Sony Keeps Its Seat on the Superhero Blockbuster Bandwagon with The Amazing Spider-Man
Last week I saw The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot of Sony's series of live action Spider-Man films. This reboot features a new director, new actors and new details added to the Spider-Man origin story that are intended to push this reboot into new directions in subsequent films.
I could say a lot of snarky things at this point, such as how Sony's reboot comes too soon after the last Spider-Man film or how this reboot is another sign that Hollywood is completely out of ideas. Yet the truth of the matter is that Sony rebooted Spider-Man for two reasons: It let go of the director of its first three Spider-Man films, Sam Raimi, as well as his cast, and it had to make another Spider-Man movie this year or else the character's film rights would revert back to Marvel Comics, the company that owns Spider-Man. That's it--there are no other reasons for this reboot. In fact, these were mostly the same reasons behind last summer's superhero reboot movie, X-Men: First Class. (Of course, how Marvel came to own some of its key characters is another story altogether.)
In light of these facts, I can say that The Amazing Spider-Man represents both the best aspects of superhero filmmaking and its possible limitations. The film is much better than I expected it to be even though it feels very familiar at times (more about that later). Yet no matter how much money this film makes in tickets, rentals and sales, it begs the question: Where can the Spider-Man films go from here to keep them fresh and interesting? Read on for my complete review.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a retelling of how Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) changed from an ordinary teenager to a wall-crawling, web-spinning superhero. Like Raimi's first Spider-Man film ten years ago, this story places some emphasis on Peter's relationship with his adoptive parents, Uncle Ben and Aunt May (here played by Martin Sheen and Sally Field). Unlike Raimi's movie, Peter's love interest is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whose father, NYPD Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), is determined to stop the vigilante activities of Spider-Man. Peter's transformation into Spider-Man in the reboot occurs while he examines the genetic research left behind by his long-dead father Richard Parker (Campbell Scott); the examination brings Peter into contact with Dr. Curt Connor (Rhys Ifans), a former colleague of Peter's father and who becomes the villain known as the Lizard after an experimental mishap.
If anything, Sony has obviously learned something from Marvel's examples of what it means to make a worthwhile superhero film. Marvel has churned out a series of top-notch films based on its superhero characters--films such as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America--so it only makes sense for Sony to release a Spider-Man film that matches the quality of Marvel's cinematic releases. Everything about The Amazing Spider-Man is of high quality, from Marc Webb's direction to the cast's performances to the special effects work; this film rarely hits a sour note, and it will keep viewers enthralled throughout its two hour plus running time. Furthermore, I had the chance to see this movie in IMAX 3D, which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to get the full effect of Spider-Man's dizzying, high-swinging acrobatics. In fact, it was the IMAX 3D preview that I saw during my IMAX 3D viewing of Prometheus that convinced me to give The Amazing Spider-Man a chance.
The film's biggest problem is its underlying familiarity, which may or may not be the deciding factor in whether people will want to see this movie. Even though this film includes several characters from the Spider-Man comics that were not in Raimi's film, they nevertheless serve similar dramatic purposes as Raimi's selection of characters and have developmental arcs that follow familiar trajectories. I thought it was great that this reboot set up Gwen as the intellectual equal of Peter, which in turn added greatly to the chemistry between these characters as their relationship blossoms, but parts of the relationship's arc feel similar to the arc previously seen between Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) in 2002's Spider-Man.
Comparing Raimi's interpretation of Spider-Man to Webb's interpretation is like comparing the depiction of Spider-Man in comics from the 60s and 70s to his depiction in Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man comic book series. Some things are similar, some things are different, and some things are similar but are still different. Some plot points make more sense in one while others make less sense in the other, and vice versa. In my case, I like how Webb's movie spends more time with Peter's high school years (as opposed to breezing through them like Raimi did), but I didn't like the removal of Dr. Connor's wife and son from the script. The fact that Connor has a family makes him a different kind of challenge for Spidey whenever he fights the Lizard in the comics, so removing them from the movie made Connor feel less distinct than his comic book version. Nevertheless, if you're a comic book fan and can accept how frequently both DC and Marvel have rebooted their own characters and/or "retconned" their timelines on the printed page, then seeing The Amazing Spider-Man probably won't bother you in the slightest and you'll probably have a fantastic time.
Unfortunately, the pervasive familiarity The Amazing Spider-Man hints at possible problems with future installments in Sony's franchise. I understand why Sony would want to re-introduce Spider-Man in a new way so that it could take this character and his supporting cast in a new narrative direction. This allows Sony to keep audiences invested in its latest version of a classic Marvel character while Marvel continues to bring its other classic characters to the big screen. Yet even with the new Spider-Man movie putting a greater dramatic emphasis on Peter's late parents and on OsCorp, the company owned by the villainous Norman Osborn, I honestly don't know how the next few Spider-Man movies can be that much different than what has been seen before in Raimi's Spider-Man movies. Much like it does in its comics, Marvel has the opportunity to involve characters and situations across multiple movies to keep the stories interesting and interconnected within a single fictional universe (as seen in this summer's Avengers); this is one major advantage that Marvel will have when and if it gets the movie rights back for Spider-Man. Sony can't do that, which means that its efforts to prolong its ownership of Spidey's film rights through a reboot may ultimately prove to be futile and self-defeating.
The Amazing Spider-Man shows that with the great power of owning the film rights to a popular character comes the great difficulties of maintaining such ownership through a reboot. As a film by itself, I highly recommend The Amazing Spider-Man to fans of Spider-Man, superheroes, high-quality 3D and action-adventure movies. Yet even with the ample amounts of talent both in front of and behind the camera, this film and its inevitable sequels might not be enough to keep Sony out of the entangled legal and creative web of its own making.