Movie Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man” Is Crawling With Romance

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Remember when you were little and you argued for hours as to who was badder, Superman or Batman? Well, here’s a new enigma for you: Which is better, the “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi brought to the screen in 2002, 2004 and 2007, or this one here, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” directed by Marc Webb? For my money it’s the latter.

Dubbed a re-imagining by the marketing wizzes, it is essentially a re-boot, a do-over, a retelling of the superhero’s conception based on the same Marvel Comics material created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Not your big brother’s Spider-Man, it’s what your Dad’s Spider-Man might have looked like if they had the technical know-how back then.

In all fairness, if all that were left to posterity were the three Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst offerings, the Earth would nevertheless spin on with little remorse. Yet, now presented the oxymoronic verities of a more realistic fantasy, we wonder how we could have ever lived without it. This Spider-Man gets to the nitty-gritty of power and passion.

All the issues of why a young man would want to create an alter ego in the first place are dramatically addressed in a fine screenplay that tugs nicely at the heartstrings. The special effects, as exciting as ever, but almost always in service of the plot, are meant to illustrate just how astounding things can get when extraordinary powers are unleashed.

But what surprisingly pierces jaded skin to find the hopeless romantic beneath is the love story etched by Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, and Emma Stone’s smartly realized high school heartthrob, Gwen. While the amorous angle is usually an addendum to the super saga, such is not the case here. Fact is, shucks, it’s quite touching.

Garfield’s lone wolf teen, raised by a loving aunt and uncle following the baffling disappearance of his parents, important personages in the scientific community, is a geek extraordinaire. Peter is a magnet for the high school bully, especially when his humanity stirs him to aid an even lesser nerd. Of course he pines for the school’s Miss Popularity.

We are expressively reminded of those years, told again that no matter what success or notoriety one achieves in later life, it is the impressions made in high school that are engraved for life on our psyches. And so there hardly can be any better wish fulfillment, any finer vicarious joy, than having all of those inequities blown asunder and rectified.

The epiphany for Peter comes after pondering some all but forgotten lore, cached in his Dad’s briefcase. It’s about cross-genetics, the theory being we can jump the evolutionary process by eons if we appropriate the abilities we desire from some of the so-called lower species. Coincidentally, Dad’s old partner has been trying to find the formula for years.

He is Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an arrogant, celebrated scientist who, we suspect, knows something about the famed Dr. Parker’s curious vanishment. Missing an arm and exhibiting all the Ahab-like symptoms that can accompany such a condition, his interest in a regenerative power is personal. And yeah, he’s also into that superhuman race stuff.

Yet, albeit inadvertent, Peter proves the genius doesn’t fall far from the tree and beats the modern-day mad sorcerer to the discovery. Suddenly he possesses all the abilities of the test tube spider whose DNA he has co-opted. The revelatory sequences are wonderfully operatic, an ebullient Peter dancing through the skies, flexing his newfound resources.

His confidence soaring, the otherwise shy teen concurrently strikes up a relationship with Gwen, who just so happens to be the daughter of the police chief (Denis Leary) who regards this Spider-Man phenom as a dangerous vigilante. Sparks fly, the most enchanting of them between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. Talk about chemistry.

Perhaps by design, Mr. Garfield’s brooding, thoughtful righter of wrongs evinces the sort of well injected quirks and nuances reminiscent of Brando and James Dean…a sort of vague discomfort barely kept under control. Reading her partner with thespic aplomb, Miss Stone’s winsome, self-assured lass proves his mental and emotional match.

It’s exciting, too, thanks in great part to the formidable antithesis Rhys Ifans’s Dr. Connors morphs into once he unlocks the genetic blueprint, although with decidedly misbegotten result. Administering the magic potion, Dr. Connors becomes a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde…a big, ugly, megalomaniacal lizard, to be specific.

Thus the war between good and evil, deftly dappled with just enough gray areas of ambiguity to keep matters from getting smug, ensues. Ripe with philosophy, action, love and fantasy, making it clear this is a summer blockbuster of the first order, “The Amazing Spider-Man” draws you into its artistically woven web of solid, escapist entertainment.

“The Amazing Spider-Man,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Marc Webb and stars Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans. Running time: 136 minutes

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