On paper, The Amazing Spider-man doesn't look its best. Slated to retell the origin story already well covered in Raimi's movies, supposedly darker in tone, more akin to The Dark Knight than Spider-man, with first previews sending bloggers rushing to their keyboards to complain that the film was a Twilight for superheroes, it's probably not surprising that anticipation for this movie hasn't been particularly high.
Which is a shame, really, because, a few flaws aside, this is by some margin the strongest outing for Peter Parker on the big screen, in my opinion. The movie might not deliver anything new, but it does deliver better, standing up strongly against the more recent crop of Marvel outings thanks to some charismatic performances and some heart.
First, let's get this out of the way. The flaws. There are a few, undoubtedly, and this is a long way from being a perfect Spider-man movie, but the flaws aren't a huge detraction. But let's talk about the elephant in the room to start with. Despite marketing claiming this to be the "untold story", it's not, and there's an air of familiarity hanging over the whole thing. Peter loses his parents, then Uncle Ben. (Although in this version, the responsibility Peter has for his uncle's death is more tightly wrought and made essential to Peter putting on the spider suit in the first place. An improvement, thematically.) He dons the mask of Spider-man and starts acting as a vigilante. Meanwhile, another father figure enters the scene. We've had Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius, this time we have Curt Connors and George Stacy. So far, so familiar, particularly when Connors' back story was lifted, in part, for Doc Ock in the Raimi films.
So, there's an expectation there to deliver something new and, in that regard, the movie rather falls down. On the other hand, throwing the baby out with the bathwater might have led to a more original film, but it wouldn't have made for a stronger Spider-man story. It's old and familiar, but told well. In fact, when the movie tries to add something new - making Peter's parents a plot point, it is on far shakier ground.
In addition, adding Peter's father, Connors and George Stacy all into the mix means the movie's rather fat with father-figures for poor Peter. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one father-figure is unlucky. To lose four...
But where the movie really delivers is with its leads. Garfield is awkward and dorky when he needs to be, throws out a few sarcastic quips when called to and intense when the movie demands it. He was charming, even when being angsty. In short, I totally bought into him as Peter Parker, something I can't say about Tobey. And in addition to making a great Peter, he's equally good when he's wearing the not-spandex. One of the movie's strongest scenes involves him unmasked, but unlike the Raimi outings, it's not simply a convenience to let us see the actor's face, but a scene that is just so... pure Peter that I felt like applauding. Add to that the somewhat obligatory scene where a group of ordinary New Yorkers come to his aid and it's like all my checkboxes for what gives Spider-man real heart were ticked.
Likewise, Emma Stone's a sharp and nuanced Gwen, with her own sense of agency. The saving of the day was left to Gwen and she stepped up with courage. And when she and Garfield are on screen together, they sparkle.
Kudos to the supporting cast too. Martin Sheen makes a fantastic Uncle Ben, with a sharpness that's unexpected but welcome. Sally Field's Aunt May's fantastic, with the take-no-prisoners attitude of the Ultimate version, although she's sadly underused. Denis Leary makes a solid Captain Stacy. And Chris Zylka is the first successful translation of Flash that I've seen.
Movies sometimes stand and fall by their villains, but aside from the feeling of retreading old ground, there's little to criticize about Rhys Ifans' pleasingly restrained Connors. He resists the urge to scenery chew, instead putting in a believable performance as a good man who falls, although the script makes the fall so sudden, there's not much room for subtlety. However, this aside, the cast all shine.
And questions about tone can equally be dismissed. This is every bit as much of a traditional superhero movie as Raimi's first outings. Not, perhaps, as deliciously goofy as the Captain America movie, but it's not a movie that forgets its comic book roots and tries to be all angsty and meaningful either. It's brash and action-packed, but with a strong heart and a droll sense of humor throughout. A few pacing issues early on aside, not helped by the shoehorned Peter's parents subplot, and the two hours romps past, ensuring a good time is had by all.
And probably my favorite Stan Lee cameo of any Marvel movie to date.