For all the money in my ever-shrinking bank account, I would wager that the best superhero in all of fiction was created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Peter Parker, Spider-man, is the single most human and pure concept one could conceive of for a superhero. Superman's character is defined by his god-like goodness. His adventures play out on a cosmic scale while he simultaneously attempts to mimic the behaviors of a human being. His goodness is an innate part of his character and is never in question. The same goes for the character of Captain America, a character whose prime directive is to do "good." Batman represents the next evolution of this idea, in that his heroics are initiated by a particularly bad day in a dark alley.
Spider-man, on the other hand, is defined by his flawed humanity. Peter Parker's story illustrates the problems in believing in super-powers and the nerd wish-fulfillment that they might provide. He gets his powers, gets his revenge, and in his arrogance he ends up paying the ultimate price. Guilt fuels his heroics and eventually pushes him to realize exactly what it is that he has to do. "With great power must also come great responsibility," isn't just a saying, it is a religion. It is the Golden Rule.
The story of Spider-man preaches that doing good should be at the forefront of all of our actions, but there is much more to the story than that. It also recognizes our very human ability to screw up, sometimes horribly, and also to rebound. It is because of this that Spider-man is unique in the world of heroes. Spider-man couldn't exist if Peter Parker wasn't a selfish human being.
I would argue that, more than any other superhero character, Spider-man's origin story is essential to telling any story with the character. Every good Spider-man tale is at its heart a story about how Spider-man interrupts the life of Peter Parker, who then has to find a way to balance his selfish wants with his newfound responsibility.
This is a long way of saying that while Sam Raimi's Spider-man was only released 10 years ago I feel that a new Peter Parker would require a retelling of his origin story. It is only through his grand moment of tragedy that an audience can finally understand what drives his heroics and ultimately connect with the character.
Whether or not this is the reason why Sony Pictures chose to retell the origin story -- most likely not -- it was a wise decision. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man doesn't just retell the classic tale; it updates it for Spider-man's 50th anniversary in a way that feels not only fresh but morally and emotionally complex.
In an era where nerd culture is synonymous with pop culture there could be no better Peter Parker than that of Andrew Garfield (The Social Network). In the 1960's, Peter Parker's outsider status initially appears to have been a result of his intense interest in all things scientific, but any astute reader will know that it is his own rejection and retreat into science that keeps him at a distance from his peers. On the surface, Andrew Garfield is an attractive, smart, and hip Peter Parker. Yet there is something far darker that keeps him hidden from his classmates and firmly locked into the position of social outcast, the sudden disappearance of his parents at an early age.
Andrew Garfield's display of this teen angst and frustration is absolutely perfect, fleshing out the most realistic portrayal of a teenage Peter Parker yet. Raimi's Spider-man was missing Garfield's anger and arrogance, a trait that needs to define Peter Parker. To balance this out though is Garfield's sense of humor and cocky smile, both of which are instantly endearing. So while his tragic transformation into Spider-man might be a repeat, it might as well be about a completely different and more complicated character.
The real credit should go to writer James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) who decided to spend the necessary amount of time that it would take to get Peter into the legendary costume. That journey is appropriately funny, as he discovers his powers on a crowded subway, and tragic. Both creators understand that for most of humanity it takes more than a singular moment to have someone completely rewrite their life and set it on a different track. In this story Peter's costume isn't just a way for him to hide his identity, it is a way for him to get revenge and begin his journey to become a hero.
Garfield is aided in this transformation by an incredible supporting cast that bring more life and heartbreak to the proceedings than ever before. Martin Sheen is the perfect Uncle Ben, a character whose attempts to play Peter's father are constantly undermined by Peter's lingering anger at being abandoned by his parents. While he never recites the famous line, "With great power must also come great responsibility," his relationship with Peter and actions in the face of danger are more powerful than any string of words could ever be.
Gone is Mary Jane and in her place is Spider-man's first truelove, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone's romance is truly emblematic of an immature and awkward teen love story. Both are unaware of the consequences and intricacies of their affection for each other. They misread each other's intentions and share all of their intimate secrets without a thought. In a world dominated by social networking this change feels honest and contemporary. It lacks the disconnect of the previous films where Mary Jane loved Spider-man and eventually Peter Parker. Gwen loves Peter Parker and is all the stronger for it. She is a self-assured and strong female counterpart who is just as strong if not stronger than Peter.
Eventually though Peter Parker's life is interrupted by that of Spider-man and it is handled to perfection. Spider-man is funny, exciting, and daring. He is what Peter Parker believes a superhero should be. Andrew Garfield's Peter is always visible behind the mask, unlike in the previous films, be it physically or verbally. Spider-man is "Peter Parker+." His put-on confidence allows him to shed his self-doubt and outsider status if only momentarily. His escape into the costume has never felt so satisfying.
In action Spider-man moves like never before. He is agile and quick and best of all inventive. His webshooters allow him slide on the ground, zip through the air, and best of all monitor the activities of a particular monster in the sewers. His actions showcase a character that fully understands his abilities and how to utilize them in a well-rounded way. This depiction is an unfortunate rarity in the superhero genre, where characters typically take turns unveiling a new power in a large-scaled game of rock paper scissors.
Marc Webb's visuals deliver on the promise of Spider-man as well, especially in 3D. Spidey's kinetic swinging feels like a rush and more tangible than ever. The camera is right in the action with Peter and the bright lights of the "city that never sleeps" rush by in a whir of colors that induce a strong sense of vertigo.
The Amazing Spider-man isn't a perfect film however. Its villain's, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), motivations are never fully realized, simplified to a typical "monster tries to save the world by destroying it" story. Along these lines, several other story-lines are never concluded in the film, despite these moments appearing in the film's advertising. These missing scenes rob the film of having a completely satisfying ending. Also, those looking for Peter's maturation and evolution into the perfect Spider-man to come to a close in this film will be disappointed. Just like any teenager, he has a long way to go in learning about being responsible with his powers and relationships.
The Amazing Spider-man might be a reboot, but it is the Spider-man origin story that I have wanted my entire life and so much more. As someone who has collected Spider-man comics since the age of 5 (of the 689 comics printed to this date I am missing 15) The Amazing Spider-man was still able to surprise me with its narrative and even moreso with its visuals. It has once again made me a "true believer" and reinstilled my belief that:
"Wherever there's a hang-up,
Wherever there's a bang-up,
Here comes the Spider-man!"
Interested in where I think the series is headed and who the next villain will be. Find out here. For a SPOILER-filled discussion of the film, listen to THE FILM GRIND.