Saturday, November 17, 2012

DVD Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I suppose it was OK. The odd thing about The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is that I neither really liked it or disliked it.

OK, I liked it. The film was watchable and entertaining. I enjoyed it and would watch it again, but it wasn't "amazing" or "spectacular" or anything like that. It was just another superhero movie. It had its good points and its flaws.

Warning! Warning! Major spoilers ahead. If you're like me and waited for this film to come out in DVD before watching it (and you haven't watched it yet), I will give away a ton of secrets in my review. You have been warned.

I like that there was a mystery. So many superheroes get their powers by accident and I guess Peter did in this film too, but not quite by accident. In a way, his father created him.

When Peter Parker is four-years old, his parents suffer a home break-in. Someone specifically was looking for something in his Dad's office. Fortunately, Richard Parker hid the really secret stuff in a false bottom of his desk drawer (a trick older than Stan Lee, but the thieves still didn't tumble to it). Pawning little Peter off on his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Richard and Mary Parker disappear into the night, never to be seen again. Later, Peter learns they died in a plane crash, but no one ever talks about it.

Richard Parker's work had something to do with cross-species genetics...and spiders.

It's interesting that teenage Peter Parker was interested in photography before becoming Spider-Man. In the original, silver age version, he started taking news photos as a way to support himself and Aunt May after his uncle's death. I found it particularly confusing though, when Peter webbed his camera to a wall to take shots of Spider-Man's battle with the Lizard, that the film had never established why he did it in the first place. In this movie, he is never shown to have a relationship with the Daily Bugle or making plans to sell his photos to them or anyone else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job playing the geeky, socially awkward (to put it mildly) teenage Peter Parker. Of course, the audience has to get past the fact that all of the actors depicting high school students are really twenty-somethings, but we should be used to that by now. In fact, Garfield's Parker is so awkward, I found it amazing that the beautiful and quite articulate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) ever found him attractive in the first place. Sure, Peter had just heroically tried to save some kid from being bullied by "Flash" Thompson (Chris Zylka) and gotten pounded into the pavement for his troubles, but that should have just made him look like a loser to most high school girls.

In some ways, I was more interested in Garfield's Parker than in his Spider-Man. It was very easy to see how Peter, abandoned by his parents over a decade before, was an alienated, malcontented, loner sitting on a lot of rage. He wasn't the "nice kid" that Parker was originally created to be by Lee and Ditko 50 years ago. Yeah, Garfield's Parker will stand up for the underdog, but that's because he is the underdog, not because he's intrinsically a nice guy. After all, at various points in the film, he blows off both his aunt and uncle, humiliates Flash Thompson just because he can, and even ends up on the school principle's "bad boy" list (although performing community service isn't such a "bad boy").

So you take all of that and give it "spider powers." What happens?

Oh, but wait. The mystery.

A water leak in the Parker home's basement leads Peter to discover his father's old briefcase that had been left to gather dust in some forgotten corner. Infinitely curious and desperate to know more about what happened to his parents, he examines the filthy old thing and, perhaps remembering the false bottom of his Dad's desk drawer, discovers a hidden pocket with a "secret formula." He also discovers a photo of Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his Dad's former lab partner at Oscorp, and he aims himself in that direction to try and learn more.

By amazing coincidence, the day Peter goes to visit Connors at Oscorp, Connors is supposed to be lecturing new interns who are being taken on a tour of the place by (another amazing coincidence) head intern Gwen Stacy. Peter takes another kid's pass to get in (getting that kid subsequently thrown out) and gets his first look at Connors...and impressing Connors with his knowledge of cross-species genetics. It's the first time that the audience sees Peter has a brain built for science. It's never mentioned before this, and Peter might just have been another angry high school kid for the first thirty minutes of the film.

Speaking of amazing coincidences, Peter just happens to run into (literally) Norman Osborne's top henchman Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) and sees that the folder Ratha is carrying contains the same "secret formula" symbols that Pete found in his Dad's briefcase.

Even though Peter has a stolen intern pass and has left the rest of the intern tour, no one seems to question him as he follows Ratha through the corridors of a private corporate building with lots of trade secrets and watches him manipulate a touch pad to open a door to some secret room. Two guys come out and go with Ratha but for whatever reason, Peter decides to stop following Ratha and to get into that room.

I must say that it was lousy security that let Peter gain access. No smartcard, retina scan, or voice recognition software was required to open the door, just a series of finger movements across the pad, which Peter saw briefly and remembered. And what was in that room? Just a bunch of spiders on webs inside some sort of machine. Naturally, Peter decides to touch and spiders fall all over him. He manages to get out of the room again without setting off any alarms but takes an eight-legged hitchhiker with him, which manages to "put the bite" on Peter's neck right before Gwen catches him and kicks him out of the building.

I should mention at this point that Connors later tells Peter that no animal subject of cross-species genetic experiments has survived, yet, once bitten, Peter seems to do OK. (Should I mention that Peter actually gives Connors the secret of his father's formula at their first one-on-one meeting, making the Lizard possible?) But then, Connors also tells Peter that it was his father's breakthrough with the spiders over ten years ago, that enabled the project to survive. Maybe that's why there was a special room with spiders. They were the only ones who could pass on their genetic traits to another species without killing that species. But why were Richard Parker's spiders (or more likely their descendants) still around at Oscorp and if they were such a breakthrough (even if Parker Sr. took all his research with him when he disappeared ... apart from one briefcase), why in over a decade, were no experiments done with those spiders that would have ultimately created another Spider-Man?

The spiders were there for Peter to get spider powers, then that was that. Bad writing.

The film spends a lot of time showing us how Peter develops his powers. He doesn't immediately decide to become a hero or an entertainer or anything else. The fact that he gained new abilities is cool and a terrific clue as to what his father and Connors were up to, but he didn't decide to do anything with them at all (except mercilessly tease Flash Thompson and shatter a basketball backboard) until his Uncle Ben is killed.

And yes, Peter could have stopped the killer and no he didn't and yes, it pisses him off.

But he doesn't become a hero yet, he just becomes a guy looking for revenge. Ironically, he never finds it. He busts a bunch of guys who kind of look like the murderer, but he never finds the actually guy. Maybe the shooter blows town after he blows away Uncle Ben, but we never find out.

In the process of refining his vigilante role, Peter first develops a crude mask and finally the entire costume. Smart as he is, he can't actually create a "spider web formula" as in the original comics, but he "borrows" some from Oscorp after becoming chummy with Curt Connors.

Which brings up the question of what happens when Peter runs out of his supply? The only place he can get more is Oscorp. Once Connors is put away at the end of the film, his only other way in is his girlfriend. Sure, he invents the shooters, but he has no ability to independently create more webbing.

It's little details like this that kind of bugged me (yeah, that's a bad pun).

Peter finally becomes a hero, not while fighting a bad guy, but by rescuing a bunch of people who the Lizard endangers by throwing their cars off a bridge. Peter's webbing is strong enough to suspend the cards from the bridge, but he only rescues one kid from one car. I have no idea how the kid got stuck in the car when his Dad made it out just fine. I have no idea why Peter didn't rescue anyone else from any of the other cars (and if they were all empty, why did he stop them from falling into the water in the first place?).

But in saving the little kid and seeing the father's gratitude, he gives himself a name and a more noble purpose.

Gwen's father Police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) was a jerk for most of the film but he was supposed to be. Peter's dinner with the Stacy family was a total disaster, but what teenage boy hasn't been humiliated by his girlfriend's father at one point or another. It was kind of cool to see the face of "Diego" (Ice Age films), though.

And how the heck doesn't Aunt May know Peter is Spider-Man? Her first clue is right after she and Peter watch Captain Stacy issue a warrant for Spider-Man's arrest during a TV press conference, Peter storms out of the house. May looks at him like, "what they heck is that all about." Later, when Peter comes home all banged up after his last battle with the Lizard, she looks at him, doesn't ask why he looks like he went ten rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson, and just hugs him. I tell you, that woman was smart enough to put it all together. She has to know.

By the way, I really liked Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben, especially when he's teasing Peter in front of Gwen and calls himself Peter's probation officer. Everyone needs an uncle like that. I was also pleased that Sally Field's Aunt May wasn't constantly at death's door. In the Lee/Ditko version (and later), May always has one foot in the grave and the other on ice-coated Teflon. At least this Aunt May is a fighter (although I get the impression she's a lousy cook).

Another thing I liked was that Flash wasn't just a two-dimensional bully. After Uncle Ben dies (and everyone at school knows), Flash tries to make amends. Sure, Peter picks him up and slams him against some lockers, but everyone, including Flash, understands why Peter's so angry and hurt. Just a nice little bit of realism.

Another nice bit of realism was Gwen confessing to Peter how afraid she was growing up, watching her Dad leave for work as a police officer each day, and wondering if he'd ever come home that night. How could she stand being with Peter if he insisted on being Spider-Man and going after the Lizard?

This is a nice echo (though the filmmakers probably didn't intend it as such) to Betty Brant, Peter's first girlfriend in the Lee/Ditko comics. They eventually break up because Peter's job as a freelance crime photographer (Betty never finds out Peter is Spider-Man) is so dangerous. Her brother was also some sort of thrill seeker and was ultimately killed because of it (actually, he was in deep with some thugs and couldn't pay them back the money he took and they killed him). Peter finally left Betty because he knew she'd leave him if she ever found out what he really did every night.

Why did Peter put "Property of Peter Parker" on his camera? Who does that? It was a lame way for the Lizard to find out Spider-Man's secret identity.

Connors survives the film, saves Peter's life in the end (after killing George Stacy) and goes to jail. I'd love to see his defense attorney's strategy. Technically, Connors was under the influence of a mind and body altering substance when he committed his crimes, so can the court really convict Curt Connors for what he did when he was the Lizard? Well, probably, since Connors injected himself with that stuff in an attempt to regain his lost arm. If a junkie shoots up and is high when he kills someone, he's still libel for the murder after he stops being high.

Promises you can't keep are the best kind. OK, it would have been a lousy promise to try and keep, and I don't really remember Peter agreeing to stay away from Gwen as her dying father's last request, but Peter just plain blew off the seriousness of a father's genuine love for his daughter and desire to protect her.

Lots of little interesting developments. Stuff for the future. Supposedly Ratha was pressuring Connors to begin human trails on cross-species genetics because Norman Osborne (owner of Oscorp and usually the Green Goblin) is dying...but we get no details on what's killing him and how the Connors experiments are supposed to help.

Does Peter ever go after the guy who killed his uncle again?

If Aunt May knows Peter is Spider-Man, what will she do about?

It's strongly implied that the plane crash that killed Peter's parents was no accident and that it was arranged because Richard Parker refused to start human trails on his formula. Connors is alive at the end of the film and has this knowledge, but will he ever tell Peter? If Peter finds out, what will he do, go after Norman Osborne? If Osborne wanted the secret of Parker's cross-species formula, why kill him? Why not kidnap his wife and son and hold them hostage (or some other equally evil plot) and force Parker to give up the formula?

And if Osborne wants human trials to begin now because he's dying, was he dying ten years ago when Parker also refused to perform human experiments, or was there another reason (like lots and lots of money)?

I understand that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is in pre-production and scheduled for release sometime in 2014.

Maybe we'll find out some answers then, and get a look at Mary Jane Watson...and maybe Electro.

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