In 2011, moviegoers and comic book fans grumbled that it was too soon for a do-over when Sony Pictures announced it would reboot the Spider-man franchise rather than make a fourth film with director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man turns out to be good enough — and distinct enough from Raimi's trilogy — to give reboots a good name.
At a time when Hollywood doggedly churns out film after film based on established pop properties, Amazing reveals the advantages of a fresh take on a familiar story, as opposed to spending too long with the same team (a la Pirates of the Caribbean). Webb's only directed one other feature film, the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, but he crafts The Amazing Spider-man as an occasionally awkward coming-of-age story that grows more compelling as it goes along.
Amazing adds a layer of intrigue to the origin story of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), the orphaned son of two mysterious scientists. Raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field), Peter discovers some of his father's old effects and learns that he worked with distinguished, one-armed geneticist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Peter pays Dr. Connors a visit at his high-tech corporate lab, wanders into a room crawling with genetically manipulated spiders, and the next thing you know the soft-spoken teen's literally climbing the walls and trashing his bedroom with his newfound super-strength.
Amazing's script digs into the motivation behind why a mild-mannered high schooler would become a costumed crime-fighter. When a mugger kills one of Peter's loved ones, he turns into a masked vigilante to track down the murderer. Meanwhile, Peter shares with Dr. Connors one of his father's lost formulas, leading to a scientific breakthrough that grows back Dr. Connors' arm. The treatment has an unfortunate side effect and turns Dr. Connors into a nine-foot, marauding reptile-man. If Peter becomes Spider-man in a bid to find justice or revenge, he stays Spider-man out of a sense of obligation for creating "The Lizard." Fortunately, no one feels the need to repeat the cliché that with great power comes great yadda yadda.
Amazing features interludes of Peter brawling with crooks, rescuing bystanders, and swinging from skyscrapers, but follows a through line of a teenager trying to craft an identity. At times, Garfield's acting includes so many mumbles, winces, and gapes, you wonder if he was bitten by a radioactive method actor, but the performance grows on you. Despite being in his late 20s, Garfield captures Peter as a lost, kind of weird adolescent trying to find his way in the world. The film provides plenty of father figures, from his brilliant but absent dad (Campbell Scott), his morally upright uncle, his potential scientific mentor in Dr. Connors, and his girlfriend's father Captain Stacy (Denis Leary, nicely cast against type) who articulates the importance of law, order, and defending the public good.
The Raimi Spider-man films drew inspiration from the Christopher Reeve Superman series as upbeat, sunshiney spectacles with snappy comedy and hints of patriotism. Amazing Spider-man emphasizes mood and emotional intensity, just short of the Gothic angst of the Batman movies. Emma Stone gets a little short-changed as Peter's prospective girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and the film's final act nearly buckles under a cornball, labored scene that establishes Spidey as a champion of New York's blue-collar types. Nevertheless, The Amazing Spider-man proves to be a sharp and exciting variation on a premise that previously seemed exhausted.