For the record, I did not think that The Amazing Spider-Man was a terribly good movie. I thought it had promise. I was incredibly excited to see it based on the strength of the cast and the interesting choice for director. I think that, with a little hard work, the inevitable sequel could be fantastic. But, as a film by itself, The Amazing Spider-Man just flat-out didn’t work on a lot of fairly basic levels.
I’m open to people trying to argue the point. In fact, a lot of critics and fans whose opinions I really respect seemed to enjoy the film quite a bit. But I’m far from alone in leaving pretty dissatisfied, either, so I want to discuss a little bit about what worked, what didn’t, and what I hope to see from the sequel.
Part One: What Worked
Stone. Leary. Fields. Sheen. Sheen.
The cast – with one exception – worked extraordinarily well. Emma Stone was just the right combination of witty, lively and vulnerable. Sally Fields played the nervous but understanding aunt to a tee. And Dennis Leary was surprisingly restrained as Captain Stacy, the police officer who first sought to capture Spider-Man before coming to an understanding with him. These were all well-played roles that felt like honest takes on interesting human beings.
And Martin Sheen, oh, Martin Sheen. That was as good as we can hope to see for Uncle Ben, really it is. Uncle Ben is not an easy role to make interesting – like Aunt May, he’s the moral center of the Spider-Man universe, but unlike Aunt May, he’s dead before he can shade his character in much more than that.
And yet, Martin Sheen brought him to life. Despite having a very small amount of time to play a fairly wide range of conflicting emotions, Sheen did a fantastic job humanizing Uncle Ben while keeping him firmly as Peter’s moral center. The cast did a very good job, and I’m sad that two of the best parts of it – Sheen and Leary – won’t be able to come back for a sequel.
But they can make it work. Though I think Captain Stacy and Uncle Ben were given the most interesting material in the movie, that doesn’t mean that Aunt May and Gwen can’t step it up in the inevitable sequel. Emma Stone is one of the most engaging young actors working today – if they can’t find a way to give Gwen Stacy some better material next time around, I wouldn’t be surprised if she just reached out and took it.
Part Two: The Garfield Problem
Andrew Garfield is a solid actor. He was excellent in The Social Network, and he did a legitimately good job with a lot of his individual scenes here. He was charming, he was mean, he was hurt, he was… well, he was interesting to watch through most of the movie.
But he was not Peter Parker.
It blows my mind that the fandom that rejected Donald Glover – a genuinely hilarious guy who looks like a nerd and could pass for high school age – has seemingly embraced Andrew Garfield, who looks and acts like the coolest kid in school, has delicately coiffed hair, and is seemingly Midtown High’s biggest bully. This is a bone-deep change to the very core of the character of Peter Parker, and one that doesn’t really sit very well with what Spider-Man is all about (responsibility, sacrifice, maturity). It’s ‘cool’, but it’s also shallow.
Now, I fully believe that Garfield could do a good Parker, but everything about his design and writing was so far off that I doubt the greatest actors of all time could have done much to salvage the role as it was presented. He wasn’t the nerdy kid who got picked on or the sensitive nice guy girls wouldn’t acknowledge – he was almost like the Venom-influenced version of Parker from Spider-Man 3 except without the sense of humor and with more sex appeal – he taunts Flash (who is actually a super nice guy in this film for no reason at all after his incredibly mean introduction) before actually stepping things up to physical violence, and the way he treats that carjacker (even ignoring the police sting he botches) is frankly inhuman, a scene that shows that this Peter Parker is not even remotely a decent person.
And he doesn’t get better. He literally ends the movie breaking a fairly serious promise to a very good man who died saving him, putting that man’s daughter in mortal harm. Think about how similar his actions throughout this film are to his actions in Spider-Man 3, except Spider-man 3 at least had the sense to show how ridiculous a ‘bad boy’ Peter Parker was with its amazing ’emo’ sequence.
What’s more, it doesn’t really give him a lot to do. If Peter Parker was already standing up to Flash without powers, giving him powers doesn’t change anything. If Peter Parker was already getting the girl without powers, it gives him nowhere to go, dramatically. Garfield’s Peter Parker, through no fault of his own, is given no arc.
Part Three: What Conflict Thing?
I’m not going to go into too much depth about how hacked-up this film is in the editing room – it’s been covered in much more detail elsewhere. So, no, I’m not going to talk with much depth about Mr. Ratha, a villain who completely disappeared and, we can only presume, has successfully poisoned dozens of veterans as he was planning to do. Or about the search for Uncle Ben’s killer, which took up a huge amount of the film (to give it the illusion of a plot that didn’t actually exist) and then promptly vanished. Or about the Lizard’s frankly nonexistent motives. Or about the Lizard SWAT Team that was created and then promptly ignored. Or about the somewhat bipolar reaction Peter has to his parents’ death/disappearance.
No, I’m going to talk about conflict, which is something almost every story needs and this story in particular largely lacks.
Let’s look at the romance. Peter Parker – an outcast, a nerd, a guy who doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t particularly want any. Gwen Stacy – a well-off, incredibly smart, seemingly popular, gorgeous young woman. The story of their romance goes like this: Gwen and Peter meet, they like each other immediately, they start tentatively dating.
On the one hand, that’s realistic – Garfield is giving off some serious James Dean vibes with his Peter Parker, playing him as a sexy, damaged-but-vulnerable young outcast who just needs the right woman to fix him, and that’s a type young women have been drawn to for a loooooong time. And they’re in high school, so it’s not like this is necessarily a serious relationship.
On the other hand, it’s also incredibly boring to watch. It is, as Film Crit Hulk put it, equivalent to “watching beautiful people flirt.” They don’t really like each other for any reason we can see on the screen (other than that they are attractive), so everything about them feels hollow. Witty, yes. Charming, sure. But emotional? Memorable? Honest? Not a chance.
And the dedication to avoiding conflict, to eliding the difficult scenes that take us from Point A to Point B, extends throughout the film. How does the Lizard discover that Peter Parker is Spider-Man? Peter conveniently left his name on the camera he left at the Lizard’s lair! Rather than crafting a character-centric way of having the brilliant scientist deduce Parker’s identity, Peter just tells him. How does Peter know what the Lizard’s master plan was?
He saw the first X-Men movie The Lizard left a video detailing his plan looping conveniently on his computer, cheesy graphics included. How did the Lizard get a high tech lair set up in the sewer so quickly? What happened to the cannibalistic lizard-mouse? Ben’s killer? Why was there already an antidote to a formula that hadn’t existed until literally minutes before? Who knows! Certainly not anyone who watched this film.
It’s lazy storytelling that prizes spectacle over depth. Just like with the Parker/Stacy romance, it’s all surface, a rush to get to the ‘cool’ parts of the film without having to deal with the messy human stuff. But the messy human stuff is where the characters live! It’s that last-minute, brilliant idea from Peter when he pulls together little things he’s heard from the Lizard and clues he’s found to deduce his master plan, rather than coming across a powerpoint slide containing it. It’s that chilling sequence where the Lizard tracks Spider-Man back to his home through guile and cunning, building tension and showing us that the Lizard is an enemy to be feared. It’s the moment where Peter lets a enough of his (nonexistent in this film) Spider-Man wit through and charms a previously disinterested Gwen Stacy, or where they bond over a shared interest, or where they do ANYTHING except ‘be pretty together’.
This is where story comes from! These are the little moments that we should be able to build together into a coherent picture of the characters and the big moments that we should be able to build together into a coherent plot. But those moments aren’t there. The conflicts between characters, the ones that build plots… they just don’t really exist. And that’s a pretty huge problem.
Part Four: And Why You Probably Don’t Care
Be honest: did you tear up a little during the crane sequence at the end of the film? Nevermind the fact that it made no sense whatsoever. Nevermind how emotionally manipulative it was, especially when you think back on it. I’d be willing to bet that, for most of you, it worked.
Did you smile a little when Peter made his first tentative steps towards reuniting with Gwen at the very end? Again, ignore the fact that this is a huge douchebag move, with our ‘hero’ breaking his promise to a man who sacrificed his career and his life to save him so that he could score with the hot blonde. Ignore how shitty Peter is acting, and how he only decided to let Gwen back in his life after he abandoned her through the death of her father, the wake, the funeral, etc…. Caught up in the emotion of the moment, I bet you grinned right alongside Peter, there. Because, again, the moment worked.
The movie has none of the internal consistency, storytelling, or genuine emotion of the Raimi films, but it also doesn’t have Raimi’s sense of camp. Fans were angry at Raimi because he didn’t treat their material with the reverence they felt it deserved – and so we have Webb’s take, which doesn’t make a lick of sense from the plot or character perspectives but which tries to ground the film in the angst Spider-Man fans crave for their hero, succeeds, and wins them over.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! Though as a writer I’m bothered by a sloppily-constructed narrative and as a movie fan I’m bothered by a sloppily-constructed film, I fully recognize that a lot of people don’t go see a movie in the theater every week, or have a personal library so big it may require me to get a two-bedroom apartment in the near future. Everyone likes some things with fairly severe design-flaws, because films can touch us all in fairly personal ways.
So, I’m not really trying to change your mind with this rant. If you like it, you like it. But I think even the most ardent fans can admit the film had some pretty glaring problems, and that the sequel can and should be better, because you should never settle for ‘just okay’ when it comes to your choice of entertainment. And even if you loved it… why wouldn’t you want to love the next one even more?
Part Five: What Comes Next
So, I’ve talked a lot about the problems I had with the movie. But that’s kind of negative. So I wanted to end by giving some thoughts on what I’d like to see from the sequel.
First, the dropped plots. That shit can’t continue. It’s legitimately terrible storytelling on every level. It angers people who do notice and frustrates people who don’t. And it’s unforgivably lazy.
Second, Webb needs to find a way to ground the action story in the emotional one. One of the biggest failings of The Amazing Spider-Man by my mind was that the emotional story (Peter dealing with Uncle Ben’s death) and the action story (Peter fighting the Lizard) were completely disconnected, which made the movie feel disjointed and awkward. The villain had nothing to do with Peter’s emotional journey – he would have, if they had kept the plot about Peter’s parents… but they didn’t – and the fights illustrated nothing that Peter learned or struggled to achieve. There’s no depth to this film, no subtext.
Most importantly: Peter Parker needs to grow. My absolute biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man was that Peter started off being an adolescent dick, and ended the film being an adolescent dick, and spent the bulk of the middle being an adolescent dick. He needs to learn something. He needs to move forward. And we need to see that on the screen, not hypothesize about it later.
I think this team has a decent Spider-Man movie in them. If they relax on the self-seriousness a little and commit themselves to telling a good superhero story rather than trying to tell a story and then tacking superhero bits on, I think there is some potential there.
I’m sure I’ll get a fair amount of disagreement here. Keep it civil, keep it respectful, and let me know what you thought of the movie!