Peter Parker has come unstuck in time. Only five years ago, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man was a grown-up who looked a lot like walking homunculus and worked as a photographer. Five years before that, he was a leotard-clad high schooler dealing with a combination of hormones, rage and radioactive spider venom.
Do we really need to see Pete get bitten again, or see poor Uncle Ben blown away, a mere decade after Sam Raimi ushered in the golden age of comic-book films? Of course not. But then, maybe we do. These are comic-book movies, based on pulp fiction that essentially recycles origin stories whenever a new writer picks up the panels. It's not about whether we've seen it before. It's about how we're seeing it now, and through the lens of sophomore director Marc Webb, The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty kick-ass bucket of popcorn, full of great effects, sly performances and enough original thought that it makes a studio cash grab into a solid piece of pulp.
Webb cut his teeth on overrated angry-emo wank job (500) Days of Summer, so it's only natural his Peter seems drawn from a Dashboard Confessional ballad. He's a super-smart outcast clad in thrift-store duds pining for hottie Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in between snapping photos for the school newspaper and getting his ass kicked. But in the slick hands of Andrew Garfield (the emotional crutch of The Social Network), he's the most three-dimensional part of the bombastic movie, playing Pete as a smartass archetype: the kid whose love of skateboarding and indie music gets him pummeled in high school, but will totally get him laid in college.
Pete's got some daddy issues: His secretive scientist pop abandoned him as a toddler to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (perfectly cast Martin Sheen and Sally Field). We know all this, and we certainly know what's going to happen next, so it's remarkable how well Webb manages to keep it fresh, particularly slapstick sequences in which Peter learns how to control his powers and melees far more brutal than what Raimi offered.
The gritty storytelling shifts make it easy to forgive the film for telling the same story. Raimi's films are rooted not only in Spidey's origins but the origins of Marvel itself, and part of the fun is the breezy, innocent, gee-whiz wonder of it all. Garfield's Spider-Man is a product of the '90s, and as such he embodies a certain cynical cockiness that makes him extremely identifiable, but also kind of a dick. He's humanized by Stone, and the actress does a remarkable job as the flick's emotional core, struggling with Peter's secrets as her police-captain daddy (a terrific Denis Leary) pursues Spider-Man, who is declared a vigilante. Garfield and Stone nail the awkward shyness of young love, providing heft amid the chaos.
Ah, but who cares about kissy-face when you've got Spider-Man slugging it out with muggers and cops, swinging between buildings and, most important, battling the Lizard (the always great Rhys Ifans)? The numerous brawls between Spidey and Lizzy are dizzying in scale, epic slugfests that take place above and below ground, across entire cityscapes and on the sides of skyscrapers, with Spider-Man frequently multitasking by saving citizens from falling debris.
The villain is where Amazing falters. Ifans is relegated to a CGI dinosaur who looks great but is seldom a reflection of the man he was. Hiding a great actor behind a costume can work—Willem Dafoe managed it from underneath a Power Rangers mask in the first film—but Ifans' character, driven to madness by the purest of intentions, is utterly lost behind the snarling teeth.
Still, Garfield, Stone and Leary provide The Amazing Spider-Man with enough heart to go around. When the action crackles, it's a bombastic delight. While it never soars to the heights of Raimi's first two films, it manages to be at once exhilarating, hilarious and bold. If the biggest casualty is the full development of a reptile's feelings, well, so it goes.
SEE IT: The Amazing Spider-Man is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center 10, Regal Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place and more.