'The Amazing Spider-Man': A Swing and a Hit

It turns out that even a profoundly unnecessary movie can be pretty darn good.

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You know the story: Young Bruce Wayne is out with his parents in Gotham City when the trio is mugged at gunpoint. Father and mother are both killed, sowing the seeds for Bruce's later obsession with justice and retribution (and spandex) as Batman.

But wait. What if Bruce's father didn't really die? What if he somehow survived the shooting and disappeared? What if his wound festered over the years, twisting his mind and blackening his soul, until one day he came back as... the Joker! "I am your father, Bruce," he'd bellow, as he prepared to hurl the caped crusader down a well into the Bat-Cave.

The movie belongs to Garfield, with his shy but wicked grin, and Stone, with her quiet indomitability.

Okay, it's a bad idea (though I'm copyrighting it, just in case). But is it really that much worse than the revelatory new backstory with which Peter Parker has been saddled in The Amazing Spider-Man? It turns out that when Peter was a boy, his scientist father was forced into hiding after engineering a brilliant breakthrough in interspecies genetic mutation. Once grown, Peter tries to unravel this family secret, which leads to his being bitten by a radioactive spider, which leads to—well, you know the rest.

It's no mystery, of course, why the filmmakers involved in this latest reweaving of the Spidey yarn felt obligated to add new wrinkles. The last iteration (Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, et al.) began a mere 10 years ago, and feels as though it only just finished stumbling across its trilogic finish line. And apart from this new version's paternal complications, it is assembled from terribly familiar pieces: lonely Peter, the class photog-nerd; decent, homily-prone Uncle Ben and Aunt May; the bite; the powers; the robber-with-a-gun whom Peter could have stopped but didn't; the subsequent grief and chance for redemption; the avuncular Oscorp scientist whose experiments go badly awry... and on down the line.

I didn't much want to like The Amazing Spider-Man on two conflicting grounds at once: its redundancy and its infidelity, the fact that it was telling an over-familiar story and the fact that it was telling it wrong. And I succeeded in not liking it for at least the first 20 minutes. But damned if I didn't, little by little, succumb to the film's infectious zeal and hokey grandeur. It turns out that an unnecessary movie—even one as profoundly unnecessary as this one—can still be awfully good.

Credit goes, first, to director Marc Webb. This is the second feature directed by the former music-video auteur and, like the first, (500) Days of Summer, it is at once precision-engineered and full of insinuating charm. The superheroics are appropriately super: In particular, Webb revitalizes the experience of Spidey swooping down the avenues of Manhattan, offering a palpable heft and delirious momentum that had been lacking from the relatively two-dimensional CGI of Raimi's version. As Duke Ellington informed us long ago, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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