Hollywood has plucked up creative, foreign and low-budget indie directors and thrown them into big budget films to varying degrees of success. Phillip Noyce, Lasse Hallström, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant all burst on to the filmmaking scene with very distinctive voices at very small studios. Some of these directors had the fortitude to maintain their voice while others seemed to bury it in the same old classical Hollywood trappings. Marc Webb directed my favorite picture of 2009, (500) Days of Summer (2009’s top 23 films). He took the romantic comedy, a genre so often recycled by Hollywood, and injected it with a quality both honest and artistic. Hollywood snatched him up and put him to work on the re-boot of its Spider-Man tent-pole, the Amazing Spider-Man, which opened in theaters everywhere at midnight, just ahead of the July 4th weekend. Though the film has a lot of flash— as these films should— I was pleased to notice Webb working to transcend the tropes of the superhero film, highlighting the souls of his characters.
As much as I am a fan of indie and world films, I am also a fan of science fiction, raised on not only Star Wars but also “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” on TV. In the mid-eighties, I rode my bike several miles to the newsstand for the latest issue of the Uncanny X-Men. It would be hard to shake that influence as a kid. So when the studio invited me to a 9 p.m. preview screening last night of Webb’s the Amazing Spider-Man, I went.
I arrived at the local IMAX 3D screen with high expectations based on my love of (500) Days of Summer, early critical buzz for the new film itself and news that Webb shot it using 3D cameras with the several-stories-tall IMAX screen in mind (see this Sunday’s article in the “Miami Herald”). The results fall somewhere below Matthew Vaughn’s re-boot of X-Men: X-Men First Class, but above Joe Johnston’s Captain America. It definitely does not touch Nolan’s re-boot of the Batman films, though, but maybe hovers around the quality of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Thor.
Webb certainly takes his time with the characters and allows them to interact while packing on emotional baggage that subtly informs their behaviors. When Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) kiss, it feels like these are two intelligent, yet clumsy, people falling in love. Between fight scenes involving Parker/Spider-Man, story and character mounts up before the film’s final showdown. Sometimes the smallest things in these flashy, noisy films are the toughest to earn, and Webb knows how to earn them.
I feared nothing good could come out of the number of names involved in the script, which included James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. None of those writers, though well-respected and talented in their own rights, had ever worked with Webb, and his collaboration with his screenwriters in (500) Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, made for a key partnership, as revealed in the extras of the film’s blu-ray (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Movies written in committee often have the soul drained out of them as distinct voices struggle to be heard in the din of what the committee might assume the mass audience would prefer to see in a movie. But that is not the case with the Amazing Spider-Man. I was glad to see Webb avoid repeating lines from the previous series of Spider-Man films by Sam Rami, which have almost become cliché (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Instead, we watch Parker learn responsibility throughout the film from the most extreme situations fighting the shape-shifting Lizard (Rhys Ifans), a mad scientist-type with his own well-earned baggage, to the smallest gestures respecting his last surviving parental figure, Aunt May (Sally Field).
Webb has lined up some fine actors for the film’s many iconic roles. As in the Social Network, the British-born Garfield assumes the American accent impeccably. Also, despite his age, he carries the goofy/angst-ridden quality of a high schooler well. Stone never looked better in a film, and she brings a lot of charm to the roll of Stacy, an alternate girlfriend in the mélange of off-shoots of the Spider-Man universe from Marvel Comics. The director shoots her with a similar affection as he did Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days. Finally, Ifans deserves acknowledgment for bringing some sincerity and pathos to one angry character in the comics.
One of the problems with these kinds of films is that the acting becomes buried behind masks and special effects. Webb allows his actors every opportunity to show their feelings by often unmasking them. Spider-Man is seen in action as much with his mask off as it is on. The Lizard is not always covered in scales, as whatever chemical he has ingested seems unstable, and there is often some human expression working itself out through the effects.
One final thing on the effects, Webb knows how to earn the IMAX 3D effects. All of his shots are filled with depth, and—like (500) Days— he is not afraid of cluttering a scene with props. Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s drops off the high-rises of Manhattan are stomach-churning. I often have trouble with films on the giant IMAX screen, as the screen feels too large to catch a complete shot, but Webb has used the giant frame in the best manner I have ever experienced in IMAX. I have never felt more comfortable in one of those theaters, despite the film’s two-hour-plus runtime. Webb has earned his keep in Hollywood on many levels while not losing touch of the sense of drama that brought him there.
The Amazing Spiderman is rated PG-13 and runs 136 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now.