In some ways, this week’s Summermetrics column could probably be summarized by the following string of letters and numbers: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). That last film comes out today, and sets an unofficial record for fastest Hollywood reboot in our time, a category that does not exactly lack for competition. Early tracking predicts that The Amazing Spider-Man will open better than any 2012 film to date short of The Avengers. We can now say for sure it’s doing gangbusters things overseas. Most everyone you know will have seen it by the end of this sleepy holiday week. Probably you’re in line to see it right now.
And why not? Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man is a tremendously likable version of a comic book film, brightly campy and sneakily smart. Emma Stone, as Peter Parker love interest Gwen Stacy, well — just put Emma Stone in all the movies. She is a slyly grinning vision. Andrew Garfield, as Parker/Spider-Man, is sardonic and appropriately geeky, a skateboarding every-genius who wears his new powers in the same rumpled, attractively louche way he wears his 28-year-old-man-in-high-school hoodie. Webb, whose other feature-length directing credit is the Zooey-loves-Ringo indie-romance (500) Days of Summer, was hired for his ability to match these two, to film them bantering convincingly in high school hallways and on skyscraper rooftops. They’re dating now, I guess. You can tell. It makes your heart hurt, how much you can tell.
The superhero stuff in the film is incidental, up to a point. It’s the franchise wrapping on an entirely different kind of quirky rom-com. Webb has fun with the film’s obligatory origin-story beats: a freshly bitten Parker reflex-pummeling a gang of thugs on the subway, apologizing the whole time: “I’m so sorry!” When the panicked Parker searches the Internet for information about spider bites, his sticky hands pull the letters off the keyboard. A teenager falling in love with his newfound superpowers isn’t so different from a boy falling in love with a girl. Webb’s good at that.
It’s almost enough to distract you from the fact that we’ve seen all this before. Very recently, in fact. The initially unrequited crush. The suddenly bulging pectoral muscles. The portentous shame of humiliating the bully who humiliated you. The fact that Parker is initially a bit careless with his powers, that his saintly uncle dies because of his carelessness, that this will be the bitter moral lesson that allows him to become a hero. That with great power comes great responsibility. The Amazing Spider-Man would be a good, maybe even great movie, if they hadn’t just made it.
To be a moviegoer is to see the same movie over and over again. This is true in the borderline literal sense of a 2012 release schedule that features not one but two new attempts on the Snow White myth; revivals of TV shows both ancient (Dark Shadows) and ’80s (21 Jump Street); franchise reboots of everything from Alien to Total Recall to The Bourne Identity; and so, so many sequels: MIB3, The Expendables 2, The Dark Knight Rises, that film in which Drake plays a woolly mammoth.
But it’s also true in a more fundamental, storytelling-in-general sense. Hollywood makes a lot of movies about cops on the verge of retirement, or two mismatched people falling in improbable love with one another. Loners are taught the value of human connection and family. Likable losers win pennants. Serial killers are run to ground. Alien forces are repulsed. Professional fulfillment is fought for and achieved. On some basic level, popular filmmaking has a lot to do with comforting its audience: reaffirming specific myths over and over again; reassuring viewers that they are doing the right thing, that their lives do not lack for meaning. To complain about a certain quality of sameness in American movies is to willfully misunderstand many of the basic facts about why they are made.
So is it churlish to point out that this Spider-Man, which Sony reportedly relaunched to keep the rights to the character from reverting back to Marvel, and which tells a nearly identical origin story to Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, is basically the same movie they put out 10 years ago? That there is an extraordinary, exceptional, undisguised cynicism in the marketing calculations here, which basically boil down to “younger kids really like Spider-Man and were barely alive a decade ago anyway”?
On some level, sure. As A.O. Scott recently wrote, with the decline of the Western and war movie, superhero movies have pretty much become this country’s ur-text, its primary myth, the story we like to tell ourselves most. Comic book films, give or take Watchmen or Christopher Nolan’s breathtakingly grim Batman movies, have had the right ideological valence for timorous 21st-century audiences: escapist, frankly moral, sure about good and evil in a way that we as citizens have not been sure in some time.
But we as moviegoers can still make a meaningful distinction between this decade’s glut of superhero movies and the same exact superhero movie, made twice. For an additional $220 million. Emma Stone is our next Julia Roberts. If we’re just going to recycle roles out here, at least give her Pretty Woman.
Let me be more explicit about that “exact same movie” thing. Recall that Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man was a love story as well, featuring that year’s Teen Choice Awards best lip-lock and a lilting, whispery, wet-T-shirt-clad Kirsten Dunst. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is so lovesick in the second Raimi installment that he loses his powers for half the film; in the climax of that one (which most cite as the best Marvel movie, especially in light of the creatively exhausted and borderline incoherent Spider-Man 3 that followed), Dunst’s Mary Jane goes runaway bride on her astronaut fiancé and instead elects to wait chastely in Parker’s SRO while he jumps out the window every time a police car drives by with its siren on.
Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man trades the original’s gee-whiz ’50s-style palette, with its fast-talking newspapermen and its vaudevillian villain, Willem Dafoe’s Richard Foreman–inflected Green Goblin, for Emma Stone in knee socks and the mumbly dialogue that is apparently How We Talk Now. Here is Peter Parker, asking Gwen Stacy out on a date: “Do you want to, uh, ah … or, we could, um, ah … ” Stacy: “Yes. Yeah. Either one.” Later she invites him over to dinner with her parents, and so for five delirious minutes, everyone keeps saying the word “branzino,” including her police captain dad, Denis Leary. I hope they gave a hundred thousand dollars to whoever did the branzino polish on this movie (Paul Feig, is that you?). But the fact that The Amazing Spider-Man‘s script has more obvious levity in it doesn’t make it all that different from the three franchise installments it immediately succeeds, a franchise this film is now extending into an infinite horizon of barely recombined elements of honor and duty and unconsummated love.
As in the original Spider-Man film, the bad guy here is a sinister corporation, Oscorp. Company goons chase off Parker’s parents in the new movie’s opening scenes and then proceed to force Rhys Ifans, playing the one-armed herpetologist Dr. Curt Connors, to prematurely test his experimental limb-regenerating serum on himself, yielding a rage-filled Lizard. This should be a significant fact — one of perhaps only three elements, after the girl and the guy playing Spider-Man, with which The Amazing Spider-Man really had room to play. But it’s not, particularly: Ifans’s Lizard is a blend of the first Spider-Man‘s rapacious corporate vanity and Spider-Man 2‘s mad-scientist hubris, down to the Doc Ock–subterranean lair the Lizard builds to help propagate his insane, destructive reptile-tech.
His battles with Garfield’s Spider-Man are admittedly less video-game cut-sequency than in the Raimi films; you can see the occasional facial expression on both men. In one late fight scene, as the Lizard and Spider-Man scrap it up in Parker’s high school, Stan Lee makes his one billionth Marvel movie cameo as an oblivious teacher with headphones on, serenely listening to classical music as the two genetic freaks tear apart the classroom behind him. And so we are treated to one more glimpse of The Creator, who no longer creates but who is content to go on telling the same story, making the same cameo, his superpower one that we could all use these days: an immunity to boredom.
Zach Baron (@xzachbaronx) is happy they chose the Lizard, though.