Forget Batman. It turns out we don't need him to save the summer anymore. No, the great surprise of the hot season so far is that, despite some of our, ahem, reservations, The Amazing Spider-Man is, really, just that. A funny, fresh, almost-hip retelling of a seemingly too-familiar story, Marc Webb's derring-do reboot revitalizes the webslinger a mere five years after he got old and tired. It may not be a miracle, but it feels superheroic.
Let's just get this out there: With all of Tobey Maguire's wet-eyed, gummy mumbling and the rah-rah cartooniness of the dramatic stakes, I was never a fan of Sam Raimi's beyond-blockbuster Spider-Man series. They're superhero movie benchmarks for some, but to me they take all the corny grandeur of the comic books but leave behind all the real human drama. Maguire's Peter Parker never felt like a real boy, he was just an empty vessel of everyman-ness — there were no characters in those films, only bluntly crafted archetypes. Raimi, chiefly a director of slightly gonzo horror, is good at corkscrewing a scene into cheapo operatics, but when it comes to depicting anything resembling true humanity, he tends to awkwardly fumble.
What Marc Webb, whose only other big screen credit is the bobo love fantasy (500) Days of Summer, has made, however, is an emotionally in-touch but still dizzyingly exciting adventure. Peter Parker, despite his spider-blessed/cursed abilities, is one of comicdom's most relatable heroes. He's not rich and sauve like Batman, he's just a regular middle-class kid from New York. He has powers, but he's not indestructible like Superman. Peter is a real boy facing extraordinary challenges; he's a male Buffy Summers, all wisecracks masking woundedness. Maguire's Parker was a straightup dweeb, a thwarted weirdo with wide, stammering eyes. Webb and his writers (four guys are credited, among them Harry Potter's Steve Kloves, who knows a thing or two about regular kids in irregular circumstances) have instead chosen to inject Peter with an undercurrent of true teenage anger — he's a whizkid geek, but he's too folded in on himself to try in school. He's tired, brooding, a loner occluding himself with angsty darkness. To that end, the role is cast beautifully. Who better to play this wiry jumble of hormones and sharp edges than Andrew Garfield, a tall whippet of a kid (well, he'll be 29 in August) with artfully messy hair and a smart but sorrowful dip in his voice. Garfield is tremendously appealing in the role, at once an extension of the viewer and a hero to aspire to. One hopes it's a starmaking turn for this talented fellow.
While it's a bit silly that Peter is supposed to be such a high school pariah — boys like that, all mysterious and broken but cuddly cute, don't regularly fail to get the girls' attention — the social dynamics of the film mostly play just right. Peter's aunt and uncle are given crinkly warmth by Sally Field and Martin Sheen, with Sheen especially radiating a kind of gruff, trouser-wearing realness that outdoes the three previous Spider-Man movies combined in genuine humanity. At school, Peter has a bit of a crush on Gwen Stacy, a pert and pretty blonde in bobby socks (the costuming goes a bit horndog on that one) played with wise-for-her-age shine by Emma Stone. The tabloid-savvy among us are well aware that Garfield and Stone are a couple in real life, and watching this film it's no wonder. The pair's chemistry is vibrant and irresistible; they fall into each other like magnets, a deep understanding developing between them over a few meaningful gazes. Comparing this fully connected pair to Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst is like comparing 4th of July sparklers to a couple of dead fish. They're not even competing in the same contest. One scene in particular, when Peter first asks Gwen out on a date-ish sort of a thing, is so expertly choreographed and performed that it made me think it would be enough to just watch a regular, non-super story about these two lovebirds.
But, oh yes, this is a super story and super things do happen. The Amazing Spider-Man gives Peter a heftier backstory — we meet his parents, who died mysteriously when he was a boy, it had something to do with his father's scientific research — but the basic mechanics are the same as always. He gets bitten by some kind of radioactive/scientifically enhanced spider and suddenly he's got super strength, can scale walls, and do acrobatics like the best Olympians in the land. Webb films Peter's discovery with the appropriate closeup what's-happening-to-my-body awkward teen horror, but also pulls back and revels in the awe of Peter testing the limits of his newfound abilities. There's a satisfying high school bully's comeuppance, a thrilling and nearly artsy (plaintive music and all) scene at some sort of abandoned warehouse, and a couple of first fights that move with the beautiful, balletic-yet-functional fury of American Ninja Warrior's free running elite.
As Peter's challenges increase — he has to contend with a mad scientist (a glowering but sympathetic Rhys Ifans) who keeps turning himself into a monstrous lizard — Webb makes sure we feel Spidey's pain; every hard landing hurts. This Spider-Man is by no means invincible, which makes it all the more thrilling when he succeeds. Garfield gamely spouts out all the quippy one-liners that are Spider-Man's trademark (something Raimi's films ignored almost entirely) while also making us feel the life-and-death gravity of it all. (Gwen's dad is a stern police captain [Denis Leary, earning his paycheck], placing a nice layer of complications on top of the whole lizard-destroying-Manhattan thing.) With only a few formula bobbles — Leary's staunch unwillingness to believe in any of this supernatural-ish stuff begins to strain credibility toward the end — the story moves along at a pleasing clip. Webb draws out the first 45 minutes of introduction and discovery, creating a rich texture to hold onto as the action hurtles us forward. And what action! Spidey swings amazingly, punches and kicks fly with abandon, people crash through walls with satisfying crunch and clatter. Webb wisely doesn't make anything too huge, again we're dealing with a relatively human world here, but this is still a big summertime entertainment. There are adrenaline shivers aplenty.
What a nifty, surprising delight this new Spider-Man reset is. Brimming with humor, smarts, and charisma, it's a classic tale not carelessly reinvented for a modern era, but rather carefully touched up, nipped and tucked and plumped and prodded until it looks utterly new. Though it doesn't seem to be tracking all that well, here's hoping it's a big holiday hit. I'd like to see more from this team. Garfield is a tidy force of nature, Stone ably supports him without losing herself, and Webb deftly plots each of Spidey's next swings. He may be a 50-year-old creation by now, but your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is somehow impossibly young again.