Screening Log #70: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves, and James Vanderbilt, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, and Dennis Leary




I could go a long way in talking about the differences I perceive between the comic books of Marvel and DC – the way they operate, their various rosters of heroes and rogues, etc. – but, to my mind, perhaps the most striking is the manner each company seems to conceive its heroes. The following thesis comes with the provision that it is by no means completely true, there will be exceptions to any consistent system (thanks Gödel!). However, it seems as though each company’s most successful properties – Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Wonder Woman for DC; Spider-Man, and the multitude of X-Men (or, X-People to be more PC) and Avengers (Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, et al.) for Marvel – are generated through vastly differing philosophies. The characters created by DC are those of a very pure and child-like fantasy: Superman is a God from another world, Batman is a man driven by the infantile idea that one man can eradicate crime and is given all the resources to have whatever toys he wants and is required to stay up late as part of the job. DC’s characters function more as mythologized and idealized icons, they collect moral and ethical properties and act as agents of them, examples that each comic reader may strive toward. Marvel’s heroes, on the other hand, internalize the morality of their situations and exist as less idealized characters. These less idealized characters, however, become more relatable and, because of this, their struggle with their powers or contexts is opened up for allegorical interpretation. The Avengers come together to enact a sort of democratic ideal, the mutants of the X-Men face persecution that may be read as racial or sexual or cultural.

In the light of this line of thinking, which I am sure everyone finds fascinating, (italics for sarcasm here), Spider-Man’s story is particularly universal and accounts for much of his popularity as a character. When he receives his powers by accident, Peter Parker is intellectually gifted, sure, but not with Bruce Wayne’s infinite finances, or Clark Kent’s impervious skin. He is awkward, orphaned to his honest aunt and uncle, and faces the same pains of adolescence that plague a majority of youth, especially those who are of the sort that would traditionally read comic books. Peter’s acquisition of his powers, then, is easy enough to parse as an allegorical manifestation of adulthood and sexuality. In the face of the dawning of adult terrors, Uncle Ben’s advice that “with great power comes great responsibility” rings truly from the political sphere straight through to the boudoir as a maxim for reasonable living. Marc Webb’s remounting of Parker’s fraught teenage transition, cum Spider-Man origin story, The Amazing Spider-Man, re-treads the ground established by Sam Raimi’s trilogy a scant decade ago, albeit with slightly altered details and an increased focus on the absence/mystery of Peter’s parents.

The film begins with a too-on-the-nose instance of young Peter playing hide-and-seek with his father the night that both parents hurriedly leave and are never seen again – we later find out that their plane crashed, killing them. The spectre of Richard and Mary Parker will loom largely over young Peter and he will spend much emotional and mental energy attempting to connect with what has been irrevocably lost, as blatantly spelled out by both the hiding and the seeking. The film then jumps forward to high school-aged Peter, Andrew Garfield, and sets the relative status quo: social outcast, young photographer, sometimes bullied by Flash Thompson, awkward with girls, etc. After finding an old bag of his father’s, Peter is informed of his father’s working relationship with Dr. Curtis Connors, Rhys Ifans, who is a foremost scientist in the field of cross-species genetic work. A field trip to Oscorp Labs under an assumed name provides Peter not only with a chance to get close to those oh-so-important altered spiders, but also a chance run-in with Gwen Stacey, Emma Stone, who Peter quite obviously fancies and who may also fancy him in return.

And so, with the blooming of young love comes the blooming of super powers – if only all young loved turned out so well. Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered spider while sneaking around Oscorp looking for information related to a secret file he found in his father’s bag and gains his, by now familiar, spider-powers. Peter enjoys his newly acquired powers and also initiates a relationship with Conners, introducing himself as Richard’s son and providing Conners with an equation that his father had been working on that has implications for the limb-regrowth procedure Conners is working on with reptiles. Peter’s involvement leads to his neglecting his responsibilities at home and an argument with his uncle Ben, Martin Sheen, in turn, leads to Ben’s untimely death at the hands of a criminal that Peter could have apprehended, but refused to. This sets Peter off on a quest to find the man who killed his uncle and his adoption of the Spider-Man costume. Spider-Man’s misadventures bring him to the attention of the police who Gwen’s father, Dennis Leary, happens to the captain of. This added element of forbiddenness only increases the attraction between Gwen and Peter when he informs her that he is Spider-Man by webbing her butt. Not so subtle there, Marc Webb. Peter’s heroic actions are contrasted with Connors’, who is being pressured into testing the new, Parker-aided, serum on himself to achieve results. Where the serum initially worked wonders on mice, it has the unfortunate side-effect of turning Connors into a giant lizard man.

Peter, having learned the value of Ben’s advice on moral responsibility the hard way, discovers what has become of Connors and resolves that he is obliged to end the reign of scaly, limb-regrowing, terror. The pair have several physical altercations across New York, on a bridge, in the sewers, and in Peter’s school, before Peter cottons onto the larger plan of Connors’ lizard brain which is to infect/mutate/evolve the entire population of New York into lizard people as well. Naturally. From here the film falls into place fairly predictably, with Gwen aiding Peter in sciencing up a cure and her father trying to decide whether Spider-Man is actually a menace to the city or simply someone trying to help people out. There’s some additional sentimental moralizing when a construction worker whose son Spider-Man had saved on the bridge calls on his construction co-workers to aid Spider-Man in his last-minute rush to stop Connors. Lizards are fought, chemical clouds are released, and the final outcome is never really in doubt, though it is significantly complicated by several small and not-so-small twists.

The film ends with Peter finished the puberty of his super-heroism, informed of his powers and the responsibility that accompanies them, and is ready to set off improving the lives of New Yorkers, or to have safe sex with a consenting partner, if you want to follow through on whole super-powers/sexual development allegory. Peter’s developing of powers, and his struggle to come to terms with them, externalizes the universal onset of sexual feelings in adolescence, neutering the struggle by rendering it an asexual circumstance that he must deal with. That Parker is a high school student when he is bitten is no accident, but, rather, a significant part of Stan Lee’s genius in the creation of the character. Here, the casting and acting work well in this film’s favour; Garfield and Stone are both natural and believable and they share a strong chemistry that reads clearly on the screen. Garfield, in particular, is adept at evoking the darker-toned, more Nolanized, version of the character that Webb is aiming for while retaining the humour and levity that makes in-mask Spider-Man so endearing.

The film’s insistence on narratively and visually connecting Peter’s father’s work as a geneticist, Richard having generated the spider which ended up giving Peter his powers, belabours the implicit correlation to hereditary traits and saddles the film with an amorphous vacuum that seems to be a little too much a hook for subsequent films in the franchise. The gesture seems unnecessarily overt, as with the initial game of hide-and-seek, about how it will inform both Peter’s life on-screen and the franchise’s life before and after it. Webb’s direction is similarly smart, if often overt or obvious in its intentions. The combat and web-slinging scenes are conducted with a quickly cut style of editing and often set at night or in the dark which masks some of the film’s more dodgy effects sequences.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a well-acted and competently constructed, if entirely superfluous, re-telling/re-framing of the character’s origin story. The film keeps intact what has allowed the idea of Spider-Man such longevity while occasionally over-complicating or over-selling its hand when the material is almost certainly better left to speak for itself. What is intrinsically appealing about Spider-Man, both as a character and morally, is apparent, even if the film takes pains to re-establish and modify his origin. It asserts that any period of rapid development will come with obstacles, that growth is inextricably tied to responsible use of what has grown, and that, in many ways, adolescence, like a Hollywood reboot, is actually a process of reiterative endings.


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