REVIEW: Why Can't All Comic-Book Movies Be as Sexy as The Amazing Spider-Man?
Comic-book movies can be many things — ridiculous, entertaining, stupendously dull – but very rarely are they erotic. I’m not talking about the garden-variety sexually neutral charge thrown off by a fit actor, man or woman, who happens to look good in a latex suit. Even in the best comic-book movies, made by filmmakers who know what they’re doing — people like Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Guillermo del Toro and Jon Favreau — sex is often treated as a mild embarrassment, a thing that just doesn’t mix well with action inspired by comic-book panels. And so amid all the questions about whether or not the Spider-Man franchise ought to have been rebooted just 10 years after Raimi kicked off his own spin on it, maybe the real question to ask of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man is — when it comes to sexual chemistry, why can’t more comic-book movies be like this one?
Depending on your expectations, The Amazing Spider-Man — based, of course, on the characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko — is probably not as good as you hoped or as bad as you feared. The plot is fairly standard: The movie opens with the typical traumatic childhood event — in this case, the young Spider-Man-to-be Peter Parker is hastily left behind by his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) who must flee, somewhere, to safety. Peter is left in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field), and before we know it, he’s grown into Andrew Garfield — his Peter is an awkward and only mildly sullen teenager who tries to ride his skateboard through the halls of his school (a no-no) and who harbors a not-so-secret crush on the most adorable science nerd you’ve probably ever laid eyes on, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy.
Before long, young Peter has an encounter with mysterious one-armed herpetologist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a man who knows something about Peter’s parents and who may hold some of the keys to their disappearance. Later, Dr. Connors will turn into an ill tempered scaly something, but only after Peter is bit by a radioactive spider and realizes that he himself has super-sticky spider powers. He fashions his own costume and web shooters — they allow him to spin magnificent transparent web structures that look like rubbery spun sugar – and, after his failure to take action spurs a personal tragedy, he becomes a swinging, web-slinging vigilante, cleaning up the streets because, well, someone has to. And the police force, which happens to be headed by Gwen’s dad, Captain Stacy (an all-too-straight-faced Denis Leary), doesn’t always do the greatest job.
In most ways, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t really all that amazing. The action is occasionally thrilling, particularly the sequences in which Peter tests out and perfects his newfound powers — Webb has some fun with vertiginous camera perspectives that work reasonably well in 3-D. But like so many contemporary action movies – in fact, like almost all of them — the action sequences in which Spidey fends off various bad guys are imprecise and hard to follow visually. And the script, by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves (from a story by Vanderbilt) leaves dozens of unanswered questions: Why is Character X a pretty nice guy as a human being but a baddie once he’s transformed into Creature X? And how (and why) does he change back and forth? Also, thousands of tiny versions of Creature X overrun the city at one point — where have they come from? The list goes on, but I suppose we’re not supposed to care.
But what The Amazing Spider-Man does have is a pair of extremely charismatic leads in Garfield and Stone. I enjoyed Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man pictures well enough — even the much-derided number 3 — and had no specific desire to see the series resuscitated. But watching Garfield and Stone made me think doing so wasn’t such a bad idea, and Webb — who previously directed the somewhat gimmicky but ultimately winning romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer — knows just what to do with these appealing young actors. Garfield is just on the cusp of being too handsome to play Peter Parker – he’s almost not nerdy enough, a requirement that the gifted Tobey Maguire filled pretty ably. Still, Garfield makes you believe in his geekiness. His Peter seems to be uncomfortable making eye contact, and the occasional shy smirk crosses his face, though it’s less a bratty affection than a nervous tic – he’s like a sweet-natured Heathcliff with just a touch of Asperger’s.
As charming as Garfield is, though, Stone’s Gwen Stacy — a girl with the kind of smile that Mattel could never have dreamed up for even its most winsome doll -- nearly outshines him. Gwen is more graceful than Peter is, socially and physically, but when the two finally get together, she meets him more than halfway in a tentatively bumpy pas de deux – watching the two characters settle into each other’s rhythms is one of the movie’s chief delights. Raimi, in his first Spider-Man movie, gave us that erotic half-mask kiss between Maguire and Kirsten Dust’s Mary Jane, but beyond that, his Spidey was rendered in safely asexual way; comic-book fans have been known to tolerate a little bit of ewky girl stuff, but not too much.
But Webb doesn’t seem to care about staying within safe limits. Peter, having stolen into Gwen’s bedroom, tries to explain to her why he can suddenly cling to the sides of buildings and swing through the air with impossible lightness. “I’ve been bitten,” he stammers. She leans in close with her husky whisper: “So have I.” And that sound you hear is the cumulative sigh of a million viewers who suddenly sort of remember, maybe, that there can be something more to movies than elaborate yet repetitive action sequences and strained 3-D effects. You’ve got a girl and a guy in a bedroom, alone. Aren’t you just dying to see what happens in the next panel?