From the minute Sony tossed out a Raimi-helmed Spider-Man 4 in favor of a fast-tracked reboot of the series (opening exactly ten years to the date of the original Spider-Man), the writing was on the wall: this was product, not passion. I guess having led the charge of the superhero movie phenomenon of the 2000s wasn't enough for Sony, which sunk a rumored $500 million (with advertising) into Spider-Man 3, in the apparent hopes the world would crack open and reveal a solid gold center. Luckily, they had a franchise-milking backup plan: start over, with a director who wouldn't put up a fuss when the studio insisted on things like, say, a fan-favorite villain.
Well, ask and ye shall receive. The Amazing Spider-Man might just be the messiest major blockbuster in years, frantically trying to tick off every demographic box Sony execs can think of instead of telling a story. A hipper Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield)? Check. A younger cast to grab teen audiences? Check. More action, less dialogue? Check. 3D? Check. The only thing three major writers (Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves, Zodiac's James Vanderbilt, and, yeah, Spider-Man 2's Alvin Sargent) have failed to include is any sense of why Spider-Man needed to be rebooted. It's fine for the writers to want to start at square one with the complete stable of characters to play with, but they ought to bring something to the story that helps justify the reset button.
Their changes are cosmetic, and mostly worse: this time around, Peter's not a nerd but a quiet loner, who gets the attention of his classmates when he dares to stand up to the school bully, Flash (Chris Zylka). Most importantly, this includes the attention of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is happy to see someone stand up for others. At home, Peter is distracted by the memory of his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), who walked out under mysterious circumstances when he was a child, and were later killed in an accident. He tries to extract more information about his folks from his aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), but they remain tight-lipped about the research his father and mother were working on when they packed up and left.
Almost everything that happens next is a matter of convenience and happenstance. Out of nowhere, Peter finds a folder with a formula and a newspaper photo of his father with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a geneticist working at Oscorp Industries. Peter sneaks in with several classmates, where (incredibly), Gwen turns out to be their employee tour guide. Despite a strict warning, Peter (coincidentally) wanders into a back room, where an entire family of radioactive spiders are dumped on him, one of which happens to bite him. As luck would have it, Peter's sudden physical changes (super-strength, wall-clinging, heightened sense) just happen to jive with Curt's research, so Peter hands over the missing formula (from the folder) that will solve Curt's gene splicing experiment. Of course, wouldn't you know it, pressure from above forces Dr. Connors to test the experiment on himself, turning him into a super-villain just in the nick of time for Spider-Man to help save the city. (I haven't even gotten into the banned Oscorp device that's conveniently sitting in the lab waiting to play a part in The Lizard's plan, or how Gwen Stacy's dad is the chief of police, or the father on the bridge who might be a help to Spider-Man when he needs it most, or the way Peter apparently just asks for his webbing from Oscorp, or...)
To be fair, the movie breezes along, so the story issues might've been worth ignoring (if not entirely forgivable) if the movie was fun as an action spectacle, but it doesn't succeed there either. Aside from a few gloriously three-dimensional shots of Spidey swinging across the city (I'll give Sony that much -- despite a weak conversion, few films will lend themselves to 3D like the Spider-Man series), director Marc Webb has no idea how to make the movie's action interesting. When Spidey foils a carjacking (shown repeatedly in the advertising), Webb simply cheats by having Spidey move around in ways that are literally impossible. Raimi always conveyed how his Peter was feeling out his powers, developing strategies. Webb's Spidey is just instinctively good at everything, illustrated in a terrible subway sequence that's played for laughs but provides none. Sometimes an evocative comic-like frame or a snazzy web move will catch the eye, but even the Mirror's Edge-like shot from the trailers -- one of the few things Raimi never did -- has been chopped up into split-second cuts.
The one saving grace keeping The Amazing Spider-Man from being a total swing and a miss is some of the casting. Emma Stone continues to be one of the most charming screen presences around, lifting Garfield out of his script-induced funk. Although this version of Peter doesn't get to be any more quippy than Raimi's Spidey (despite what the trailers would have you believe), the scenes Garfield shares with Stone display a crackling, positive energy that is sorely lacking from the rest of the film (there's the faintest echoes of Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow's sweet Iron Man chemistry). Of course, instead of capitalizing this casting kismet, the film gives more screen time to Ifans' shockingly awful performance. His Dr. Connors is practically emotionless until his transformation, at which point he ramps up to a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine that feels like warmed over Dafoe from the original trilogy. The Lizard itself is a non-entity, stomping around but rarely doing anything threatening, much less to Spider-Man; the monster is usually too focused on some other goal to actually fight the hero.
The impending release of Amazing has brought out a legion of internet commenters who apparently hated Raimi's version all along, and expect this new version to deliver on all the things that Tobey Maguire and company failed to. I have a hard time believing this Frankenstein monster of influences (Batman Begins) and poor decisions is the movie they want, but, here it is, and it's practically the same as Raimi's original, with a few altered story beats and way more cooks in the kitchen. If the original film showed all the promise of the superhero film genre, this reboot is a gloomy indication of where we're headed next.
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