I met you with the self-made promise that I would not hold you up against the three (three!) films that came before you just in the last ten years. I don’t think judging a film against another film is particularly fair, especially if it appears that the two films are trying to achieve different goals in their stories and execution. Certainly two films that involve similar characters will invariably be compared with one another, and while that makes sense on one level, it doesn’t mean that a film’s success depends upon it besting previous related properties.
So let that introduction serve as a kind of mission statement for this review. I won’t be comparing you to the other Spider-Man films as a means of determining your worth, but I will be occasionally using those films as a means of scale – a kind of known quantity by which to give my criticisms context.
So let us begin at the beginning, seeing as that is where you pick up your story. Rather than build off of the characters and stories that have come before, you take us back to the beginning, showing us Peter Parker pre-spider bite, a moody young man still stung by the disappearance of his parents and the torment he receives at the hand of the school bully. Then, while investigating a new lead in the mystery of his parents’ vanishing, he is bit by a genetically engineered spider. From here the origins of his super heroics should be old hat to anyone even glancingly versed with Spider-Man mythology, but for a few changes.
For instance, the whole idea of Parker’s parents being in some way involved in his origin is a new concept to me. I’m not sure how much they add to the proceedings, except to give Peter a darker, more wounded demeanor at the outset. Unlike the previous films’ goofy, eternally optimistic protagonist, Andrew Garfield plays Peter as a scattered, secretive young man hamstrung by his uncertainty over his parents’ death and the circumstances of his desertion. It’s an interesting idea, but one that is rarely explored narratively outside of his lack of responsibility and increased brooding. He is more nervously awkward and stilted, though, which I view as an improvement over the broad prat-falling or previous incarnations. Of all the changes, I feel as though his energy may add the most to the story.
Similarly, his love interest in the blond Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, rather than the red-haired Mary Jane Watson. Rather than being an aspiring actress, Gwen is a science protege just like Peter, the daughter of a police captain (Denis Leary) and a student under the brilliant Doctor Connors (Rhys Ifans) who is an old friend of Peter’s parents. Gwen serves as an intellectual counterpart to Peter, and her relationship to the cop tasked with finding Spider-Man adds another layer to the intrigue and risk that Peter takes both in his real life, and in his life as a super hero.
The budding relationship between Peter and Gwen is the heart of your story, and so its rushed nature is a little bit unfortunate. They seem to barely know one another at first, and though I am convinced of their chemistry and her initial interest in him is solidly built – she takes a shine to him when he helps a fellow bullied nerd – I feel as though they move too quickly toward their romance. This is, unfortunately, an ailment that infects the bulk of your narrative. Specifically, it undermines the story of Dr. Connors, who seemingly two-thirds of the way through the story becomes the big bad guy. However, his motivations – while mentioned in passing – are never invested wholeheartedly in the character. His transition from hapless victim to scheming madman is narrowly supported.
This rapidity of development, in terms of the villain and the romance, also extends to the through-line regarding the police reaction to the emergence of Spider-Man. Leary is a solid performer, and his later character beats are well handled and delivered, but his initial animosity toward Spider-Man feels almost vestigial, the remnant of some greater plot possibly cut for time.
Still, the labyrinthine relationships and their entanglement in the plot all work well, thanks in no small part to some spirited writing, and assured directing from Marc Webb. In particular, the action set pieces and the combat that takes place within them are something I would consider a marked improvement. There is a propulsive and balletic quality to the way that Spider-Man uses his myriad powers in tandem that was missing from the earlier films.
In general, I left you with a sense of levity, having enjoyed our time together, in spite of the story flaws that I felt held you back from being something truly special. As an obvious beginning to a new franchise, the greatest question is whether or not I would return to the world you created for a sequel. That answer, surprisingly, is yes, without reservation. Garfield and Stone have chemistry, I enjoyed the acrobatic combat, and I think all the other elements involved could continue and strengthen with further installments. My initial impression of the original Spider-Man was similar, and that film was just as much a set up for further films as you are.
Maybe more so, because while that one so obviously left room for openly delineated storylines, you resolve with much more finality, leaving a lot more ambiguity and promise for further stories. And I’ll be sure to be there for them.
Brian J. Roan