After being bitten by a scientifically enhanced/engineered spider, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) discovers he has spider powers and must use those powers to stop Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) who has accidentally transformed himself into The Lizard, a gigantic lizard-man.
I thoroughly expected to not like this film. I really did. The trailers left me in blah territory, not to mention that this is another origin story. Didn’t we just see a Spider-Man origin story a few years ago? (2002 to be exact.) As I watched the film, I realized that this is a different monster completely than the Sam Raimi directed 2002 Spider-Man. I also found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. While it is not as good as Spider-Man 2, I feel that it is at least as good as the first film in Raimi’s trilogy. This is a difficult movie to review. While there are moments of greatness in here, there are also some questionable decisions in the direction of the story and origins of the character.
After Peter Parker’s parents leave him with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) to escape from something (never explained in the film, guess we need to wait for the inevitable sequel for that answer), he grows up to be a somewhat nerdy high school kid who is bullied. When he discovers an old briefcase of his father’s, he discovers that his father worked with Dr. Curt Conners, currently employed by Oscorp. When his pretends to be an intern, he is bitten by a spider and soon develops super strength and agility. After his uncle is shot by a robber while out searching for him, he dons a mask and goes on a vendetta against the criminal element in New York seeking vengeance for the death of his Uncle. Along the way he starts dating Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and is hunted by the police, especially her father Captain Stacy (Denis Leary). Once Dr. Conners tests a serum on himself, he is transformed into The Lizard, and it’s up to Peter Parker, now known as Spider-Man, to stop him.
Like I said, this is a completely different monster than Raimi’s trilogy. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) brings a reality to the characters of Peter Parker and Spider-Man. What is really interesting and one of the greatest things about the film is that he plays the characters as different. When he is just Peter, he is an awkward, depressed boy trying to cope with the world around him; from being bullied to his abandonment issues to the death of Uncle Ben. He is a character who has been through more than he should have been, and only the affections of Gwen Stacy give him some small comforts and moments of happiness. When he is Spider-Man, hidden behind the mask, he is a wise cracking jokester who is having fun with his new abilities. Reveling in the new found freedom. And using that freedom to search for the criminal who killed his uncle.
Emma Stone (Zombieland, The Help) brings a strength and vulnerability to her role as Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s first love. She is an intelligent woman who works for Oscorp in Dr. Connors lab. She is the daughter of a police captain, and as such, can take care of herself. Never once does the movie put her into ‘damsel in distress’ mode, and that is another thing that is great about the film. It never sinks to the level of ‘lets kidnap Spider-Man’s girlfriend’.
The scenes between Stone and Garfield are heartfelt and touching, and I honestly believe they are the best moments in the movie. The chemistry between the two is simply amazing and I honestly bought that the were teenagers in (puppy) love. Subtle little realistic touches such as fumbling for words and spinning in the halls of school after setting up a (sort of) date really sold it for me.
The supporting work by Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, Spawn) and Sally Field (Steel Magnolias, Mrs. Doubtfire) is also amazing. They really sell Uncle Ben and Aunt May as the caring surrogate parents of Peter. They never pander to him and never try to be his biological parents. They clearly love him as if he were there own son, but they never try to take anything away from Peter by denying the existence of his real parents. Denis Leary is Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father and a policeman on a crusade to capture Spider-Man, never realizing that the man he wants to arrest is his daughter’s boyfriend. He is actually a little bit under used until the end, when he redeems himself.
Rhys Ifans (Hannibal Rising, Anonymous) is Dr. Curt Conners, Peter’s fathers former friend and scientific partner who accidentally transforms himself in the character of The Lizard while trying to create a serum to regrow his arm. While he does a good job in the role, he is actually not the focus of the story. The story stays firmly focused on the character of Peter, and as such you don’t get to know and understand the character of Connors very well. His motivations are fairly simple (regrow his arm, help save Norman Osborne). What he does well in the role, though, is play the characters different, much like Garfield and his Parker/Spider-Man. He is a soft scientist when Connors, but when he is unleashed as The Lizard he is hugely intelligent with a surge of aggression, determined to create a new species at the expense of the people of New York.
This film is not as epic as Raimi’s series. It is not all bright colors and happy people. It is a little darker than I expected in a Spider-Man film, but not as dark as the trailers let on. There is a fair amount of levity too be had and it is spaced well. The film is firmly about Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, and as such is at times a romance film, and other times an action film. When all is said and done, I was very impressed. Will it hold up on future viewings? I can’t say. All I can say is that the first hours of the film drug on for me as we got another origin story. Once Peter becomes Spider-Man, though, the film kicks into high gear. If you wren’t too hung up on the Raimi films (and I was) you should find yourself enjoying this immensely. It is a good time at the theater, and I’m not afraid to admit that it almost made me cry a couple of times. It is a heartfelt reboot, and I cannot wait to see the sequel and where this story goes with these character.
*** out of ****