Even though the Sam Raimi-directed, Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man movies were each big hits, the third one was kind of a dud critically speaking, and Raimi was having trouble making a story work for the next one. This, despite Dylan Baker being right there in the second and third movies as Curt Connors, thus setting up the Lizard as a likely villain for the fourth movie.
As it turns out, a fourth movie was made with the Lizard as the bad guy, but once Raimi departed, Sony decided, for reasons passing understanding, to reboot the franchise from the ground up, thus giving us, not Spider-Man 4 in 2012, but instead The Amazing Spider-Man.
It was an odd decision to reboot the series and do Spidey’s origin all over again only ten years after the last time, but that’s what Avi Arad and Sony decided. They brought in Marc Webb, hot off the superb romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer to direct, and also re-cast the entire movie, and restructured things as well. While Spider-Man 3 had both Captain George Stacy and his daughter Gwen as minor characters, they were front and center in Amazing Spider-Man, with nary a mention of Mary Jane Watson. Peter Parker’s interest in photography is kept, but he doesn’t become a Daily Bugle photographer yet (so no J. Jonah Jameson or Robbie Robertson). Flash Thompson remains as Parker’s high-school nemesis, and Norman Osborn is mentioned (with a lot of action taking place as OsCorp) but not seen, nor is there any mention of his son Harry.
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In addition, the movie makes use of Peter’s parents, Richard and Mary Parker, who were introduced in 1968’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 as secret agents who were killed by the Red Skull, one of the more bizarre story choices made by anybody at Marvel. Since then, they’ve been pretty much a non-factor, showing up occasionally here and there, but rarely to good effect. In the movie, rather than secret agents, they’re written as scientists who worked with Curt Connors for Norman Osborn, and disappeared and were later killed due to their work.
Andrew Garfield takes over in the title role, with Martin Sheen and Sally Field playing Uncle Ben and Aunt May, respectively. Emma Stone plays Gwen, while Denis Leary is Captain Stacy. Rhys Ifans plays Curt Connors, and Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz play Richard and Mary Parker. Chris Zylka plays Flash Thompson, Irrfan Khan plays Rajit Ratha, an OsCorp executive, and C. Thomas Howell appears as the father of a boy Spider-Man rescues on the Williamsburg Bridge, and, amazingly, plays a character who isn’t evil (a rarity in Howell’s filmography of late).
“Your boyfriend is a man with many masks”
The Amazing Spider-Man
Written by James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves
Directed by Marc Webb
Produced by Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach and Laura Ziskin
Original release date: July 3, 2012
A very young Peter Parker is playing hide-and-go-seek with his parents. However, he looks for them in his father’s office, only to find the place ransacked. Richard Parker pulls a file from a hidden compartment in his desk and is relieved to see it’s there. He takes Peter to his brother Ben’s place and leaves Peter with Ben and his wife May.
Years later, Peter is a high-school student, having been raised by Ben and May after Richard and Mary died in a plane crash shortly after they left Peter with his aunt and uncle. Peter is awkward, tormented by basketball star Flash Thompson. When Peter tries to stop Flash from humiliating another kid, Flash beats him up for his trouble, though Gwen Stacy—who is tutoring Flash—humiliates Flash right back by reminding him how much tutoring he needs.
That night, there’s a flood in the Parker basement, and Ben and Peter pull some boxes out that include Ben’s old bowling trophies and also Richard’s briefcase. Peter finds papers inside it that shows that Richard was working on cross-species genetics with Dr. Curt Connors at OsCorp. There’s a tour for potential OsCorp interns, so Peter goes, sneaking in as another student. (Said student is later thrown out of the building. Peter is distressingly unconcerned about possibly ruining this young man’s life and career.) To his shock, Gwen is already one of Connors’s interns, and she’s the one giving the tour. Despite Gwen’s admonitions to stay with the group, he wanders off to where they’re genetically engineering spiders for no reason the script can be arsed to supply. One of them bites Peter. Gwen is forced to take his stolen badge and throw him out, though not until after Peter impresses Connors with his knowledge of genetic engineering (most of which he got from his father’s papers).
Upon going outside, Peter realizes that he’s stronger than he was, and he can stick to things. He winds up getting into a fight with a bunch of people on the subway, one of whom tried to balance a beer bottle on Peter while he slept on the subway. He was the one dumb enough to sleep on the subway, but these people get knocked around a subway car (and one woman has her shirt torn off) for no good reason.
Peter goes home and has trouble adjusting to his new powers, almost completely wrecking the bathroom at his house. Peculiarly, neither May nor Ben ever comment on his destruction of almost the entire bathroom.
At school, Peter decides to humiliate Flash by asking him to take the basketball from Peter’s hand—which he can’t do either because Peter moves too fast or because he uses his sticking powers to hold onto the ball so Flash can’t grab it. He then does a supremely acrobatic jump shot that destroys the backboard.
Peter gets in trouble for breaking the backboard. At no point does anyone mention the superhuman leap he took to get to it. Ben has to switch shifts to meet with the principal, so he’s working that night, and Peter has to meet May at her job and take her home. (May doesn’t need that, but Ben insists.) Peter agrees.
He goes back to OsCorp and shows Connors the decay algorithm that his father came up with (though Peter himself takes credit for it, not wanting Connors to know that he found his father’s papers). Connors, who is missing his right arm, wishes to find a way to transfer the genetic traits of reptiles that allow them to regenerate limbs to other species.
Peter works with Connors to incorporate the algorithm, and it works! A three-legged mouse is able to regenerate its missing limb. Peter goes home to find a furious Ben—Peter completely forgot to pick up May. May herself doesn’t think it’s that big a deal, but Ben does, and they argue, Peter leaving in a huff (closing the door so hard, the glass breaks).
Ben goes after Peter. Peter goes into a bodega for a bottle of milk, but it’s $2.07 and he only has $2.05. The clerk refuses to accept the lesser amount and kicks Peter out. The next customer distracts the clerk and then swipes the cash from the register. The clerk runs after him, Peter himself uninterested in helping the guy who dicked him around over two cents. The thief trips and a gun falls out of his jacket, right in front of Ben, still looking for Peter. They struggle for the gun, and the thief shoots Ben fatally wounding him.
Peter arrives just in time for Ben to die. Later, the cops provide a sketch of the killer, and it’s the thief that Peter let go. He has a star tattoo on his wrist, and so Peter spends the next several weeks going after anyone who matches that description, and checking their wrists. His first foray doesn’t go very well, and the guys he fights point out that they can see his face now. So he fashions a red mask to cover his face, and later uses some of the OsCorp tech he observed, including biocabling based on spider’s webs, to create webbing that he can fire from shooters in his wrists.
He continues his search. He also finds himself flirting with Gwen more and more, and she eventually invites him over to her house for dinner with her family. Dinner starts out okay, but devolves into an argument over the masked vigilante, with Gwen’s police captain father very much against him. Captain Stacy points out that this vigilante just seems to be on a vendetta against one person he’s looking for. That’s not being a hero, and that’s not helping the cause of justice. After dinner, Peter reveals to Gwen that he’s the masked vigilante.
An OsCorp executive, Rajit Ratha, informs Connors that they’re proceeding to human trials—they’ll do it under the guise of a flu shot at a veterans’ hospital. Connors is appalled, but Ratha reminds Connors that Norman Osborn is dying, and they can’t wait. Connors is fired.
Somehow, Connors still has the code to get the formula out of the OsCorp lab, and he injects it into himself. It regenerates his right arm, but then goes further, turning him into a giant lizard. He goes after Ratha, who is stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge heading to the VA hospital. Peter puts on his new costume and tries to save lives, including rescuing a little boy from a car that had gone over the side, but which Peter saved with his webbing.
When it’s over, he identifies himself as Spider-Man.
Stacy announces that there’s an arrest warrant for Spider-Man, blaming him for what happened on the bridge. Meanwhile, Connors reverts to his human form. He has set up an entire lab in the sewers, er, somehow, and is experimenting with the formula.
Realizing that the creature is Connors, Peter searches the sewers, using his webbing the way a spider would, spinning them in all directions from an intersection of sewers where he saw a mess of lizards all going at once. They fight, and Peter has his head handed to him. He manages to escape, but he leaves his camera behind. Connors finds it and sees the “Property of Peter Parker” sticker that May no doubt insisted he put on it, and now Connors knows who Spider-Man is.
Peter goes to Gwen’s and she tends to his wounds. She’s worried about him the same way she worried about her father some day going to work with his badge and gun and not coming home. Peter tries to tell Stacy about Connors, but Stacy doesn’t buy it—though he has one of his people look into Connors just in case.
Connors attacks Midtown Science High to go after Peter. Their fight takes them all through the school, including at one point through the library, where the librarian looks just like Stan Lee. Connors then heads downtown, where the cops go after him—but Connors has made the serum into a gas, and he turns several cops into lizard creatures like him. He then heads to OsCorp, to use a device we saw earlier that will blanket all of New York in that gas.
Gwen has gone ahead to OsCorp to use her intern’s access to create an antidote to Connors’s formula. Peter tries to go after Connors, but is attacked by the cops, who get his mask off. Peter hides his face until he takes care of everyone except for Stacy. He shows Stacy his face and says that Gwen is at OsCorp and Connors is headed there. Reluctantly, Stacy lets Peter go.
He arrives at OsCorp after a wholly unnecessary and incredibly overlong arrangement of cranes to aid in his web swinging from the guy whose kid Spidey saved on the bridge earlier. Gwen evacuates the building, and gives her father the antidote. Stacy takes it to the roof and helps Peter fight Connors. Peter manages to swap out the cure for the nasty gas, and Connors and the cops are all cured—but not before Connors has killed Stacy. Stacy’s dying wish is to tell Peter to stay away from Gwen to keep her safe.
Peter’s response is to completely ghost Gwen, not even showing up for the funeral. When she shows up at the Parker house to confront him, he just says he can’t see her anymore, and she figures out that her father extracted the promise from him. The next day in class, Peter is late, and says it won’t happen again—the teacher says that he shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep, and Peter says, for Gwen’s benefit, that those are the best kind.
Spider-Man continues to fight bad guys in New York. Meanwhile, Connors is confronted in jail by a mysterious Gentleman, who confirms that Peter hasn’t been told the truth about his parents.
“Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t like my meat loaf?”
What an interminable chore this movie is. Every single scene in this movie goes on about 15% longer than it needs to, whether it’s Peter’s never-explained wander through a room full of genetically engineered spiders, Peter getting beat up after saving a kid from being tormented by Flash Thompson, Gwen and Peter asking each other out (a particularly unpleasant scene that results in constant checking of one’s watch wondering how long this rhapsody in awkwardness will go on), Peter figuring out how to use his powers in an abandoned warehouse (including some remarkably convenient chains to practice web-swinging with), every fight Peter has with Connors, and especially that absurd sequence with the cranes.
Seriously, Spider-Man has webbing that enables him to swing all around the city, whipping around buildings, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, etc. What possible use is a bunch of cranes shoved out into the middle of the street? And why bother showing it?
When I saw Amazing Spider-Man in the theatre, my then-girlfriend (now wife) had to go to the bathroom, and she left right after Stacy let Peter go to OsCorp. By the time she got back, Peter hadn’t gotten anywhere near OsCorp yet. Literally nothing of consequence had happened in the movie in the time it took her to pee, as those of us with empty bladders just spent several minutes watching construction workers call each other on their phones and then watching cranes move around over Sixth Avenue. Exciting stuff.
This movie also makes it impossible for me to ever believe that Peter Parker was able to keep anybody from figuring out that he’s Spider-Man, mostly because he spends basically the entire movie showing off his powers in his civvies, and the entire second half of the movie losing his mask, whether on purpose (on the bridge to help calm the kid he’s trying to rescue down—which was actually pretty effective) or by accident (when the cops fight him). But after trashing the bathroom, after showing up Flash Thompson by making the basketball stick to his hand, by using his powers in public constantly, it’s just frustrating.
On top of that, the movie makes all kinds of story choices that are dictated, not by what makes a good story, but by the fact that it’s only been ten years since someone did a movie that showed Spider-Man’s origin, so changes had to be made to avoid repetition. So Peter can’t enter a wrestling contest and then let the thief who steals the receipts go by because Sam Raimi did that, so it’s a thief at a bodega instead. Except you still need the wrestling hit, because that’s what inspires Peter to put on a costume, so he, er, um, falls through a ceiling into a wrestling ring with posters of guys in costume on it. Sure.
We can’t have Ben tell Peter that with great power comes great responsibility, because the last movie did that, too, so instead there’s a vague speech about responsibility that doesn’t entirely make sense, and then Peter becomes Spider-Man, not because he learned his uncle’s lesson a hair too late, but instead to get vengeance (and ameliorate his guilt over not stopping the guy before he shot his father-figure). It takes a lecture from Captain Stacy instead to put him on the path to heroism.
That’s one of several bits that make me wonder if the filmmakers actually read Spidey comics, or just glanced at them. I get the same occasional disconnect between events and context that I got from Mark Steven Johnson’s wrongheaded Daredevil movie. A perfect example is something that probably seemed innocuous to most of the audience, but it threw me entirely out of the movie. Peter goes on the internship tour by stealing someone’s badge. That person is then thrown out of the building, thus losing his chance at a very prestigious internship, and quite possibly ruining his career and life. It’s played for laughs, but the entire point of Spider-Man is his unthinking actions lead to someone getting hurt. Why not just have him apply for the friggin internship program and avoid having our hero be a thief and a fraud? Not to mention the first fight he gets into is with a bunch of people on the subway whose only crime is to balance a beer on Peter’s forehead while he sleeps. Some hero.
There is nearly zero evidence that Peter has any kind of smarts. Yes, he goes to a brainy high school. Midtown High has become Midtown Science High, which raises the question of what Flash Thompson is even doing there, and why the school tolerates the kind of hazing Flash was doing, as that’s not the sort of thing that would be put up with in a school with “Science” as part of its name—they’re trying to develop Nobel Prize winners, not basketball stars. Anyhow, the point is, despite this, the only evidence we see that Peter is anything other than a typical skateboarding doofus teenager from the early 2010s is his building of the web shooters—which happens in a quickie montage. Every other time he acts in any way science-y, it’s stuff he got from his Dad’s papers.
Peter gets bitten by a genetically engineered spider because he has to for the plot to work, but while the movie contrives a good reason for Peter to be at OsCorp—the connection between his father and Connors—he has no reason to go into the room full of spiders, nor is any reason for the spiders to even be there given. (At least in this movie. It’s explained in the sequel.)
It’s never explained why Connors—who works at a massive cutting-edge technology center—doesn’t have a prosthetic arm. Nor is it ever explained how a just-fired-from-a-corrupt-company Connors is able to get at the serum and build an entire lab in a sewer.
Captain Stacy’s heel-turn is never at any point convincing. His arguments against Spider-Man are solid ones, and Peter does precisely nothing in the movie to make him seem wrong to the general public. Stacy in the comics always thought highly of Spider-Man and guessed on his own that Peter was Spider-Man, but in this movie, he has to take on the lesson-giving role that Ben should have, but he can’t because they don’t want to copy the previous movie. (And ’round we go again.)
To this day, I have no idea why they felt the need to reboot the franchise. This basic plot could very easily have been the basis of a fourth Spider-Man movie that followed the three Raimi films. Even with the re-casting and a new director, it could work. (It’s not like they haven’t re-cast characters in movie series before…) In fact, this particular re-casting of the title character is a very sensible progression, as Tobey Maguire reminds me very much of Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker (he co-created Spider-Man with Lee, and co-plotted and drew the book for its first thirty-eight issues), while Andrew Garfield reminds me just as much of John Romita Sr.’s Peter Parker (he took over from Ditko, and continued to draw the character for most of the rest of the 1960s and has remained associated with the character ever since).
If nothing else, the casting of most of the heroic parts is pretty good. Emma Stone looks exactly like she was drawn on the celluloid by Romita (seriously, it’s like the most perfect casting of Gwen ever), the super-serious faces of Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz well suit the tragic roles of the Parker parents, and holy cow are Sally Field and Martin Sheen magnificent as May and Ben.
Mostly it’s the latter two together that work—the meat loaf conversation is quite possibly the high point of the movie—as Field is pretty much left to flounder after Ben’s death. This is the part where I’m tempted to say, “nobody ever went wrong casting Martin Sheen in anything,” but then I remember Babylon 5: River of Souls and recall that that isn’t quite true. Having said that, President Bartlet makes a dandy Uncle Ben, as he gives the movie life and verve.
Garfield never quite feels right to me. Part of it is his aggressive ordinariness—he’s supposed to be a compassionate nerdy kid, and we just get a stereotypical millennial teenager. Having said that, his chemistry with Stone is superb. I can’t say enough good things about Stone’s work here, as she captures the complexity of the Gwen Stacy character, and she’s just an absolute delight. The awkward asking-out conversation aside, the scenes with Garfield and Stone are very well done. Not surprising, really as they play to Webb’s strengths—(500) Days of Summer was an absolute delight.
The same can’t be said for the bad guys. Irrfan Khan gives what may be the single most boring performance in an otherwise distinguished career, and the less said about Rhys Ifans’s dreadfully over-the-top super-villain the better.
Ultimately, this feels like a knockoff of a Spider-Man picture more than it does a Spider-Man picture. Just a major disappointment all around, exacerbated by the truly awful pacing and hit-and-miss casting and especially being forced to work around the shadow of the decade-old movie that did the same general plot.
Despite all this, the movie did quite well, and a sequel came out only two years later. Next week, we look at The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Keith R.A. DeCandido has always loved Spider-Man, and his first-published short story and his first novel were both collaborative Spidey tales: the short story “An Evening in the Bronx with Venom” (written with John Gregory Betancourt) in the 1994 anthology The Ultimate Spider-Man, and the novel Venom’s Wrath (written with José R. Nieto) in 1998. He also wrote the short story “Arms and the Man” in 1997’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man and the 2005 novel Down These Mean Streets.