwen is mostly portrayed as smart, independent and capable, rather than someone who has to be protected; I also liked the way they retained a lot of her original 60s-mod fashions but modified them just enough to be current.

(As for the rest of the actors, casting Martin Sheen as Ben Parker was inspired, and he brings an entirely different but equally effective gravitas to the role that he did to Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. Sally Field is a surprising but very good choice for Aunt May, although it’s a smaller role, and Denis Leary is competent enough as Gwen’s police chief father.)

Visually and tonally the film is excellent – more grounded and less stylised than the Raimi trilogy, which tried to evoke the look of the original 1960s comics in a lot of ways. While Amazing doesn’t go Full Nolan in modernising things or abandoning established comics canon, it certainly tries to stake its own territory and make changes where it needs to, whether to Spider-Man’s origin or to the costume, which is pleasingly genuine in its look and construction, down to Peter using sunglasses lenses to make the eye-pieces. The physicality of Spider-Man, his webshooters and his movement is all much better than it was before, thanks to improved CGI that puts motion-capture tech onto real actors and stuntmen rather than ragdoll simulations.

If there’s a problem, it’s with the villain of the piece, Curt Connors/the Lizard. Not with Rhys Ifans’ acting, which is competent, or the look of the character, who is suitable huge and scaly and scary. But the film doesn’t introduce and escalate the threat of the Lizard as strongly as it should, because so much time is instead devoted to Peter’s development. The Lizard doesn’t show up until past the halfway mark and there’s a very abrupt curve from ‘fleeting appearance’ to ‘threatens all of New York’. A better approach might have been to develop the two characters and their storylines in tandem, letting them bounce off each other at multiple points in the movie rather than all at the end – that would have both improved the pacing (the middle part drags a little) and given more breathing room to showcase the Lizard’s plan and powers.

There are some other script and direction issues, but I don’t think I can explore them without getting specific and introducing spoilers. It’s not perfect, and the last third or so has most of the problems – but they’re not so problematic as to damage the movie or undercut the performances.

Was it too early to reboot the series? Did we really need another origin story? Well, maybe not, but the tonal differences in Amazing are strong enough that it would never have gelled with the Raimi series, and a new origin lays strong tracks for a new series that can forge its own, frankly superior identity. I don’t think a 4th Raimi film would have been as strong as this one, and we would have missed out on Garfield redefining Peter Parker and making him his own. If the price of developing a new direction and style is to sit through Spider-Man’s origin story again… well, it’s a pretty cool story, you know? Even if I have seen something like it before.

So yeah. Excellent movie and a great new inclusion into our superhero month; easily on a par with the other Marvel films of the current wave and better than some (ie Thor and Iron Man 2). Go see it before it finishes up in cinemas.

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