Besides his serendipitous name, there wasn’t much about director Marc Webb that suggested he was the right choice to helm The Amazing Spider-Man. With nothing under his belt but a few music documentaries, a couple of TV shows, and the 2009 indie comedy (500) Days of Summer, you’ve got to wonder what Sony saw in Webb that prompted them to hand him the keys to their $230 million Spidey reboot.
But every now and then, a Hollywood exec makes a left-field decision that pays off. It turns out that Webb was a great choice to get this new trilogy off the ground. The director’s position was unenviable; besides having his superhero movie sandwiched between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, Webb was tasked with lacing up a reboot that most would have been content to leave in the closet for a few more years.
We can all agree this latest Spidey flick is mostly unnecessary—after all, Sam Raimi’s trilogy is barely cold—but it also happens to be very good. It doesn’t soar to the heights of that other Marvel movie that’s still raking in well-earned bucks, but The Amazing Spider-Man is plenty charming and entertaining enough to justify its own existence and prime the pumps for the inevitable sequel.
The film’s greatest strengths are its two young stars and the chemistry that crackles between them. Gangly British actor Andrew Garfield, whom most Americans know from his turn as one of Facebook’s co-founders in 2010’s The Social Network, might be pushing 30 (okay, technically he’s pushing 29), but he nails the role of teenage alter-ego-in-waiting Peter Parker. As always, Peter is a nerdy, wisecracking kid being raised by his kindly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). In Webb’s version of the familiar tale, Peter is outfitted with a skateboard and new backstory. This time around, Peter’s dad was a scientist with close ties to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), the well-meaning geneticist who accidentally turns himself into a giant lizard known as, um, the Lizard.
Garfield owns the role in a way that no one expected. His lithe physicality is perfect for the costumed crime-fighter Peter will become in the film’s admittedly clunkier second half, but Garfield is at his best when the mask is off and he’s just a kid trying to be a man. And given the fact that Webb lifts much of his film’s aesthetic and quite a few of its dramatic beats from classic horror films, it’s probably lost on exactly no one that Garfield bears a striking resemblance to a lanky, young Anthony Perkins.
Emma Stone co-stars as Gwen Stacy, a character whose fate helped sound the death knell for the Silver Age of comics back in the ’70s. With the shadow of future Spidey sweetheart Mary Jane Watson lurking in viewers’ skulls, Gwen practically has an expiration date stamped on her pretty forehead, but it hardly matters. You couldn’t ask for a better Gwen Stacy than Stone, who gives us a gutsier and altogether more interesting version of Spidey’s first love than we’ve seen in a very long time. When the two are onscreen together, they make the sort of old-school movie sparks that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days.
At the outset, The Amazing Spider-Man seems to have the same problem that plagues most superhero origin stories. It’s so frontloaded with exposition that, by the time someone finally gets all super and heroic and possibly spandex-y, we feel like we’re watching two distinctly different movies. This is still the case in Webb’s Spider-Man redo, but with an interesting twist: The movie’s talky first half is more entertaining than its action-heavy second half. For the most part, the film works better as a high-school movie and even as a love story than it does as a summer blockbuster. Webb has absolutely no trouble finding Spider-Man’s emotional core, but he seems a little unsure what to do with his characters once they morph into webslinging heroes or giant, rampaging monsters. In all fairness, part of the problem lies in the script—as supervillainy goes, plotting to turn everyone in New York City into a lizard leaves a lot to be desired—but it’s also obvious that Webb just doesn’t have a knack for action scenes. The meat of the film lies in Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man, which is mirrored by Connors’ grotesque metamorphosis into the limb-regenerating but batcrap-insane Lizard.
Even if the fireworks at the end are a little disappointing, getting there really is a lot of fun. Don’t let the movie’s dismal early teasers sour your opinion; this isn’t the mopey, emo Spider-Man we were lead to expect. The tone is certainly darker and grittier than Spidey’s last cinematic incarnation, but there’s plenty of humor on hand and more than enough charm to help The Amazing Spider-Man hold its own.