Movie of the week: The Amazing Spider-Man

With The Amazing Spider-Man, we have gone back to the beginning with a new star, a new villain, a smarter, leaner and more interesting “origin” storyline and that all-important adjective restored to the title. And it’s amazing how potent and entertaining the Spider-Man myth continues to be: the bullied brainy teenager whose weakness and unpopularity are somehow alchemised into superpowers.

The casting is just right. As if moving back in time, Andrew Garfield is the Spidey Sean Connery, as opposed to Tobey Maguire’s Roger Moore. He looks clever, physically slight yet wiry, with exactly the right hunched and passive-aggressive body language when needed. Garfield’s Peter Parker is a science star and all-round high school mathlete in the traditional mould, but in this movie he’s allowed a soupçon of outsider cool on account of having a skateboard. This item is — sadly, perhaps — ditched the moment he gets his powers, showcased in spectacular action sequences. Garfield does look like a leading man, although, at 28 years old, he may not be able to play 17 for much longer.

Director Marc Webb is known for his relationship comedy 500 Days of Summer, and this is a more feminised and emotionally literate Spider-Man. There isn’t the same emphasis on secret identities and hiddenness and having to grit your teeth and bottle up your feelings while the woman you’re in love with swoons over your secret alter ego and is politely turned off by your conventional academic attainments. This is a Spider-Man who comes out to the people who are important to him pretty quickly. And there is no alpha-male/beta-male badinage between Parker and the irascible newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson. That character doesn’t appear here, and Parker does not feel the need to earn pocket money selling pictures of Spidey to the press. In the digital age, that market may have collapsed in any case.

Peter Parker’s arachnid destiny is made manifest from the get-go, and for me the narrative has more power. Instead of the arbitrary happenstance of getting bitten by a radioactive or genetically modified spider, Parker is the orphan of troubled scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) who was working on inter-species DNA splicing, before being killed with Peter’s mother in a mysterious car wreck. His work is now being carried on by the faintly sinister Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a man with just one arm, who longs for a lizard’s ability to regrow limbs.

Poor Peter is now hopelessly in love with classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and is being looked after by his tolerant Uncle Ben, played by Martin Sheen (in effect reprising the blue-collar dad he played opposite Charlie Sheen in Wall Street), and Aunt May (Sally Field). He blags his way into Dr Connors’s lab and sneaks into a top-secret room where spiders are being experimented upon. The rest is superhero history.

The transformation scenes are tremendous. Having been bitten, Garfield’s Peter goes into a delirious, feverish state, pop-eyed with anxiety and over-excitement as his body assumes new strength and the ability to hang upside down. Without knowing what he is doing, Peter semi-accidentally beats up around half a dozen menacing guys in a subway carriage while stammering and apologising like a New York Hugh Grant. At home, he almost destroys his bathroom before learning his own strength. The terrible fate of Uncle Ben, and Peter’s own concomitant guilt, is sharply sketched out.

Ifans is a terrific villain. Connors started out with a genuine need to cure human frailty and his genetic research involves computer modelling, incidentally, not live animal experimentation. But his terrible flaw is that stump where his arm was: it isn’t long before Connors’s work on lizards gets dodgy and his face turns into a handbag.

The transformation unlocks a certain drama-queen quality: during one confrontation with Spider-Man, Connors quotes Michelangelo’s sonnet The Silkworm: he dreams “That, changing like the snake, I might be free/ To cast off flesh wherein I dwell confined!”

And so we are back in the swing, although, as ever, there is the vexed question of what exactly is horizontally overhead that Spidey is swinging from. A jutting flagpole, perhaps? Because using webs attached to the corners or sides of buildings can surely result only in hitting the ground or the wall before the downswing is complete. Well, never mind. The sheer exhilarating spectacle of Spider-Man launched again through the city, utterly free, is still great. — © Guardian News & Media 2012


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Peter Bradshaw
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