Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The...well, Spider-Man, At Any Rate

Since Sony announced they’d be abandoning Sam Raimi’s interpretation of the webslinger in favor of a newer, leaner, meaner, teener version, a lot of talk has taken place about the film’s “necessity.” Leaving aside the issue of whether ANY superhero film is, indeed, “necessary,” I generally expect any given film of any given genre will make the case for its existence. So no, The Amazing Spider-Man is not, in fact, “necessary,” but not because we just saw this story ten years ago; it’s just not a very good movie.

The superhero origin story, undoubtedly the most tedious aspect of an increasingly tedious genre, has somehow become a requirement, treating the hero’s existence as a sort of backwards version of Chekhov’s theory of the gun onstage - if a a web is fired in act three, we must know where it comes from. So the origin story here, once the province of a couple of pages in a comic book, takes on epic proportions, giving us not only the origin of Spider-Man and his eventual nemesis, The Lizard, but Peter Parker (here played by Andrew Garfield) as well. Turns out Peter’s dad was a big-shot scientist with some dangerous theories, so he went on the run and left Peter with his more familiar-to-us guardians, Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Sooner or later he grows up, as all boys must, and I trust you’re all fairly familiar with what happens between him being a normal, if overly-bullied, kid and him becoming Spider-Man, yes?

All right then. The only real difference this time out is that, rather than aiming to win the heart of out-of-his-league-but-geographically-convenient Mary Jane Watson, he instead takes a liking to Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a girl with whom he attends high school, has classes with, and still has to ask her name. Real classy, Peter. Gwen’s a little bit more his speed, being into science and all, and wouldn’t you know it, interning at the very facility around which so much of the plot takes place. Stone and Garfield have fine chemistry, as far the screenplay allows, though at this point it’d be fair to say that Stone brings the best out of just about everyone, never mind an actor as good as Garfield (who will thankfully walk away from this wreck unscathed). The real relief is that, as she has a little bit more going on than Mary Jane ever did, she’s able to contribute to the ensuing conflict quite a bit more, to the point where she and Peter actually sort of become a team.

Conflict, believe it or not, is actually the point at which the film excels. Director Marc Webb, known best for his only other feature, (500) Days of Summer, proves surprisingly adept at the action scenes, capturing some rather striking choreography as Spidey uses his webs every which-way to attack, dodge, and reposition his enemy. As is too often the case with these films, the best set piece comes smack in the middle, when The Lizard attacks Peter at high school, and the way Peter uses his familiarity with the environment to his advantage is nicely understated while still providing the scene appreciated momentum.

Unfortunately, the film can’t all be Spidey fights, but its biggest failing is not quite knowing what it does want to be the rest of the time. Webb’s visual palette is a discarded David Fincher concept. Shot by Michael Bay veteran John Schwartzman, who knows a thing or two about crafting an appealing frame (say what you will about Pearl Harbor...), seems unable to find his footing with his first venture into not only 3D but also, more damagingly, digital. Many of the scenes, particularly the more conversational, look downright cheap, blown-out and waxy and everything one would usually associate with a much less expensive production. Even when they land on their intended look, the darker tones lend an air of seriousness to the proceedings that the screenplay (courtesy of James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, good-to-great writers who seemingly rewrote one another into submission) rarely calls for. The result is a lot of humor that feels totally out of place, and a tone that jumps from romantic to glib to morose to snappy to patriotic to ponderous to horrific to cartoonish, all in very sharp, jolting transitions, and the film just feels very misshapen, an amorphous lump of a lot of things that feel like they belong in a movie without ever feeling like they belong in this movie. And as much as many have celebrated the return of Spidey’s sense of humor (and he gets off some good zingers), the film itself lacks a central sense of humor.

There’s some good stuff hanging around in The Amazing Spider-Man. The cast is notably game, and the benefit of having Martin Sheen onboard cannot be overstated. Rhys Ifans may the latest in a series of actors hoodwinked into believing his stock villain carries some sort of gravitas, but he’s always been a bold enough actor to not fear looking ridiculous. Ultimately, film itself just doesn’t seem to want to exist. I totally subscribe to the notion that pieces of art have a soul and a will all their own, and it’s easy to tell when a film just doesn’t want to be. The latest adventures of the superhero that kicked off the superhero renaissance aren’t unnecessary because we’ve already seen them - with the introduction of The Lizard and keeping Peter in high school, there’s more than enough to differentiate this one. The overbearing familiarity cuts deeper, to the sense that all of these movies are just the same story, told the same personality-free way, by the latest director looking to get a leg up on the competition for the next time he really wants to make a movie.