Monday, July 2, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man Reviewed

As an angry nerd who was raised on comic books, I have a personal stake when Hollywood hijacks one of my beloved comic heroes and has their way with them. Sometimes, we get a disaster like Catwoman. I’ll give you a moment to stop screaming and vomiting. …and we continue. Sometimes we get Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. After watching The Amazing Spider-Man, the older Spider-Man films now play like Tim Burton’s Batman in my head. They are whimsical and fairly non-threatening with too much time spent on overly mushy, mumbly moments where our protagonists drone on about their boundless love, and at the time, it is all we had, so it was good. Peter Parker was super nerdy, Mary Jane was missing a bit of her ka-pow…if you know what I mean…and there was just some element missing. The humor of the comics..the intensity of the action..the depravity of the villains…SOMETHING just did not translate. Even New York was this sort of idealized, convenient Raimi creation. All that is about to change.

As Batman went from Burton to Nolan, we now go from Raimi to Webb. You’ll immediately notice the city is darker and dirtier with graphitti that doesn’t look like it was painted on in photoshop. This city has teeth. It may not be a perfect New York, but it comes pretty damn close, and I grew up in Brooklyn so I feel qualified to say so. These streets can make things lonelier for a teen trying to find his place in the world. The death of his parents at an early age hasn’t allowed for the development of much more than a wall flower, but Peter Parker has a loving family and an urge to protect the innocent, even at the risk of being pummeled himself. It is one such pummeling that draws the attention of Gwen Stacy, but our Peter can’t seem to spit out the words to capitalize on the moment. Luckily, fate is an ever present spectre in our hero’s life. One such fateful circumstance leads Peter to find the scientific work of his deceased father, which drives him to seek out Doctor Curt Connors and from there; the pieces of an intricate puzzle begin to fall into place. In a modernized, not so classic interpretation of Spider-Man’s origin, the spider bite of destiny takes place and a hero is born. Unfortunately, mere moments later, a monster is also given life.

I suppose my biggest fears lay in the studio’s re-interpretation of the source material. Would they make it ultra modern and more like the Ultimate Spider-Man comic I was unfamiliar with? It was the tone that set the stage for the entire film. When we first meet Peter Parker, his world seems very small and so our field of vision is confined to this microcosm that is his whole life (ie; school, the road traveled from school to home and said home, created by Uncle Ben and Aunt May.) Though it is years later, Peter still comes off as a survivor of the loss of loved ones and so the music and camera angles enhance that lingering sorrow. At times you get the idea Peter would like to just blend in with the wall paper and disappear all together. The tone shifts when Peter is bitten. A whole new world is opened to him and as his heart soars at the possibilities, the music becomes a sort of anthem of teen triumph…and as he embraces new power, that music turns epic in scale, as does your view. The whole city is now literally at his fingertips and we are along for the ride. Those worried that this means exhaustive use of the threatened “first person shooter” perspective will take comfort in the fact that it is used MAYBE twice and then left aside. Amazing Spider-Man seems content to explore Peter’s character first with those close to him second …and when you do that correctly, gimmicks just seem like a waste of time.

In building a new Spider-Man, the film’s creators appear to have employed two affectations with incredible results. One is the transformation from Peter to Spider-Man on a psychological level. When just being himself, Peter struggles to find the words to even have an effective conversation with Gewn Stacy, who is delightfully dorky in her own right and completes those sentiments for him. When he dons the mask, his Spider-Man character is confident to the point of false bravado. Basically, he can’t shut up if he wanted to. It is his banter that was sorely missed in previous films and is used PERFECTLY throughout the movie. Spider-Man is hysterical, but not insufferable. When you read the comics, you almost feel bead for the villain going toe to toe with Spidey. He isn’t just taking them down in an effortless manor….he is belittling them as he does it. It is this humiliation that most likely creates those life long enemies that continually seek to take Spider-Man out. Peter’s actual physical transformation happens in the blink of an eye and no pausing of the action to embrace the moment. The second affectation I mentioned is in Spider-Man’s movement while in the suit. Being souped-up with super spider DNA, Spider-Man is a lanky, almost creepy character…tensed and ready to strike in a heartbeat. Andrew Garfield used this knowledge to create an almost twitchy performance, with Spider-Man aware of his surroundings, feeling out the moment for his next move whole looking about like a bird sensing prey. In the next second, Spider-Man pounces, and instead of fighting you face to face as a man would, he is all over you and all around you employing his powers of sticking to any surface and startling speed to dizzying effect. As you turn your head to see where the first attack came from, he’s already got you gift wrapped for approaching police. THIS is the Spider-Man I had always imagined as a kid and as I watched, I could not help but grin uncontrollably.

Another worry for fans was that basketball like, ultra-textured super suit. The challenge for any crew in a super hero movie is to try and present that iconic image in a way that doesn’t come off as silly to modern audiences who may be unfamiliar with the comics (and not already sold on a man in tights..which in itself sounds ridiculous.) Some just throw it out the window, like in The X-Men…and then everyone is in biker gear. Recently, creators have employed intricate styling…with mixed results (coughgreenlanterncough). I’m very happy to report that not only does the Amazing Spider-Man’s costume work well on screen, it is spectacularly striking in 3D. It catches just enough light to be dramatic while not looking leathery, and pops against the dark New York City skyline. Sure, it seems a bit advanced for a kid who was wearing a ski mask and a hoodie in days previous to create, but damnit…he’s a scientist. Let’s suspend disbelief, shall we?

By now you must realize I am in love with this film. My childhood imaginings are realized and 99% of those items that gnawed at me in Raimi’s Spider-trilogy have been sacked. The only way I could be happier was if there was a throwaway scene where Spider-Man unmercifully taunts Rhino into submission before rendering him immobile for incarceration. Sadly, that is not to be…but we’ve got Lizard action!! Putting Spider-Man up against a 7 foot hulking monster with razor sharp claws and a seemingly intact intellect is a stroke of genius. Lizard is an engine of destruction, but there is always an end game in mind…and that mind is the key to an enjoyable villain. Of course, we still have that pitiable aspect where in we know Curt Connors is a bit of a victim in all this, and so we can not really embrace the joy of HATING the baddie (as is the Spider-Man movie tradition), but the creature looks menacing enough to squash any misgivings and Peter’s cuts and bruises are real enough to convey he is in genuine mortal danger as he protects those that would put up less of a fight. Connors may be in there somewhere, but any human who stands in his way is still food for the grinder! That very tangible danger is another element we were never allowed to fully embrace before.

I’m forced to speak on the acting performances in this review, even though it is already a lengthy one, as it adds so much to the whole. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have an excellent chemistry allowing you to believe those sparks the film implies. They both seem cut from the same geeky cloth and so, even though she seems more popular than he, they click..and make sense doing so. Stellar acting from both as their moments together remain very genuine. Rhys Ifans employs a more manic approach as we are meeting the scientist at a critical point in his career, so he is already in a desperate situation. Ifans does “frazzled” without it becoming comical and achieves the level of intensity needed for us to believe a man of his intellect would experiment on himself. Martin Sheen and Sally Field are adorable in this movie, portraying loving family members well aware that the boy they are raising is still very sensitive from events of the past. They are supportive and cheerful without being sickeningly sweet or coming off as forcing a playful banter. I can see Sally Field being the perfect, funny and loveable Aunt May we’ve always wanted. It would be easy for Dennis Leary to just play himself in this film and folks would applaud, but instead, we get the overwhelmed father of a teenage girl he is losing control over alongside the overwhelmed New York Police Officer facing the potential nightmare of a masked vigilante attempting to do a job his men where trained for. There are moments where he is the stern leader of men, taking the hard line on the topic…and others he is the cynical father just trying to retain some semblance of power. The result is classic Leary charm and no shortage of laughs.

With a fantastically fun pace, moments where love blooms without throwing on the breaks, Spider-Man striking poses plucked right from comic panels and not looking ridiculous doing so, a villain that oozes menace to the point where he might grab our hero by the neck and eat him and no shortage of hysterical moments as counterpoint, woven into the language of the film allowing them to occur naturally…The Amazing Spider-Man is a triumph. If The Avengers taught us anything, it is that super heroes can work in a real world setting without straying too far from the source material. Now Amazing Spider-Man shows us other companies not so close to that source can do an equally astounding job with a lot of love...and no shortage of sweat I’d gather. While Amazing Spider-Man does contain moments of pure spectacle action movie fans crave, it does not sacrifice its heart in the process. Spider-Man remains a mortal being, throwing himself recklessly between innocents and an oncoming train and that city, at its core, loves him for it. You can feel that connection. It is this heaping helping of Heart that turns a good movie into a great one, and Amazing Spider-Man has it in spades.

Note for 3D fans: While there is nothing mind blowing that would make me say you HAVE to see this film in 3D (and having no comparison to a non 3D cut), I will say the movie is beautiful from end to end and the 3D certainly does not hamper that. Dipping down your glasses to check things out won’t do you any favors. This is REAL 3D….but don’t expect Spidey swinging over your head.

Note for toy fans or just those who devour EVERYTHING about upcoming films: There was some speculation as to the nature of The Lizards power as hinted at in a figure with translucent legs. Does he grow back limbs in the film or have chameleon like skin allowing him to blend with his surroundings? The short, non-spoilery answer is no. I’ll also comment that the “SWAT Lizards” are in the movie and that angle is a feature in the plot, but it seems like something that took away from the central story and so a good 90% of it is on the cutting room floor. I suspect we’ll see a hefty director’s cut with that footage re-attached like Curt Conners’ arm. (Wokka)

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