Ugh. Because there’s no way for me to do this that isn’t personal, I may as well go all out.
Spider-Man means a lot to me. Like, a lot a lot. As a gangly, nerdy kid often on the wrong side of juvenile taunting, Peter Parker’s experience wasn’t a standin for my life; he was living it. I mean, other than the whole “super powers” and “inexplicably hot girlfriends” part.
Because of Spider-Man, I developed a passion for reading and discovered the boundless creative expression that is writing. Because of Spider-Man, I found a hidden community of friends I still cherish to this day. Because of Spider-Man, I learned how to be a good person. For real! It came down to one sentence: “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you learn only that in life, you’ll be OK.
That line does not appear in director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man. The single most defining set of fictional words in my life and the most definitive words for this particular character are omitted. Instead, they are jumbled up, awkwardly reworded and given a “new spin” that does not stick to the psyche like a certain boy bitten by a spider sticks to wall. They may contain some of the same sentiment, but these new words are forgettable and uninspired. I can’t think of a better metaphor for this film.
The first 45 minutes retells Spider- Man’s origins — again, as though the world is unaware. We can’t find Iraq on a map but we all know how Spidey got his powers. Andrew Garfield is just fine as the new Peter, now with 100 percent more parental angst and skateboard riding. The moronic decision to make Peter’s parents a focal point destroys the integrity of his relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Basically, his weepy-eyed longing for his daddy makes Uncle Ben seem second-rate.
Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), however, is not second-rate. The gorgeous, genius blonde has an affinity for Peter well before he starts dressing in tights, despite the objections of her cop father (Dennis Leary). But the young couple’s courtship is cut short when Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) injects himself with nebulous “genetic material” and becomes a huge lizard. Then CGI Spider-Man fights CGI lizard three or four times, and the film calls it a day.
Some things work. Gwen and Peter’s relationship is spot-on, likely thanks to the talent of Garfield and Stone. Small character beats like Peter defending a bullied kid are nice and all. But the spirit is gone; the soul is missing. If you’re rooting for this sad-sack Spidey, you’re doing so because you’re supposed to, not because he earned it. Webb, making only his second major film, fails to rein in Garfield’s overly twitchy performance and seems in over his head. Not with the fighting, like some expected the director of (500) Days of Summer to struggle with, but with the heart. Basically, Spider-Man doesn’t feel like Spider-Man.
Early on, I thought maybe it would go away, maybe I was being unfair to this Robert Pattinson-esque version of Peter who does Footloose-style flips to test his powers. After all, doesn’t this generation deserve its own incarnation? Nope. Not if it’s this teary-eyed, whiney sap. He’s a character who should inspire us with his wit and spirit and thrill us with adventure. If Batman is all dark nights, Spider-Man is bright days. He shouldn’t act like he’s a werewolf away from a perfect love triangle.
I will remain hopeful that this eventual franchise straightens out, that they remember what made this character special. I know that’s a big responsibility, but I once knew a guy who was up to the task.
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.