Maybe it's the screenwriters' way of justifying their deja-vu-all-over-again reboot of a still-familiar franchise: In The Amazing Spider-Man, a high school English teacher looks over her class of twentysomethings disguised as pimply teens and puts the lie to the old saw that there are just 10 original stories in all of literature. In fact, she says, "I'm here to tell you there is only one."
In other words, don't come to The Amazing-Spider-Man looking for originality.
A competent, though entirely unnecessary, reengineering of the Marvel Comics title — arriving 10 years and two months after Sam Raimi's more fun, more energized Spider-Man, and just five years since Spider-Man 3 — The Amazing Spider-Man brings fresh faces and 3-D bells and whistles to the adventures of a moody nerd-boy who gets bitten by a radioactive arachnid and morphs into a smart-talking, web-slinging, thug-busting superhero.
Andrew Garfield, the Brit who played Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, picks up the Spidey mask dropped by Tobey Maguire, bringing a spindly physique and twitchy angst to his portrayal of Peter Parker, the Queens kid who lives with his kindly uncle and aunt (Martin Sheen and Sally Field), and becomes a unitarded vigilante to avenge the death of you-know-who and thwart the evil machinations of a ya-da-ya-da.
The evil machinations in director Marc Webb's version (talk about aptly named!) come courtesy of The Lizard, one of the oldest of Spidey's comic book nemeses, played here in human form as scientist Dr. Curt Connors by Rhys Ifans. Connors, we're told, is "the world's foremost authority on herpetology," the study of reptiles and amphibians, and, as it happens, was long ago partnered with Parker's brilliant geneticist dad on a cross-species tissue regeneration project. Connors lost his arm in a laboratory mishap, so he has a personal interest in this regeneration business. And young Parker has his father's old notebooks, and the decay-rate algorithm that is essential to the equation — and that serves as The Amazing Spider-Man's plot-propelling MacGuffin. (Speaking of MacGuffins, Parker has a poster of Hitchcock's Rear Window on his bedroom wall.)
And then there is saucy, saucer-eyed Gwen Stacy (a very blond Emma Stone), who is: a.) Parker's high-school classmate and impossible object of desire, b.) Dr. Connors' favorite intern at Oscorp labs, and c.) the daughter of NYPD Capt. George Stacy (Denis Leary), who decides that this Spider-Man guy shouldn't be allowed to disrupt traffic with his crime-fighting antics. (Note to Leary, and to Field: do not let your agents talk you into doing another 3-D film. The scrutiny of the stereoscopic format is not flattering!)
The Amazing Spider-Man is very much a story in two parts: The first hour is spent establishing Parker's backstory, and Spider-Man's origins. We witness Parker's subway-ride discovery of his newfound powers and the havoc they can wreak; the skateboarding stunts he is now capable of (another poster in Parker's bedroom: Mark Gonzalez, the street-skating pioneer); his awkward courtship of Gwen, and the worried look in Uncle Ben's and Aunt May's eyes as the boy they have raised since toddlerhood starts staying out late and coming home with big bruises and a bad case of the munchies.
The second half of the film is a pile-on of CGI effects and thundering face-offs between Spidey and The Lizard. There's a daring rescue in the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge, and there's plenty of skyscraper-scaling slugfests, as Spidey has to contend with the gigantic reptile iteration of the Welsh actor Ifans and save a huge chunk of Manhattan from a chemical fallout that could turn the population into lizards. (Don't go into the sewers! They're literally crawling with the things!) The Oscorp Tower, an architectural wonder that gives The Avengers' Stark Tower a run for its money, is where everything comes to a loud, climactic head. You can practically feel Webb, director of the charmingly gimmicky love story (500) Days of Summer, get overrun by effects techies and stunt choreographers and hologram designers. The Amazing Spider-Man goes from what is essentially a teenage identity-crisis love story with nice quirky moments in it (Garfield and Stone shoot sparks) to a studio-ordered, supersized slam-bang summer tentpole. Audiences will probably respond to it — Spider-Man, after all, is one of Marvel's true icons, a Silver Age hero with us since the early 1960s — but this one was made to please a more select demographic: Sony shareholders.
Like most superhero movies, The Amazing Spider-Man taps into our primal dreams and desires. Emotional and physical flaws, feelings of inadequacy, our losses and lost chances ... all are given a chance at redress and redemption. It's hard not to respond to stuff like that on some level. But it's also hard to keep interested in the big screen, big noise, big whoop of it all.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.