What the WTF? I can understand them redoing Ang Lee’s Hulk because it disappointed some fans and investors, but Sam Raimi’s Spidey movies were huge popular successes that made truckloads of money. Why take a dump on that with such a short-term reboot? WHY???? They didn’t sell the rights to anyone else, and they don’t even have The Incredible Hulk's excuse of moving a self-contained character into the Avengers universe. Apparently, they did a reboot just because they could not agree on a direction for what to do next in Spider-Man 4. They did this because they literally could not think of anything better to do. It seems to be a common showbiz syndrome to believe that you can make something better by throwing out what was done before and putting your own fresh new spin on the same old stuff, because the magic pixie dust from your own butt is always sparklier than the pixie dust from everyone else’s. So they talked themselves into the idea that a reboot would work great.
And then they didn’t even follow through on their own idea. The original concept which they had for justifying this reboot was to go small — to tell a relatively intimate, small-scale superhero story with a focus on angsty high school romance drama. You know, like the zillion Twilight ripoffs popular at the time. This approach would not only have made them stand out from the pack, it would also have allowed them to spend a whole lot less money on the film. And by the way, half of the reason for casting a new cast was so they could get them cheap. (The other half was the refusal to let Peter Parker stop being a kid — something Marvel has also been guilty of in print.) But the Sony suits saw how Marvel Studios was raking it in, and changed their minds: time for yet another bloated big-budget spectacular. Which means the whole justification for doing a reboot in the first place has become null and void.
Anyway, because they’re making a reboot, that means they have to redo the origin story again. They can’t skip over it, because it’s now happened in a different way. Now, what I’d heard on this point was positive: that they realized that it’s familiar territory and therefore they skipped over it pretty quickly. But this turned out to be a lie. Between Spidey and the villain (the Lizard), the origin material takes us up to minute 70. Is there anything in the new material that’s so interesting or surprising that it justifies spending more than half of the film’s considerable running time on it? NO, THERE IS NOT.
But despite that complaint, there certainly are some positive things to say about the new take compared to the old. Unlike Raimi, they got the memo that nerds are cool now, so Peter is no longer at the bottom of the social pecking order just because he’s smart and scientifical. Even better — and much more bravely — they made him act like a teenager who really does need to learn some damn responsibility before he can legitimately be a hero. His interactions with Aunt May and Uncle Ben are far more real than in any of Raimi’s films, where both characters functioned largely as Hollywood platitude delivery systems. In this one, you often sympathize with Ben and May more than you do with Peter, even though they’re being rather tough on him, because you really feel for what a pain in the ass it is to raise a surly teenager who, even when he has good intentions, doesn’t manage to follow through on them.
But for everything they do well with the character of Peter Parker, there is something else they completely mess up. His new difficult personality seems, to me, to be an attempt to make him a sort of outcast, as per tradition, without being traditionally nerdy and without (heaven forfend) making him seem uncool to the audience. He’s a bad boy. They make some token attempts to have him seem like a dorky social failure, but they’re perfunctory and forced and not believable at all. They try to show a bit of him being invisible to girls, and that fails even worse. Because they cast a poster-boy actor with trendy hair, and gave him a look and manner which cannot for one second be taken seriously as someone who’s being ignored by the ladies. FAIL.
It’s pretty clear how the movie went wrong here: the makers wanted to have their cake while eating it. They were trying to simultaneously fulfill two incompatible mandates. They wanted their hero to be dorky and dreamy at the same time. And it turns out that this is all too typical of the whole movie: whenever they have a clear and valid artistic vision in one area, it’s juxtaposed with another in which they are doing bogus things according to arbitrary fiats imposed by suits who don’t care how their mandates impact the rest of the picture.
It’s been said that Tobey Maguire plays a better Peter Parker but Andrew Garfield plays a better Spider-Man. I would agree with this, but with a caveat: Garfield might well also be a better Peter Parker, if only his movie could form a clear idea of who Peter Parker is. It’s not anything about the acting that lets his performance down; it’s the confusion and inconsistency of the script, which tries to go in all directions at once when telling us what kind of person Peter is.
The new origin gives him back the mechanical webshooters. Whoop de doo. In some ways, those are less believable than the organic ones. (Of course, the organic ones should have grown out of his ass, not his wrists.) And there’s a scene during the interminable origin material that shows him developing the shooters. But they never establish onscreen how they attach to his arms, or how he uses them through the suit. This tiny detail reveals something important: that the people writing all this new origin material were perfectly clear on the fact that the audience already knows the story and does not actually need to see it all spelled out again.
They’ve also switched the love interest from M.J. back to Gwen Stacy, who came earlier in the comics. I guess they’re hoping that this would please the same old-school fanboys that wanted mechanical web shooters. I see both changes as deeply unnecessary.
The menace in here is The Lizard, who is a bit silly compared to Doc Ock or Venom, but is still way better than Sandman. Unfortunately, he’s a dull and forgettable villain, and doesn’t even have any good lines.
The CGI for him is dodgy too, kind of reminding me of the 2008 Incredible Hulk. This is odd considering the fact that the CGI for Spidey himself is really good a lot of the time, vastly improved over the old movies. This is another area where the new film is a huge step up over the old ones — the depiction of Spider-Man in action, being Spider-Man. They can now really show super-agility onscreen, and when he fights, the rapid improvisation with webbing now captures, for the first time, what a Spider-Man action scene should be.
I’m complaining a lot here, but there really is quite a bit of good to be found in the film. When I reviewed the Hulk reboot, I made a list of what was better in the new vs. what was better in the old, and the list came out extremely lopsided. But if I do the same thing here, it’ll actually be a lot more even. What the hell, let’s let this film trade blows with Raimi’s 2002 original. Which has more plusses, OLD or NEW?
Andrew Garfield is really not bad. Neither was Tobey Maguire, but Garfield has some specific advantages. For instance, he beats Maguire as someone who you might believe is a science genius, if the script had proper support for that idea. It’s not a performance that’ll wow you, and it’s not particularly likeable, but it has more dimensions to it, and Garfield comes pretty close to making all the different traits in the script add up to a believable person. NEW: 1 point.
HOW PETER PARKER IS WRITTEN:
The original trilogy stuck to a very safe old fashioned interpretation of Parker, which got some minor groaning from me, but didn’t really have anything wrong with it. The new one tries to update the character, and falls flat on its face. As mentioned, there’s a lot of fairly strong character development in some areas, though it’s not consistent, and the new direction they’ve taken makes the talk about responsibility really mean something in a way that it did not in the original. But the inconsistency ruins it. OLD: 1 point.
UNCLE BEN AND AUNT MAY:
In the old trilogy they never seemed like real parents. The new versions are not only far more real, and have far more to do, but they also matter more when lost. Most of what depth and meaningfulness the film has centers around this pair. They only slip very briefly into platitudism at the end. This is the single biggest improvement in the reboot, despite Sally Field looking nothing like the traditional Aunt May likeness. NEW: 2 points.
THE LOVE INTEREST — MARY JANE WATSON AND GWEN STACY:
Gwen is a far more complete and interesting character in the new version than MJ is in the old. She stands as her own person with her own story in a way that MJ totally fails to, and is more proactive in the plot as well. Emma Stone is a bit of an improvement acting-wise — I was never impressed with Kirsten Dunst. NEW: 2 points.
THE CRUSTY AUTHORITY — J. JONAH JAMESON AND CAPTAIN GEORGE STACY:
One might argue that the Jameson depicted by J.K. Simmons in the original films was too over-the-top to be believed. But such arguments fail and are invalid, even when they’re true. OLD: 1 point.
THE VILLAIN — ACTOR:
Willem Dafoe was rather terrible, and that ridiculous mask badly undermined any coolness he might otherwise have managed. Alfred Molina, on the other hand, was definitely cool. Both were completely hokey and cheesy. Rhys Ifans as the Lizard seems much more normal, since he wasn’t nearly as well baked and glazed a ham as those two, but under that normality he’s just as hokey and cheesy... he just makes it dull in a way that they do not. Molina is easily a winner, but if we’re just comparing first films, Dafoe is bad enough that I have to go with NO POINTS AWARDED.
THE VILLAIN — CHARACTER WRITING:
There is no improvement in moving from silly comic book villain origins to something more realistic. It’s the same old crap, only without any memorable lines to say. Even on paper, it’s ham vs tofurkey. OLD: 1 point.
I’ve already griped about the redundancy of much of the origin material in the new version. I’ll add that the scenes of Spidey discovering what his new abilities are were much better done in the old. There are power-discovery scenes in the new which are badly mishandled and completely preposterous, and others which are just a complete waste of screen time. The missteps here drag down the whole movie. And the old film does much a better job of visually showing the workings of spider-sense. OLD: 2 points.
MAIN STORY CONFLICT:
Both are hackneyed and generally meh. NO POINTS AWARDED.
The old movie had one loss of a parent, plus making an enemy of an elder who could have been mentor-like. The new movie has two full-blown losses of a father onscreen, plus making an enemy of a mentor who was a friend and colleague of Peter’s father. Plus, they make his dad’s mysterious backstory a cliffhanging plot issue to carry over into future films. This gives the new movie double the daddy issues of the old, and since this is now an extremely overused superhero movie cliche, that’s way more than I want to choke down in one serving. OLD: 1 point.
Are you kidding me? Both are hopeless. NO POINTS AWARDED.
SLINGING AND SWINGING:
The old was pretty good, but the new is better. Part of this is just advancements in CGI capabilities, which kind of have to be graded on the curve. Simpler stunts, such as wall-crawling, are kind of even. The new one is worse than the old at selectively ignoring gravity, but the improvement in the depiction how Spider-Man moves and reacts more than makes up for that. And I’ll note that the new suit is better than the old at looking homemade. NEW: 1 point.
On the villain’s side, neither is very good, compared to something like the train chase against Doc Ock. The Lizard is cartoony, and so is Gobby whenever he does anything in CGI. Given what I said earlier about grading on the curve, how poor the Lizard looks in closeup is doubly disappointing. But on the other hand, Spidey’s side of the super-fighting action is much, much better now, with him flipping in circles all around his opponent with webbing going in all directions. We finally get to see a fight in which Spider-man really fights like Spider-man. NEW: 1 point (out of a possible 2).
Every Spidey movie has some scene where ordinary New Yorkers step in to help the cause of righteousness. Did one do better than the other? The new one makes a much bigger deal of it, but the old one was more believably spontaneous. In fact, the more I think about the new one, the more fake and forced it seems. OLD: 1 point.
They’re at roughly similar levels in visual stylishness and use of interesting shots. NO POINTS AWARDED.
Speaking of camerawork, I’ll say something about how they handled Peter’s photography skills. I can’t award a point for this, but I just want to note that having Parker use a vintage film rangefinder camera right out of the sixties comic books, and then having it turn into a magic telephoto when convenient, does no credit to the new film. Especially when they forget to put film in it. And it doesn’t help that he can also own half a dozen digital cameras and strobes at a time when he’s got no job yet; he’s supposed to be coming from a family of limited means. As an amateur photographer, these details bug me. But it could be a lot worse: I can sure be thankful that I’m not a biologist. OLD: an honorary fractional non-point.
The new has a few smirks, but the old wasn’t all that much better. Neither achieves a proper level of wisecracking. Some scenes that should be funny in the new one are mishandled, whereas when the old one tries, it generally succeeds. The new one does a bit better job of showing us the wisecracking side of Spider-Man’s personality, but doesn’t give him good enough lines. OLD: 1 point.
Danny Elfman vs James Horner is a reasonably even match, but the new film’s score is polluted with a bunch of crappy pop songs. They belong in a cheap TV show, not a blockbuster movie. And Elfman probably would have won anyway. OLD: 1 point, and I would have been tempted to find an excuse to make it two, except they thankfully dropped the pop in the second half.
......Okay, after adding up all the particulars, the score stands at 9 to 7, which is not far off of an even match, and definitely within the bounds of uncertainty where a different viewer might find the new one ahead in the count. But there’s one more category to evaluate, and it’s the most important one of all...
DID I ENJOY WATCHING THE FILM?
Despite its shortcomings, the original was consistently fun to watch. The new one, on the other hand, had multiple scenes that made me want to get up and do something else, and even the good action bits just felt kind of rote and uninvolving. It may not be a bad movie, but it’s not a movie I could ever feel like a true fan of. What the reboot lacks in this area, the original has in abundance. OLD: an arbitrarily large number of points.
So there’s a lot of good stuff in the film, and you could argue that it truly delivers the full Spider-Man experience for the very first time, yet my feelings about it are, in the end, no better than they are for the Hulk reboot. Just the fact that it is a reboot, regardless of how it turned out, feels like a condescending insult. And with the deep flaws in the execution, my final response is the same as in the previous case: fuck you, Hollywood.
But guess what. Remember how I said that this reboot didn’t even do anything to bring Spidey into the Avengers universe? Well now that The Avengers and its siblings are making lots more money than the current Spider-Man series is, Sony is suddenly on board with the idea of combining the two story universes. And you know what that means? That’s right — they get to reboot it again!
Hopefully this time they’ll at least keep the same cast, so the fact that it’s a re-reboot isn’t too visible to the audience.