Spoiler Level: Low
In my brief career as a lay critic, I've discovered that there's nothing harder to discuss than mediocrity. It's a delight to describe the heights of cinematic achievement, and it's a sadistic pleasure to plumb the depths, but there are few joys to be had down the wide, dull middle of the road.
Which is to say that I'm going to keep this review short, since that flat, featureless expanse is where we find ourselves for The Amazing Spider-Man, director Marc Webb's new reboot of the wallcrawler's franchise. Boasting a top-notch cast, and state-of-the-art production values, there's nothing particularly wrong with this film: there's just nothing particularly right about it. Uninspired, underwhelming, and—most of all—unnecessary, The Amazing Spider-Man has little fun to offer and nothing at all to say.
Which is a pity, because many of the individual elements—taken on their own—are an improvement on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, beginning with the casting. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) is a ganglier, more believably awkward Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire was, but he is also a much better actor, lending a real soulful vulnerability to the bookworm-turned-superhero. (It must be said, however, that—with hoody and skateboard—this Peter Parker is a little too cool, even before he gets bitten by a radioactive spider.) As love-interest Gwen Stacy, Emma Stone has too little to do, but she is a vast improvement over the sorely miscast Kirsten Dunst in the earlier films. Sally Field and Martin Sheen give typically strong performances as Aunt May and Uncle Ben—Sheen is particularly good, easily stealing the first half of the film—and Denis Leary (as Gwen's police captain father) and Ryhs Ifans (as scientist-turned-Lizard Curt Connors) are both perfectly fine in underwritten roles.
The special effects, too, are worlds apart from those in Raimi's films, where, for example, Spider-Man's web-slinging around the city too often looked like a CGI-ragdoll. As a comic-book fan from way back, one of the things I always ask about these movies is if their action scenes feel like the comics, and they do here: Spider-Man fights like he does in the comics—all creepy agility and awkward aerodynamics—and the many scenes of 3-D enhanced web swinging are exciting and convincing. (Webb also, cleverly, moves a lot of the big set pieces away from the cityscape, taking Spider-Man into the sewers, and—in one sequence—underwater, which both provides a nice change of pace and harkens back to similarly creative scenes in the comics.)
So why isn't The Amazing Spider-Man more fun? The answer—as is almost always the case—lies largely with the screenplay, which is uninspired to say the least. Whether you've seen any of the previous Spider-Man movies or not, this is all painfully familiar stuff by now: the tragic origin story, the high-tech labs where scientists conduct secret experiments that go wrong, the battle atop a skyscraper to thwart the villain's diabolical, vaguely illogical scheme. Unlike The Avengers—the new standard for superhero movies—neither the dialogue nor the storytelling is creative enough to make any of this feel fresh.
Webb and the screenwriters (James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves) do attempt to bring some new material to this overly familiar tale, notably through the introduction of a sub-plot about Peter Parker's mysterious parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), who disappeared when he was a child. However, both this mystery and what little emotional resonance it provides disappear halfway through the film, never to return (until, one presumes, the inevitable sequel). After Prometheus, I've had enough unresolved sequel-bait to last me the rest of the year, thank you very much, and one hopes this new trend of making just one-third of a satisfying movie will quickly end. [Note to filmmakers: if you want us to want a sequel, TELL A GOOD STORY IN THE FIRST MOVIE.]
The failure of The Amazing Spider-Man, ultimately, is one of vision: there is simply no reason for it to exist, except that it will almost certainly make a lot of money. It is unclear what—if anything—the filmmakers seem to think is worth saying at all with this character, let alone what they thought was different enough about their interpretation to justify a full franchise reboot. I have my issues with Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, but no one could argue that they don't represent a dramatically different interpretation of the character from those in the previous films by Tim Burton and Joel Shumacher. Here, however, the Spider-Man franchise has only been rebooted: it has not been reconceived, and it has certainly not been reinvigorated. This is murky, paint-by-numbers movie-making, with too many stock elements, too little imagination, and far too few surprises.