It’s been five years since Sam Raimi – under reported studio pressure – allowed his Spider-Man trilogy to bow out on a terrible low. Mercifully, Marc Webb’s reimagined origin tale The Amazing Spider-Man, which takes the story back to square one, is a significant improvement, and if that feels like damning with faint praise, then rest assured that the wall crawler’s new adventure has plenty to offer.
Origin films can be troublesome at the best of times, and this reinvention of the Spider-Man story was always going to suffer from a sense of overfamiliarity, given how recently we’ve seen it done. In the event, the film is perfectly adept at setting up Peter Parker’s beginnings, giving him a strong, if necessarily quick-fire, moral background, and trying its hardest to restage the plot points from the 2002 film. Andrew Garfield inhabits the lead role nicely, stumbling over his words when confronted with sassy love interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), being bullied at school and dealing with the loss of his parents (outlined in an early flashback sequence).
This time, Peter suffers the inevitable spider bite when visiting a lab under the stewardship of one-armed doctor Kurt Connors, who, it turns out, may have links to Peter’s parents. Connors is testing a newly developed system of cross-species genetic manipulation, ostensibly to save his rich benefactor’s life, but obviously with a personal stake of his own: he’d quite like his missing arm back. This is a good set up, but when Connors tests the serum out on himself and turns into The Lizard, a never-fully-convincing CGI creation, a lot of the interest is lost, particularly as his master plan ultimately reveals itself to be a ten-a-penny supervillain plot. The only other antagonist is a support character played by Irrfan Khan, who vanishes entirely from the film about half way through. Presumably the sequel will pick up that dropped thread.
The more convincing elements of the story are Peter’s relationships with Gwen, and his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, the latter of whom we’re all now more than familiar with. This time Sally Hawkins takes over from Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, and does a fine job, while it’s up to Martin Sheen to make Uncle Ben interesting again as the benevolent dispenser of responsibility-based wisdom we all know and love, and he’s perfectly good too. The supporting cast misses the humour that JK Simmons brought to the role of J Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s trilogy (a character which doesn’t appear here, but if it’s recast for a sequel, it would be criminal), or that Bruce Campbell brought to his wonderful cameos, but thankfully Garfield and Stone conjure up a few good laughs between them.
When it comes to web slinging, Webb’s direction is solid (especially considering this is his first big-budget action film, and only his second film overall, following 500 Days of Summer), but the film is stronger with character than it is with action. A couple of brief first-person sequences fail to impress, and the CGI looks slightly ropey in places, but thankfully James Horner’s score does a great job of sweeping us up in the drama. The 3D, meanwhile, is unobtrusive but resolutely unspectacular.
It’s unfortunate that the set pieces feel a little derivative of Raimi’s films, but that was always likely to be the case given the close proximity of this new film to its predecessors. Is it worse than Raimi’s first Spidey attempt? Certainly not. But is it much better? I’m not convinced that it is, at least not to any really satisfying degree. Perhaps, had this been a standalone film, and not followed so closely in the footsteps of the previous trilogy, it would have be easier to take it at face value. But as it is, it’s a good Spider-Man film, not a great one, and Raimi’s second film is still the one to beat.