I’ve talked a lot in the past about the tyranny of expectations. We bring them to any artistic endeavor we look at, and for better or worse, they shape our opinion of that endeavor. We either put it on a pedestal from which it has to be completely knocked down, or we put it in a hole from which it has to climb out. And sometimes the height or depth of those expectations is such that the film can either do no wrong or do nothing right at all. I had The Phantom Menace on such a pedestal that it took me years — during which I constructed some of the most ridiculous and unsupported defenses imaginable — before I finally knocked it down. But it’s human nature. And really, it’s the intention of most movie marketing to create expectations. It’s just that sometimes those expectations are not what the marketing department had in mind.
I was completely ready to hate The Amazing Spider-Man. For one, it was another origin story, barely ten years removed from the previous one. And apart from Superman and Batman, who has a more recognizable origin than Spider-Man? There are people who have never picked up a comic book who could at least tell you it was a radioactive spider to blame. So half the film would immediately feel like a re-tread. And then there was the dark, brooding tone of the trailers, promising us some of the worst the recent Spider-Man comics have offered (Peter Parker’s parents as at best accidental and at worst knowing accomplices in his eventual transformation, for example) and plenty of Twilight-style angst. I wasn’t looking forward to spending ten bucks to see Spidey crying in the rain. Add to this that, since I was seeing the film at a sneak preview, I spent about ninety minutes crammed into a stuffy hallway with 300 people waiting to get in, and you have one pretty damn deep hole I’d dug for this thing.
The Amazing Spider-Man comes flying out of that hole and then some. When the film ended, I sat there stunned at the complete 180 I’d taken from when I’d somewhat reluctantly driven across town to the theater some five hours previously. This isn’t some unnecessarily Batman-ified Spidey film, it’s not Twilight in spandex. Instead, it’s very much a Marvel Comics film, and if it’s not quite the four-color, gee-whiz style of Sam Raimi’s entries, it’s still unquestionably rooted in the genre. It’s as if Raimi gave us the Silver Age Spidey, while Marc Webb’s offering up the Bronze Age version.
I first noticed the film winning me over during the part I most dreaded: the origin story. A lot of that had to do with the sheer likeability of the cast. Andrew Garfield plays Peter not as the nerdish dweeb Raimi and Toby McGuire went for, but more as the awkward kid who doesn’t yet know how he fits in, and what’s more, doesn’t really see a need to try. And there’s already a bit of imperfect heroism to him — he stops a bully from picking on a younger kid by getting the beating turned on himself instead — so we get the sense that so much of Peter is misapplied, without direction or focus. Garfield really nails this sense of uncertainty, even once Peter becomes Spider-Man; while there’s always a clear sense that he knows what he must do, there’s an underlying current of him not being sure of what he can do. This uncertainty carries over to his relationship with his aunt and uncle, warmly played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen. Having had Peter suddenly thrust upon them by his parents, they’re just as uncertain as to what to reveal to Peter about his past, and while there’s clearly a strong bond there, Peter knows they’re surrogates, standing in for the family who left him behind.
It’s wanting to know more about what happened to his parents that leads him to a closer relationship with Gwen Stacy, a fellow student and intern at the lab of Dr. Curt Connors, a former partner of Peter’s father at Oscorp. Already smitten with her from school, Peter encounters her after sneaking into Oscorp posing as another intern in order to follow up on some research his father left behind. Emma Stone is simply stunning here, completely obliterating Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane from the Raimi films. She’s smart and funny and cute and in some ways just as awkward as Peter, and the chemistry between the two of them (and between Garfield and Stone) is undeniable. So while this part of the film isn’t exactly re-inventing the wheel as far as Spidey’s origin goes, the sheer pleasure of watching Garfield, Stone, Sheen and Field interact draws you into the story.
And it’s a story about who you are and where you’re going being more important than who you were and where you came from. Only when Peter accepts that he can do more good helping people than dwelling on a vindictive search for his uncle’s killer does he truly become the hero he’s capable of being. Conversely, Dr. Connors (an appropriately tormented Rhys Ifans) longs to find a way to heal his missing arm, to make himself into what he once was. And of course, being a Marvel scientist, things go hideously wrong for him, transforming him into the monstrous Lizard. Spidey and the Lizard are mirror images: one created accidentally, one deliberately; one deciding to use their new abilities for good, one using them for a twisted version of “good”. That Peter is key to Connors eventually becoming the Lizard — he provides the doctor with a missing equation his father had calculated that seemingly overcomes a roadblock in Connor’s research — is a large part of what eventually draws the true hero out of him. It’s the sense of responsibility he never took seriously before. So while the film ends with his parents and his uncle still very much on his mind, Peter is determined to be someone they’d be proud of rather than simply solving a mystery or exacting revenge. The hows and whys of their leaving him aren’t nearly as important as what they left him, and what he chooses to do with it.
The film also works as heartfelt comic spectacle. When we see Peter in his full Spider-Man costume for the first time, it’s a thrilling moment that feels earned. Later, a wounded Spidey is struggling to cross the city to reach the Lizard, and the citizens of the New York pitch in to help him however they can. Watching Spidey redouble his determination in the face of this show of faith is downright inspiring. Sure, it might be a somewhat hokey moment, but like his costume and his heroism, it feels earned. Watching Gwen’s father, a police captain played with likeable gruffness by Denis Leary, go from disliking and distrusting Spider-Man to risking his life to help him is another satisfying emotional thread, and lends the climax a little humanity among the mutant arachnid and reptilian goings-on. There’s plenty of humor, including probably the best Stan Lee cameo to date, and everything the trailers made seem grim and gritty doesn’t play that way in the slightest in context; just because scenes take place at night doesn’t make them dark figuratively as well as literally. In fact, arguably the best fight scene in the film takes place in broad daylight, and is a classic Marvel dust-up.
This wasn’t a simple case of giving a film a pass because I saw it for free. I thought that early on, but by the midway point, I knew I was legitimately enjoying it. By the end, well, I won’t quite put it up there with the still-exhilarating Spider-Man 2, but it easily bests Raimi’s other two films in my mind. The Amazing Spider-Man is easily the biggest surprise of the year so far, and a lesson in how expectations should never really survive contact with the actual film. If I’d listened to the me from a few months ago, I’d have given this a pass, and missed out on one of the most enjoyable comic book films ever.