'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.

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.

But at its best, The Amazing Spider-Man is really another story of boy meets girl, and here Webb is assisted immeasurably by his young leads. As Peter, Andrew Garfield (best known for playing Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network) offers rather sharper edges than Tobey Maguire. He may still be an outsider, but his restless energy glows deeper and hotter, instead of burning itself off in flares of skittishness. As the object of Peter's teen ardor, we're afforded Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy in place of Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson—an upgrade comparable to opting for Manolo Blahniks in place of, well, Mary Janes. There's a fierce yet amiable intelligence to Stone, with her penetrating blue eyes and Kathleen-Turner purr, and her Gwen is among the strongest female characters the super genre has yet produced. There are times, indeed, when one wonders whether Spider-Man is even necessary at all.

As for the rest of the cast, Martin Sheen riffs effortlessly as Uncle Ben and Rhys Ifans offers a sturdy turn as this version's benevolent-scientist-turned-homicidal-monster. Denis Leary may lay it on a bit thick as Gwen's police-chief dad, though, and Sally Field is just a bit too Sally Field ever to disappear into the role of Aunt May.

But the movie belongs to Garfield, with his shy but wicked grin, and Stone, with her quiet indomitability. Webb entwines the heroic and romantic storylines nimbly, offering gentle nods not merely to earlier iterations of the webcrawler, but to the original Superman, Hellboy, and others. Visual treats are scattered throughout—two concentric rings of purply irradiated spiders spinning lazily; an underground network of early-warning webbing—and the movie features what may be Stan Lee's best cameo in a Marvel film to date. There are times, in the latter half especially, when the film teeters on the verge of the overwrought and maudlin, but for the most part it manages to land on the right side of the line (though it might have been wiser if Webb had concluded the proceedings five minutes earlier).

In all, The Amazing Spider-Man is considerably more fun—and, yes, even touching—than so premature a reboot had any right to be. In particular, there's a lovely scene between Peter and Gwen on the rooftop of her Queens apartment building, in which he tries to confess to her his arachnoid powers, but she takes his words for an admission of an altogether different kind. "I've been bitten..." he begins. She interrupts: "So have I." Despite my best efforts, I was, too.