Despite much stronger casting and a more engaging modern tone, Sony's all-too-soon reboot of its popular "Spider-Man" franchise sadly fails to justify its existence. Created for the most cynical of reasons, namely so that the studio can hold onto the film rights to the character, there's a notable lack of vision on offer from director Marc Webb. The film is perfectly serviceable in its own right, but frustratingly never reaches beyond the adequate.
Regardless of what you thought of them, and I'm not the biggest fan of them myself, Sam Raimi at least had a distinct approach and vision for his classic era take on the web-slinger. Much more outright comic book movies than films, Raimi knew how to shoot action well, evolved his characters, and wasn't afraid to play things for laughs - even if it was to his detriment at times. The acting and dialogue were often cringe-worthy, and there were some big structural and pacing problems within all of them (yes even the beloved and overpraised second entry), but they were very much their own thing and on their own terms work for what they are.
Webb's take on "Spider-Man" however is far more anonymous. Tonally akin to the modern run of the comics, the film attempts to occupy a space somewhere between the light-hearted and comic book styled Marvel film verse, and Chris Nolan's dark and grounded approach to "Batman" that avoids comic book touches wherever it can. The result actually isn't that bad, a muted but still charming middle ground that - at least initially - works better than it has a right to.
It's the charm of the cast that carries us through the already over familiar and often dull re-tread of how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man in the first half of the film. Thankfully gone is Tobey Maguire's best approximation of a wet pillowcase, instead we have the promising and fascinating Andrew Garfield who gives us for a far more engaging and enjoyable Peter. Gone is Raimi's 1950's-esque book club nerd interpretation (which is probably closer to the comic), instead he's replaced by a more assertive, gangly and cute social outcast type who amuses himself and is driven by his own restless energy.
Matching him is Emma Stone's amiable yet indomitable Gwen Stacey, another distinct improvement from Kirsten Dunst's whinging and reactive erect-nippled princess. Both actors are essentially playing versions of their own personalities, and the chemistry between them is strong enough to give their scenes together a natural energy and flow - something often missing from this overly formulaic and frequently stilted genre. The supporting cast is small but do well with what they have, particularly Martin Sheen and Denis Leary as Uncle Ben and Captain Stacey.
Yet the teen romance is hampered by the fact there's not really much to it, no real conflicts or impediments in their way. It's also awkwardly paced, these scenes randomly appearing in ways that make it feel like part of another and more interesting movie than the one we're watching. Weighing them down is the rest of the movie which essentially consists of four elements - the origin elements we've seen before, the serialised TV-style mystery elements about Peter's parents, this entry's villain, and the action sequences.
Lets break those down. The origin elements we've seen before are exactly that. Webb changes the set dressing a little but this new version doesn't add anything distinct or different. Well, maybe the mechanical web shooters, but in practice they make little difference. In fact they actually have a distancing effect from the more amusingly overt masturbation metaphor in Raimi's films.
Considering how accustomed we are to serialised mystery elements in our films and television these days, the ones on offer here feel clumsy. Norman Osborn is kept in the shadows and appears to be essentially serving as the Blofeld/Moriarty of this series. The disappearance of Peter's parents isn't anywhere near as compelling to us as it seems to be to the character. The whole cross-species genetics element seems like a convenient if obvious way to setup the character's rogue's gallery of animal-themed villains in future outings.
The villain is also a wash. Despite being hamstrung with some poor scripting, Rhys Ifans gives a solid turn as the under the gun single-armed scientist with noble intentions and a personal connection to Peter. Ifans plays Dr. Connors quite believably and sympathetically in the first hour, which makes his Lizard transformations and sudden switch to a generic comic book baddie in the second hour feel that much sillier and more ridiculous. There's a distinct feeling of a lot more with his character being cut from the film, in fact the issues of Raimi's first film re-appear here as the movie goes off the rails once the green bad guy comes into play.
There are some good moments to the action. A subway fight scene with Peter first discovering his 'sticky hands' is a fun bit. There's a nice if narratively pointless sequence with Peter above a storm drain using his webbing as a motion detector. The rest though is either too poorly choreographed, haphazardly filmed or overly animated to have any impact, especially by the point of the final set piece.
There's also a lot of problems. Almost as cheesy as some of Raimi's worst excesses is a sequence involving every crane operator in New York defying their union-mandated work hours. Spidey's banal one-liners early on seem to quickly vanish, and Gwen doesn't get much of a chance to be assertive against the giant Goomba beyond a brief bit with a makeshift blowtorch. You want plot holes? How about the Lizard transmogrifying a SWAT team into fellow reptiles who then seem to be forgotten about for twenty minutes.
We've become accustomed to reboots of faded franchises. The best of them, such as "Casino Royale," "Batman Begins," "X-Men: First Class" or "Star Trek", delivered a fresh and impressionable new take on old material. 'Amazing' wants to be its own thing but never seems to put the effort in to become that. It's perfectly fine, an improvement in some ways and a downgrade in others from what came before, but it's also spineless - too afraid to take any risks with a character and story in desperate need of some freshening up. It's not the dud it could've been, but that's hardly high praise.