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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

12. The Amazing Spider-Man

Days behind review schedule: None, since I actually watched it today.

Alternate Title: “How to Make a Superhero Movie without Really Trying… Or Knowing Anything About What Makes It Good”.

The Gist: Spider-Man gets redesigned by committee.

Currently listening to: “Cannonball” by the Breeders/“Do Ya Thing” by Gorillaz, Andre 3000 and James Murphy.

The Experience: Hey! It’s the summer! That means two things.

1. I've got nothing better to do.
2. There are lots of movies to watch.

So after making myself pretty clear about my feelings on this new entry in the Spider-Man cinematic canon based on the trailer and choice of director, Jojo casually pointed out that she was going to see it regardless, which put me in an awkward position: abstain from watching it and never hear the end of how I had no right to criticise a movie I hadn't watched, or pay to see it and contribute to Sony’s coffers whether I like the film or not.

Okay, there was no way of going in there without some hint of prejudice against this film, but I actually was emboldened to watch it by how split down the middle critics and audiences seem to be on it, and now I've seen it I can at least say whatever I want about it with impunity; so I gave The Amazing Spider-Man its day in court after all.

Now, in the interest of objectivity and not giving in to my own biases, I'm going to keep any comparisons to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies as concise and relevant as possible. I'm also not going to bother summarising the plot too much for reasons that will become obvious: it’s basically the first film with certain bits swapped out in favour of… well, as I say, we’ll get to that. Let me first point out some of the stuff I kinda liked about this film.

First, the casting is good. I can never get sick of watching Andrew Garfield doing what he does, Emma Stone is a strong female lead (no shit, Adam, everyone else seems to have figured that out ages ago), Denis Leary and Martin Sheen are good in their supporting roles (again, old news) and as much as this sounds like a cop-out from coming up with a genuine positive criticism, the film is pretty to look at. The CG web-slinging has indeed improved since last we saw Spidey on screen, but that was 5 years ago and there have been some mind-blowing advances in the field since then, so trumpeting that side of it doesn't make a film better, as many were quick to point out to Peter Jackson when he remade King Kong as a three hour long treatise on bestiality and Stockholm syndrome.

And… that’s pretty much it. Credit where it’s due, but there really was not a lot in this film for me to either marvel at (n.p.i.) or that really jumped out at me.

Now there’s a lot of things I don’t care for in this film, but the majority of them come under a pretty clear meta-heading, so this is the main thing that is wrong with the film from my perspective:-

The Amazing Spider-Man is dumb, it has no heart and it has the miasma of studio middle-management all over it.

Regardless of whether you liked the Raimi movies or not, it was Sony’s insistence on cramming Venom into Spider-Man 3 that screwed up the pace of that film and their refusal to let Sam Raimi make the Spider-Man 4 that he wanted to make was what necessitated the creation of this film in the first place. Let’s break it down.

From a creative point of view, the film is almost completely lacking in terms of a consistent palette, a problem that runs downward from the direction to the script to the production design to the score. There’s a clear attempt been made to turn this into a more gritty and realistic version of the Spider-Man mythos, which is not only sabotaged by its attempts at humour (which range from sophomoric to just moronic) but it's made completely pointless by virtue of the fact that the film focuses on a guy in a red and blue body stocking swinging around on webs and has a giant iguana in a lab coat as the main villain. The score is all over the place too, with no discernible motifs to grip onto and a particular music cue that rates as officially one of the worst in cinema history.

This wouldn't be so bad if the script wasn't patently bullshit. Sub-plots and characters are raised and then dropped on a whim, and the few good performances in this seem to be almost in spite of what their working with! Rhys Ifans does his best in a thankless job, but I never bought him as a villain and his flip-flopping between good and evil reads as clumsy direction and shoddy writing.

In fact, all the supposed “villains” in this film suffer the curse of being woefully under-written or having their character arcs hacked to pieces in the editing suite. Some have suspected this is to save some revelations for the sequel, (of which there is bound to be at least one,) but my little black heart of cynicism (as well as the clear absence of several plot point heavy scenes seen in trailers but not in the finished film) tells me otherwise: this movie reeks of reshoots. Green Lantern had this problem as well, but that was a relatively obscure property with no proven track record; Sony has been making Spider-Man films for ten bloody years!

The presence of Norman Osborn is cock-teased throughout, but even the woefully misjudged mid-credits stinger fails to give us a clear idea of what direction the franchise is meant to be going in. Irffan Khan appears as a shady Oscorp boss… who disappears from the film halfway through and is never seen again. Even the mugger who shoots Uncle Ben is reduced to a generic guy who could be anyone (a plot point that the movie attempts to run with for a bit but is neither resolved nor given a satisfactory justification or context).

And it’s not just the villains who have to deal with sucky writing, although that’s bad enough. Garfield and Stone do indeed have good chemistry, but it’s chemistry without substance, and often feels like their just riffing on each other like another notable couple from a Marvel property *cough* Iron Man *unconvincing cough*. The reason I suspect is because the film-makers either didn't understand what makes Peter Parker/Spider-Man a likeable character or they did and just decided to go completely the other way, because there are some scenes early on (even before his powers manifest) when he behaves in ways that are completely uncharacteristic of the established character. Here, Parker isn't just not likeable; he takes pictures of Gwen Stacy in a way that is about this close to being a stalker, he’s unappreciative of and unpleasant to Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and his decision to trespass into the Oscorp labs is what results in him getting bit in the first place. And whilst he (rightfully) blames himself for Uncle Ben’s death, his decision to go around harassing potential criminals in an attempt to find the person responsible makes his initial foray into crime-fighting sort of ethically questionable.

But even the noble Uncle Ben isn't done justice here. Whilst Martin Sheen tries his best, this version is just too curmudgeonly, and his constant lecturing of Peter means that the “with great power comes great responsibility” lesson gets completely lost in the barrage of James Dean-level stroppy teenage angst and “do as your told” parenting. Even poor Aunt May does nothing but fret and wring her hands. And as for Peter’s missing parents… there’s really nothing to say about them. They’re little more than a plot device, a cheap way to get Peter to Oscorp, where Gwen just happens to work as an intern, where he just happens to get bitten, turn into Spider-Man and give his father’s research he has discovered to Dr Connors (passing it off as his own, by the way), precipitating the creation of the Lizard.

Which is another thing that needs to be brought up: this movie has way, WAY too many coincidental plot points!! And the plot points that aren't coincidental are either unexplained or just plain fucking stupid! Peter being able to break into Oscorp by posing as an intern without having to show any ID - stupid. The swinging on cranes thing being played as some big patriotic sign of New Yorker camaraderie - dumb. The clumsily unresolved plot-line involving his parents – really dumb. The emphasis on Parker needing to have a secret identity, in spite of the fact that he creates his suit using resources that can easily be traced back to him, leaves a camera marked with his name on it at the scene of a confrontation with the Lizard (which in turn leads the Lizard back to Peter’s school for the obligatory second act punch-up), not to mention the fact that he keeps coming in late and looking like he’s been put through a clothes mangle – and yet for the entire running time, unless he actually tells someone specifically, NOBODY ELSE IN THE FILM SUSPECTS THAT HE MIGHT BE SPIDER-MAN – SO, SO, SO VERY STUPID.

Of all the performances in this, the one that actually works on its own merits is Denis Leary as Captain Stacey, and here we actually do get a well rounded character that represents the surrogate father figure Peter never had, who actually teaches him about the meaning of sacrifice and responsibility; he is easily the best part of the film, and that’s not intended to be faint praise. But it’s not enough to save the film, and his role feels like its been transplanted in from a completely different movie, which is sort of why this film just doesn't gel from the concept level up – it’s a Frankenstein movie, chopped up and mashed together from bits of other, better films. To say this movie has feet of clay is to grossly misrepresent the structural reliability of clay; if this movie had feet of clay, it would at least be able to stand up on its own.

This brings me neatly to the elephant in the room, the nit that needs picking, the turd in the punchbowl. Lots of people have been split down the middle over whether this film came too early, whether the film is a significant improvement on the direction of the original films, and whether the movie should have come out at all. The fact is, Sony are going to make another film – why wouldn't they? It’s a license to print money, and heaven forbid that the rights revert back to Marvel Studios and by extension Disney. Same with the X-Men franchise – no-one at Fox wants to be responsible for letting that IP go into the long grass. So what we get is a film that’s been designed by studio executives, directed by a cipher with no established track record or clear visual aesthetic besides a slew of pop videos, and based on a script cobbled together from the work of at least three disparate writers.

Now, people are immediately going to point out that Sam Raimi’s films weren't perfect either, and I've already heard people retroactively sneering at them like they were something to be embarrassed of. Yes, Raimi's films aren't perfect, but that misses the point: regardless of how good or bad the old films were, (and let’s face it, everyone loved watching them when they came out, and if you claim otherwise then I call bullshit on that,) the new one should be able to stand on its own merits, and it definitely shouldn't be worse than the original! Many will say the effects have improved but that’s a function of time; that’s like crowing about how The Lion King is so much more "immersive" now that it’s been retro-fitted in 3D. The set pieces are only as impressive as the story that holds them together, and this lacks any of the genuine humour or heart of the Raimi trilogy. This is a boilerplate film that could have really set itself apart from its baggage but instead chooses to aim squarely at the broadest possible market, taking no risks and pushing no envelopes. A damp squib if ever there was one.

Still, I know you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid anyway, and that just makes me sad. Raggedy Adams out.

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