“The untold story,” gushed the hype. There’s only one story, shrugs someone in the film, accompanied by what sounds like back-pedalling: “Who am I?” So what is it? New story, or same-old repackaged? Both and neither, as it happens.
Swinging from fresh to faithful-to-source, Marc Webb’s reboot is a sparky, well-cast, often punchy Spidey spin... but it’s also Spider-Man Begins Again, struggling in places to assert its own identity.
Sure, context cuts Webb’s work out. In 2002, the only decent superheroes around were X-Men. Batman had been Schumacher’d, Superman was grounded, the Avengers were unassembled: Sam Raimi’s Spidey had an open runway. Nowadays, you can barely swing a lizard without hitting some spandex lug.
With great power has come great terror (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), suits (Iron Man), mischief (Chronicle), gags-per-minute counts (Avengers Assemble) and sweary brats (Kick-Ass). It isn’t easy to stand out among that lot, or against Raimi’s run: his threequel over-stretched the web but the first two were pulp marvels, making a Spidey reboot harder to justify in 2012 than Batman’s 2005 franchise-fixer.
The shadow of Batman Begins looms as Amazing opens, the gold standard of origin-skewed reboots riskily invoked. Parker as a child plays games at home, stumbles on some destiny-sealing revelations, loses his parents on a stormy night... A dark roots movie steeped in tragedy? Some “untold story”, that.
Webb finds much surer footing as Parker hits high school, helped by crack casting. More confident than the last, this Parker is slick on a skateboard and not shy about standing up to Flash Thompson. The geek just got chic: who better to play him than the guy with the algorithms and rhythm from The Social Network?
A young buck made testy by grief, a rebel without a comb, Garfield nails all bases here, star DNA aglow. Stare-y eyes melting, he’s winningly earnest; lithe of physique, he delivers in the dust-ups; blithely gatecrashing Gwen Stacy’s bedroom, he gives good dreamboat.
And like any story worth telling, this one’s still “all about a girl”... Enter Emma Stone, weapon of sassy destruction as arch and direct, confident yet relatable first Spidey-love Stacy. Sure, there’s less puppy-eyed playfulness here than in Tobey’n’Kirsten’s geek love. Coy? Garfield and Stone look like they’d jump each other faster than you can say, “Easy, bug boy.” But the equation works: they charm, we root.
Also likeable – before he grows a tail - is Rhys Ifans’ one-armed OsCorp geneticist Dr. Curtis Connors. Like Doc Ock, Ifans brings soul to his suffering and warmth to his bond with Peter, who tracks down the Dr from a photo found in his dad’s briefcase and gets spider-nipped while nosy-Parkering in OsCorp’s labs.
As Connors’ scales tip to “green meanie” mode, Ifans goes OTT with relish, quivering like Dr Jekyll battling the world’s worst hangover.
But plot and tone aren’t always so sure. “Untold story” claims hinge on Parker’s pursuit of the truth about his dad, but it diverts into turf better covered by Raimi, despite the wrestling den being deserted this time.
Sally Field’s Aunt May makes scant impression and over-familiarity haunts the “I know I’m not your dad” exchanges between Peter and Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben, although the repetition is deepened by Garfield’s bubbling emotions and leavened by Sheen at his warm, witty best as Ben embarrasses Peter at school.
Elsewhere, the wit hits and misses. Spidey’s sarcasm (“Hey, watch out, I’m swinging here!”) sparks. Stone gets a cheeky gag about cramps.
But Denis Leary’s stalwart Captain Stacy isn’t quite as feisty or funny a foil for Parker as J.K. Simmons and the tone toggles uncertainly between comedy/tragedy after one key turning point.
Awkward cornball lapses extend that tonal uncertainty. Webb aims for hipster cachet: spot the hoodie, Ramones t-shirt and The Shins song (see also Garden State).
But Webb scores on action, surprisingly so given the lack of cross-species smackdowns in his rom-drama (500) Days Of Summer. True, Connors’ swing from good guy to grotesque is fudged a beat too fast for the Lizard to be a true tragic villain. Raimi might have made more of that and of the Lizard’s misdeeds: one bio-terror emission goes nowhere.
But even though the generic CGI monster sits awkwardly with a more “grounded” rethink, and even though Spidey’s homemade web-shooters won’t thrill anyone but the comic-book faithful, there’s a satisfyingly visceral thwack to the set-pieces.
Parker’s practise flights bruise; a sewer scrap with the Lizard scars; a lab encounter with another mutation shocks. Webb muscles up well: Spidey’s rescue of a kid on a bridge stirs, a school tussle (spot the cameo) totals the joint and the high-flying end battle is vertiginous.
The wall-to-wall ruckuses leave the “untold story” of Peter’s parents largely untold, its threads left loose in a fashion that frustrates given how many story strands here were unthreaded in 2002.
Maybe Webb should have avoided the origin story and started with Spidey established. But he gets enough right to sign us up for a sequel, not least a thrilling climactic blast-off. The route there? Bit bumpy. Finally, though, Spider-Man re-begins in style.
It isn’t perfect but this reboot’s wins outweigh its wobbles. The leads charm, the action crackles and the grooves are well-laid for part two. Untold story? Next time, then.