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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Underwhelming Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man is competently produced, edited and acted, with a straightforward plot and state of the art special effects. And yet, for the first time in decades, I found myself fighting to stay awake during the movie. This is the super-hero action film at its most generic.

It's disheartening to watch good actors such as Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Martin Sheen struggle with a by-the-numbers screenplay that hits all the required notes without creating any music at all. The film bounces from set-piece to set-piece without giving the audiences sufficient reason to care about any of the characters. Here's the basic plot: brilliant but shy high school student Peter Parker struggles to fit in, gets bitten by a spider, winds up indirectly responsible for his beloved uncle's death, conducts an awkward teen romance and fights a super-powered villain.

We've seen all this before too recently. It's only been ten years since Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire first told Spider-Man's origin story on film, and told it well enough to fill that particular niche for at least one generation.(Raimi and Maguire would have returned for a fourth Spider-Man film, but they and the studio had disagreements that led to this reboot.) With the exception of some minor details, this is essentially the same film as Spider-Man (2002). There's nothing new to see here, nothing daring or interesting about director Marc Webb's interpretation of the story; even James Horner has phoned in an utterly uninspiring score. Garfield's Spider-Man cracks wise more often than Maguire's did, and he has mechanical rather than organic web-shooters. When minutia like this is the most remarkable thing about a film, something's gone terribly wrong.

Midway through the film Spider-Man confronts the film's villain, the Lizard, in the sewers. Punches and kicks are thrown, scary fangs are bared, webbing is slung. But the outcome was so predictable - necessarily a draw, since there was still 45 minutes or so of running time left - that I found myself dozing off. I had no emotional investment in either character, and the images on the screen dissolved into a meaningless, frenetic blur. Alongside the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man is my favourite Marvel character, but this movie completely failed to capture the story's soul; it's a parable about personal responsibility and growing up. The movie tries to cover this ground, but it does so in such an obligatory way that the entire premise falls flat.

Superhero films such as The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class, The Avengers, Iron Man and Superman III (no, that's not a typo) have proven that the genre can produce thought-provoking, engaging and fun entertainment. The Amazing Spider-Man is in some ways worse than such derided comic book adaptations such as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Raimi's own Spider-Man 3 or Ang Lee's Hulk; at least those movies took chances and attempted (however ineptly) to explore important questions, evolve the characters or experiment stylistically. The newest Spider-Man film plays everything so utterly safe that audiences will probably forget the movie by the time they cross the parking lot to their vehicles.

I didn't hate this movie. It's merely utterly pointless and unnecessary. Watch Raimi's first two Spider-Man films and avoid getting snared in Webb's web.

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