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Leaping back onto the screen with a new cast, crew, costume and a whole new array of daddy issues, The Amazing Spider-Man reboots the top-grossing Marvel franchise to altogether satisfying results.
Directed with emotional depth and plenty of comedic touches by Marc Webb (no pun intended), this somewhat darker depiction of your friendly neighborhood superhero inserts a touching portrait of adolescent angst into an otherwise predictable dose of CGI-fueled action, with stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone breathing new life into Stan Lee’s 50-year-old creation. With a stateside release set on the cusp of an extended Independence Day holiday weekend, one hardly needs Spidey sense to predict huge worldwide returns for Sony in the first frame, though long-term theatrical might be hindered by the arrival of Warner’s The Dark Knight Rises only two weeks later.
Just a decade after Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man propelled the wisecracking, web-slinging teenager into the box-office stratosphere, launching a (some would say endless) wave of comic book blockbusters where visual effects tend to stand in for veritable character development, it’s encouraging to see Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves build up a convincing Peter Parker origin story here, combining tongue-in-cheek high jinks with a more downbeat tale of childhood trauma and attempting to answer those viewers wondering why they ever did a remake in the first place.
Opening with a flashback revealing how the young Parker (Max Charles) was suddenly and mysteriously entrusted to his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his father (Campbell Scott) — a renowned scientist whose studies in all things arachnid give hints of what’s to come — the story quickly shifts to the present, where 17-year-old Peter (Garfield) is introduced as a brooding skater with bad posture and an eye for science, photography and his cute and clever classmate, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).
After suffering a few obligatory high school humiliations and striking out at least once with Gwen, Peter comes across his dad’s old research papers, sending him on a stealth mission to the laboratory of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who runs the state-of-the-art biochemical facility at the all-powerful Oscorp. While snooping around the lab’s massive web-churning cylinder experiment — one of several impressive set pieces by production designer J. Michael Rival (Iron Man) — Peter gets bitten by a genetically modified spider, and when he’s assaulted on the train ride home, his powers unexpectedly come out in full force.
Not unlike Raimi, Webb has much fun revealing Peter’s newfound capabilities early on, highlighted by the subway scene and a hilarious basketball sequence where he schools the class bully (Chris Zylka) with his superhuman court skills. But such playful moments soon give way to some more despair when Uncle Ben is abruptly — and perhaps all too conveniently for plot purposes — murdered by a fleeing street thug, sending Peter on a vigilante mission that eventually transforms him into the masked crusader, Spider-Man.
It came as somewhat of a surprise when commercials veteran Webb, with only one indie feature under his belt, was chosen to take the reins of the billion-dollar commodity, but it’s clear in the film’s first half what the maker of (500) Days of Summer is bringing to the table here. Not unlike the forlorn greeting card writer of that catchy rom-com, Peter is depicted as a smart but downtrodden outsider who truly comes to life when he’s alongside his object of desire, and the scenes between Garfield and Stone have a witty and realistic edge to them that’s rare for a comic book romance.
Such moments, combined with Peter’s eternal quest for the father he never knew, help carry the narrative through the mandatory denouement of fights, chases, mutant transformations and a rather lengthy final showdown set – surprise! – at the top of a skyscraper, as if Marvel simply swapped out the Stark Enterprises sign of The Avengers for the Oscorp one here. An earlier action scene on a traffic-jammed Williamsburg Bridge shows more inventiveness, even if the visual effects (headed up by Jerome Chen, Beowulf) are top-notch, filled with POV shots of Spidey swinging down Fifth Avenue or in combat mode with his high-tech web shooters — which, along with the more latex-heavy costume, reveal how our hero has been updated from previous installments. (The other update being that he relies a lot on his cell phone.)
While the two leads deliver the goods and manage to combine a frisky sense of first love with the movie’s gloomier arc, they are well-served by a terrific supporting cast, with Sheen as Peter’s tough-loving guardian angel, Denis Leary as Gwen’s overprotective policeman dad and Ifans as an increasingly mad scientist whose reptile leather fetish yields disastrous results.
The swooping score by James Horner blends well with the crime-fighter’s many leaps and bounds, while cinematographer John Schwartzman, shooting in 5K with the Red Epic, gets plenty of mileage out of the film’s various night sequences. Beyond a few brief flourishes, the 3D hardly feels necessary here, serving no other clear purpose than to sling a few additional dollars into Spidey’s web of worldwide ticket sales.
Opens: Tuesday, July 3 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Marvel Entertainment
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Chris Zylka
Director: Marc Webb
Screenwriters: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves, from a story by James Vanderbilt, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Producers: Avi Arad, Laura Ziskin, Matt Tolmach
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Michael Grillo, Kevin Feige
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: J. Michael Riva
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Pietro Scalia
Visual effects: Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Visual effects supervisor: Jerome Chen
Special effects supervisor: John Frazier
3D special effects supervisor: Rob Engle
Stunt coordinators: Andy Armstrong, Vic Armstrong
PG-13 rating, 136 minutes
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