While most people could agree that 2007’s ‘Spider-Man 3’ wasn’t up to much, it still made pots of money and plans were in motion for the series to continue as it had before. Then, after a falling out with the studio, original director Sam Raimi decided to leave the proposed fourth instalment, and Sony decided to go for a complete reboot of the franchise a la ‘Batman Begins’. This was immediately met with cries of ‘too soon’, considering, at that point, the original film was fewer than ten years old.
Now there’s nothing wrong with rebooting a franchise, indeed it can be a very sensible decision, particularly when one has gone completely off the rails, as Batman had in 1997. The first and particularly the second ‘Spider-Man’ films though, were both very well received, and the team behind them would likely be capable of bouncing back from the third films shortcomings.
However, this isn’t just a new ‘Spider-Man’ film with a different cast and crew, it’s a retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story, and that, to me, never seemed like a particularly good idea to go with.
So when we begin Peter Parker is back in high school, a nerdy kid being bullied by the sports stars and dreaming about a girl he’s afraid to talk to. He’s also living at home with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben and ….we all know where this is going.
Spider-Man’s origin is pretty much mainstream knowledge now and even those who aren’t aware of it still probably know who ‘Spider-Man’ is and what he can do. Certain minor details are altered in Peter’s transformation but all the key elements are still there, bitten by an experimented-upon spider, argument with uncle, strapped for cash, screwed over by someone, he lets a criminal escape, leading to dead uncle… etc. This new take really does not need to spend almost an hour of its running time depicting these same events, which at times feel like a remake of the previous one with a few modern updates (smartphones and such). That’s not to say it’s not well handled, it is, just a bit redundant.
The new cast are mostly a success though, Andrew Garfield makes a pretty good Spider-Man who’s hard to find fault with, yet also hard to get too excited about. Kirsten Dunst’s dull Mary-Jane Watson was one of the weaker elements of the previous films and has sensibly been dropped here and replaced with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) who’s a massive improvement and someone much more believable as the object of Peter’s desires. It does find both Stone and Garfield regressing back to playing teenagers after a few years of more mature roles and they do look a bit old for it (common practice in Hollywood though).
Martin Sheen and Sally Field play a less elderly Aunt and Uncle for Peter and while they both do a great job, Aunt May’s later relationship with Peter seems underdeveloped. Solid support also comes from Denis Leary as Gwen’s father and police chief. It’s worth noting that they have decided not to include J. Jonah Jameson as a character here, possibly due to inevitable comparisons to JK Simmons’ hilarious, scene-stealing previous depiction.
Another good choice that backfires is the new villain of the piece, Dr. Curt Conners. Rhys Ifans plays him perfectly well when he’s a scientist working on his potentially ground-breaking experiments but his transformation from this to the bad guy is too rushed and the CG monstrosity he turns into is just plain awful. At first acting like a mini-Godzilla, then becoming even more ridiculously unconvincing when it’s revealed he can still talk when in lizard form.
There are also some brief moments hinting at Peter’s parents past that are never really developed.
It has its positives though, the Peter-Gwen relationship is done rather well (not a shock considering this is from the director of (500) Days of Summer) and a lot of the action takes full advantage of the advances in technology allowing us to follow Spider-Man swing through the city in spectacular fashion. It also boasts Stan Lee’s least cringe worthy and most amusing cameo in memory.
So while it improves on some of the earlier trilogies flaws, it also adds some of its own and is just tonally far too similar to justify its decision to re-do the origin story. What they should have really done is a stand-alone Spider-Man adventure story, that begins after he’s already been Spider-Man for a while, and hopefully that’s the direction the already-in-production sequel will take.