Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 03, 2012 2:40 pm 
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The joy of flying

In The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot of the comic book superhero classic and the fourth American blockbuster movie on the theme, Andrew Garfield has replaced Tobey McGuire as Peter Parker. That was the essential change. McGuire did the job three times. Now he's 37, and his Spider-Man days are over. And like Matt Damon and the Bourne movies, he may have felt stuck in a franchise. The English-American Garfield, who last played Eduardo Saverin in the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin collaboration The Social Network, is a lively, fresh take on the role. He adds not only soulful eyes and a bashful grim, but a long, lean physique that fits the spidery super powers Peter acquires -- not to mention a thoughtful, highly energetic performance. He's more quirky than goofy, and adds a touch of panache McGuire didn't have. Getting this part was a coup for Garfield, who has had some good roles, but is not very famous. This may also define his limitations. Can he move on from superherodom to dramatic stardom? His skinny, muscular, aw-shucks looks are peculiar, promising a too-long boyhood and not perfect for classic romantic or heroic roles. He resembles Tony Perkins. His future may depend on his taking on spooky and neurotic roles as Perkins so successfully did.

This is true to the Marvel Comics theme, a reiteration of Spider-Man 1, but it reimagines the character and the story. Garfield is cooler than Tobey McGuire, more of a geek than a nerd. Peter's thing with blond sort-of-girlfriend Stacy (Emma Stone) is independent of his new arachnid powers. The daughter of the police chief (Denis Leary), already likes him before he ever starts dazzling people by flying through the air and smashing things. This simpler plot (without James Franco and Willem Dafoe of the Sam Raimi films) puts more emphasis on the fraught romance and makes it more a meeting of equals. The simplicity and emotional warmth and Garfield's Tony Perkins-esque gawky almost-cool physicality are attractive, but you can still say, as I might, that Spider-Man 2 is the best of the four. This time the action part isn't as strong as the emotion part, as it was in number two. This is a Marvel blockbuster in which the kisses may be the best part. The director, Marc Webb, was previously known for his 2009 romantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer.

This version goes back and hints at early family history. It begins with Peter as a 4-year-old (Max Charles) whose father (Campbell Scott) leaves him with his aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen) because a break-in seems to endanger some scientific secrets. But we're soon with young adult Peter, and we stay with him for the rest of the movie, with many extreme closeups of Garfield's big, mobile features. They're fun to watch, but boyish or not, seen up so close he's obviously 28, not 18. (Emma Stone looks too old too, and could as easily be a high school teacher as fellow student.)

Garfield's Peter Parker has less of a Walter Mitty quality than Tobey McGuire's. He may be an outsider, and uncertain, but he's taller than Flash (Chris Zylka), the bully who at first taunts him but becomes his friend and unconscious admirer, wearing a red spider T-shirt. "Nice T-shirt," says Peter. "Yeah," says the convert Flash. "He's weird, but the chicks dig him." Though he's a dressed-down skateboarder in dark clothes and hoodie, Garfield's Peter is somebody the chicks might have dug all along -- wearing specs only as a homage to his lost dad. Though his new powers enable him to immediately cow the bullies, he wasn't the one they were beating up on when we first see them anyway; he clashes with them by interceding for somebody else.

Peter's early spider-hood is fun to watch here, as when he trounces some unfriendlies on the subway from Queens, winding up stuck upside down on the roof of the car and then swinging a support pole he's broken off in his hand. At school he tries to sink a basketball to impress the bullies, but flies too far up in the air and smashes the basket and backboard. He does a lot of apologizing, not only for coming home late and forgetting the eggs but for smashing things.

This movie uses more simple showing off and visual stunts and less CGI, helping to enhance Garfield's natural physicality -- quite a new thing for him, though he got beat up repeatedly in the British Red Riding series, perhaps his most challenging role before this. Without too much going on, the chemistry between Garfield and Stone and Garfield's quirky presence in the many scenes he dominates, have a better chance to carry the day.

Though there's some memorable business with a holdup man and a car thief, the best action moments are not battles with enemies but ones where Spider-Man is simply flying around between buildings, plainly having fun. Marc Webb's emphasis on these is long shots and deep space and there's a good sense of real movement rather than computer fakery. Garfield conveys Peter's delight, and Webb seems more interested in the joy of flying than in saving the city from a monster.

The young superhero must battle an epic villain to provide an action finale, but this aspect is not the film's strongest. In this iteration the Green Goblin is replaced by the Green Lizard, Dafoe by Rhys Ifans, who is Dr. Curt Connors, a one-armed man involved in a biotech firm called Oscorp, where Gwen is an intern, and, it turns out, a former colleague of Peter's father. Hints of revelations in a sequel, or just details left on the cutting room floor? We don't know.

Dr. Connors wants to develop a cross-species genetic injection that will use reptiles' ability to regenerate limbs to grow back his right arm. Of course he jumps the gun, prodded by an impatient executive (Irrfan Khan), injects himself, and turns into a giant reptile. This part of the movie is a bit too Incredible Hulk, and robs it of much of its emotional authenticity and intimacy. Ifans is an intelligent and interesting actor, but he has only a few chances to show complexity, and then turns into a big overstuffed monster. Dr. Connors keeps morphing back into Dr. Connors, though, and conveniently winds up in prison, with final scenes that give a hint of another Spider-Man movie.

The Amazing Spider-Man was released in the US, UK, and eight other countries July 3, 2012.

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