Perhaps you think the world does not need another Spider-Man, since Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst did such a nice job with him, circa 2002–07. Even if their third installment had less zing in its swing, it seemed unseemly for Columbia Pictures to reboot the franchise so soon, like those people who finish a remodel on their home and then start another a year later. Obviously, Columbia is greedy, but can’t we just enjoy what we already have?
Marc Webb’s ebullient, satisfying The Amazing Spider-Man might leave you with a new attitude about crime-fighting superheroes; it certainly did so for me. They’re becoming like venerable Broadway plays, trotted out with different casts and directors on different occasions, proving themselves surprisingly flexible to new ideas, new stars. You don’t say, “Oh, I’ve already seen Death of a Salesman.” You say, “Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman? I’ll bite.” (Provided you had the chance while it lasted.)
It so happens that Andrew Garfield, the new Spider-Man, played Biff to Hoffman’s Willy in Mike Nichols’ Death of a Salesman this spring and got great notices. He deserves more of the same for his Peter Parker. The character is young, a senior at Midtown Science High School, and stays the same age throughout. The bony, almost bulbous-nosed Garfield (Never Let Me Go, The Social Network) is 28 in real life, a bit old for high school, but between the lanky physique and puff of hair, he manages a credible teen. He does very well with Peter’s goober tendencies as well as the tenderness Peter feels toward Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). This Spider-Man is full of moist sincerity; he’s always tearing up. But Garfield has the edge on Maguire in terms of Peter’s sex appeal, which grows apace — along with his sarcasm — with each street fight won and building scaled. That famous Dunst-Maguire kiss? The Amazing Spider-Man has one just as good, between Peter and his pre–Mary Jane love, high school classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone of The Help and Easy A). Gwen is beautiful, brilliant (she interns at Oscorp) and the daughter of police captain George Stacy (Denis Leary).
A Marvel obsessive may take exception over the way the fleet of screenwriters, including Harry Potter stalwart Steve Kloves, have handled the story. The Amazing Spider-Man is neither a pure return to the source material nor a prequel to the Raimi narrative; it wavers somewhere in between. It helps to be forgetful (which comic-book fans don’t tend to be). I didn’t rewatch the first Raimi film until after I’d seen Webb’s — (500) Days of Summer is the only other film he’s directed — and the sum of my memory of it had faded to Fun! Good kiss! Cute Tobey! Good swinging! But even so, when the new Uncle Ben goes down in the street and the light leaves Martin Sheen’s eyes, all I could think was, How many more times are we going to see this old man’s blood run on the pavement?
The Amazing Spider-Man covers Peter’s bite and subsequent transformation in greater detail, playing off his bafflement about it to fine effect as well as his dawning realization that being part spider is awesome. There’s a nifty scene on a subway car, with Peter apologizing left and right as he discovers his new strength and the challenges of having organic Velcro on his fingertips (he yanks off a woman’s top). How would it be to go from geeky teen who can’t get a date to someone who can move like Mikhail Baryshnikov at warp speed? Thrilling, and that’s what it looks like. None of this is new to us, but Garfield and Webb make it feel convincingly fresh and exciting.
The main narrative difference, other than his youth and love interest, is that Peter is more focused on the absence of his parents, Richard (Campbell Scott) and Mary Parker (Embeth Davidtz), who leave him with Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a prologue and then die in a plane crash. As a teen, Peter finds some of his father’s old files from Oscorp and pays a fateful visit to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former colleague and best friend, although it turns out, not a very loyal one. “He never even called,” spits Uncle Ben. (That backstory clearly awaits us in The Even More Amazing Spider-Man, should the box office respond to this one.) Sheen is just right as Uncle Ben, and Field is good too as Aunt May, although I found her youthful mane of dark, cascading curls distracting. I’m not used to Aunt May (or Field) seeming hot.
Like Norman Osborn, Dr. Connors dabbles in his own genetically engineered serums, which restore a missing arm (plus!) but turn him into a lizard (negative!). Ifans handles the furtive aspect of pre-lizard Dr. Connors nicely, but when he goes reptilian, the man and villain hardly seem connected, unlike Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, who always seemed like an adjunct of Norman. Also, even in 3-D, I found the lizard version of Dr. Connors mechanical and fake, straight out of a B movie. I appreciated Captain Stacy’s withering comment to Peter, mid-lizard-denial, “Do I look like the mayor of Tokyo to you?”
Nearly as many sparks fly between Peter and the cop as they do between Peter and Gwen. For their first date, Gwen invites her classmate to share a special dinner with the family. “We’re having branzino,” she promises. This trendy fish is often served whole on the plate. I think, from the teasing way Gwen repeatedly says “branzino” to Peter, that she finds both her mother’s culinary reaching and Peter’s cluelessness about the treat he’s being offered amusing. They lob the word back and forth flirtatiously, which is weird and yet delightful.
(MORE: Easy A: We ♥ Emma Stone)
Garfield and Stone have serious chemistry (they’re dating in real life). Maybe it’s partly Stone’s husky, Bacall-like voice, but their dialogue has an old-fashioned feel to it — two smart kids sparring, with occasional pauses to kiss. They’re intellectual equals (she’s first in her class; he’s second, according to Gwen), but she’s still swayed by that physical-power business. “I’m going to throw you out the window now,” Spider-Man tells her during a fight sequence, and when he does and she lands safely on the ground, you’d think from the look on Gwen’s face that he’d said, “I’m going to peel your clothes off now,” and done it. I look forward to seeing more of them together, and I suspect audiences will too. The Amazing Spider-Man has a little more than two weeks in theaters to prove itself before The Dark Knight Rises. Speaking of, it may seem unfathomable now, but someday in the not-so-distant future, someone will replace Christian Bale. Blasphemy or economic reality? The latter. And we’ll all be just fine.