Friday, July 13, 2012

New 'Spider-Man' offers worthy reboot to franchise

Five years after audiences last saw Tobey Maguire swinging around New York as our favorite arachnid superhero in "Spider-Man 3," we have the "The Amazing Spider-Man," a complete reboot with a new cast and a retelling of the origin story.

Going into "The Amazing Spider-Man," the biggest complaint seems to be that we don't need another film about how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. It was only a decade earlier that Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" told the story of how geeky Peter Parker was bit by a radioactive spider and gained super powers.

But is this really any different than when we get a new James Bond every decade or so? "The Incredible Hulk" did a reboot five years after "Hulk" with little complaint from either critics or audiences. That film, though, streamlined the origin of the Hulk to the opening credits sequence.

The world of comic books is all about different perspectives with artists and writers bringing multiple takes on iconic characters. In the cases of comic characters that have been around for decades, there is often no definitive version of their story and fans will debate whose interpretation is best.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" exists because if Sony, which owns the movie rights to the character, didn't make a "Spider-Man" film it would lose those rights. The film takes the form of a reboot because the studio had a falling out with Sam Raimi, who was briefly set to do as many as three more "Spider-Man" films.

It is probably for the best though that the studio went for a fresh start as Raimi's series had completed its story arc. Raimi's first two "Spider-Man" films, particularly the second one, were well made, acted and visually compelling, but by third film the series was showing signs of fatigue. Even at their best Raimi's films were melodramatic and, at times, cornball.

This new film has a different tone. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker with a chip on his shoulder. He is still an awkward outsider, but even before he gains his powers he's willing to stand up to a bully.

Peter is also given back his sense of humor. Spidey was a smart aleck and a wisecracker in the comics, but there was little of that in Raimi's films. Garfield is given sharp, clever dialogue and he delivers it with the perfect amount of snarkiness.

Garfield is fantastic in the role and makes the film work. As Peter he holds himself as someone who is still growing into his body. Through gaining his powers he gains confidence in himself. "Spider-Man" was always an allegory for puberty, and Garfield, under the direction of the appropriately named Marc Webb, gets this across more so than Maguire and Raimi ever did.

Maguire's Peter, despite having his occasional doubts about being "Spider-Man," was pretty saintly. Garfield's Peter is a bit more rebellious and impetuous, but he still remains a character who wants to do right with his newly found gifts. There's a sincerity to Garfield's performance that balances out the brooding elements.

This isn't solely Garfield's show as he's surrounded by a particularly strong cast. Emma Stone plays Peter's love interest Gwen Stacy. The sweet, funny and immensely likable Stone has a wonderful chemistry with Garfield. Their scenes together capture the awkwardness of teen love. It is easy to become emotionally invested in them as a couple.

Rhys Ifans plays Curt Connors, a one-armed scientist doing research in cross species genetics in hopes of being able to regrow his missing limb. When he tests a new serum on himself it does indeed grow his arm back, but also has the nasty side effect of turning him into a giant lizard who wants to transform the rest of humanity into human lizards.

Ifans makes Connors a worthy villain. Like so many of Spider-Man's adversaries, Connors is a tragic figure with dueling personalities. He's a good, gentle, if ever so slightly mad scientist, who is transformed both externally and internally into a monster. Ifans brings a nice subtly to the performance instead of going over-the-top.

There's a lot of typecasting, in a good way, with Sally Field, Martin Sheen and Denis Leary all playing variations on roles they've played before. Field and Sheen are ideally cast as Aunt May and Uncle Ben with Leary as police Captain Stacy. The characters are one-dimensional, but the actors are so familiar to audiences that we fill in the blanks.

Perhaps more so than ever before, Hollywood is very franchise-minded. You no longer simply make a single film. Now studio execs plan out whole series. So, yes, perhaps we are getting this new "Spider-Man" a bit too soon, but if they had to tell Spidey's origin again at least they have done it rather well.

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