Sunday 1 July 2012

Twice bitten: "The Amazing Spider-Man"

The Amazing Spider-Man, the second Spidey origin movie in ten years, finds itself caught between two distinct urges. At a basic level, it's a Sony-authorised reboot: something cold, hard, audience-tested and machine-tooled, a not-so-swift kick to the cultural gonads that seeks to relieve us of our memories of Sam Raimi's 2002 original, and a further ten of our English pounds. (Regional currency variations may apply.) Yet the film itself is also couched as a cover version, an attempt at emotional refinement - two words that have only entered the summer-season lexicon as a consequence of the Twilight phenomenon. This latest Peter Parker has been conceived along what we might call post-Cullen lines: he's a sensitive soul who comes to realise his powers are as likely to hurt as to save the girl he loves.

It's fallen to director Marc Webb - previous credit: the quirky romantic drama (500) Days of Summer - to pick up the threads and plot a different path through this mythology, and the route he and his screenwriters have chosen takes us, very literally, around the houses. Its point of entry (and interest) is how Parker (The Social Network's Andrew Garfield) ended up orphaned and living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen, serving notice of the film's aspiration to classiness). This Parker is first observed as a young boy playing hide-and-seek around his childhood home; as an adolescent, he will get bitten while searching for evidence of his late scientist father (Campbell Scott, in flashbacks), who died in a car crash on the eve of a major breakthrough. Yes, we're back to the fathers-and-sons business that has come to underpin so much contemporary U.S. culture; once again, I'd like to take the opportunity to urge any American dads reading this to play more catch with their offspring, if only to guarantee a little more diversity in the movies we see. 

Some of this, I gather, returns us to the original Marvel comic books; sometimes, it's hard to know how much your tingling Spidey sense is simply déjà vu. This is strongest at the end of the new film's first act: though Sheen's huffing about moral obligation ("not choice, responsibility") is unlikely to find itself being quoted as much as Cliff Robertson's similar sentiment from the Raimi film, the run of scenes taking us from Ben's death to the point Peter finds his costume (and thus his true identity) comes to feel familiar indeed. As in Chris Nolan's more-or-less pedantic Batman reboots, we might question whether we really need to know all this - if we're dealing with a guy who spends his days swinging from the rooftops in a figure-hugging costume, does it matter where he sourced the spandex? (Or, to make a broader point: can't we accept these things as given, and get these bloated B-movies down to under two hours again?)

Raimi's film emerged in 2002, at a moment when America was still trying to process the events of the previous year - shots of the fallen Twin Towers had to be digitally removed from the trailer - and desperately casting around for new models of heroism; it was, and had to be, so sincere it could farm out its end-credit theme "Hero" to the none-more-unfashionable nasalrockers Nickelback, and get away with it. Spider-Man's success begat more Batmen, which in turn assembled the glibber Fantastic Four and Avengers, beholden as they were only to delivering noisy distraction and healthy profit margins. As his earlier film made apparent, Webb's forte is quiet interpersonal business - manifested here as the awkward circling in high-school corridors between Parker and his would-be sweetheart Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) - and if he'd been left to get on with it, rather than have to respond to the demands of the marketplace, The Amazing Spider-Man would have been a good deal more satisfying than the compromised, rather impersonal hybrid we currently have. It's a pity, as Stone and Garfield - respectively, America's sweetheart and the boy next door - have a nice, easy, shy-teasing chemistry: the film is at its most persuasive whenever these two are together, and the mask stays off.

Yet the emo-isation of Spider-Man only goes so far, and it doesn't work for everyone. Denis Leary, the talismanic new-yorkais whose snarly, salty presence made TV's Rescue Me by some distance the best sustained artistic response to 9/11, is wasted in the functional role of Gwen's buttoned-down detective father. Indeed, there simply isn't a supporting performance here to match J.K. Simmons' peerless reading of J. Jonah Jameson in the Raimi Spidey: as soon as Rhys Ifans' Dr. Curt Connors appears in a labcoat with one sleeve rolled up and announces his hubristic plan to abolish difference through science, we do kinda know whom the hero will end up facing off against come the final reel. Having Connors goaded into action by a black-clad Indian (Irrfan Khan) is a new, marketplace-savvy, if ideologically questionable touch, but the element of surprise has mostly been lost.

Unlike Raimi's film, which was a fanboy's love letter to the comics he once kept in a shoebox, this is a committee-assembled Spider-Man, its three credited writers taking care to insert the action beats that should ensure the teenage boys in the audience don't zone out completely while the hero is working through his neuroses or mooning after Gwen. This version comes at you in 3D, which makes flashy and surfacey its dives and leaps through space, but doesn't deepen the experience any; and its final hour is the metal-and-glass-and-CGI runaround that has become numbingly standard for the form. (Gantry flooring? Check.) There may be something generational at play here, and inevitably this material will appeal more the closer you are in age to the characters: Raimi's Spider-Man, built of genuine trauma, remains this viewer's Spider-Man, just as Scream, crafted by a professor of suspense, was my Cabin in the Woods. American cinema, meanwhile, continues to cling to these comic-book myths as a security blanket. Webb's entry is too much of a reboot to arrive without pleasures, but they're passing ones - evanescent, if you wanted to continue the emo theme, existing chiefly because they've been proven to fly, swoop and soar in the past.

The Amazing Spider-Man opens in cinemas nationwide on Tuesday.

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