“THE FLY” meets “DEATH WISH”
in Marc Webb's surprisingly emotional franchise reboot
by CEJ (posted 7/9/12)
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)
(Columbia Pictures / Laura Ziskin Productions /
GullCottage rating (*** on a scale of 1 - 5)
Dir. By - Marc Webb
Screenplay by - James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent,
Story by - James Vanderbilt
Based on - “The Amazing Spider-Man”
by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Prod. By - Avi Arad, Laura Ziskin, Mat Tolmach
Dir. Of Photography - Jack Schwartzman
Edited by - Alan Edward Bell, Pietro Scalia
Music - James Horner
Running Time: 136 mins.
Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy),
Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curtis Connors / the Lizard), Denis Leary (Capt. George
Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben Parker), Sally Field (Aunt May Parker),
Campbell Scott (Richard Parker), Embeth Davidtz (Mary Parker), Irrfan
Khan (Rajit Ratha), Chris Zylka (Flash Thompson), C. Thomas Howell
“Well, … yeah! But isn’t it kinda soon for a SPIDER-MAN reboot?”
Oh, absolutely, And if we hear that damned word one more time
(“reboot“ that is), we swear we’re gonna go big time Michael Douglas
with the crew cut and white shirt in FALLING DOWN, toting that rocket
launcher, remember? But instead of blowing up a street construction
site, we might just take aim at a nice sized Hollywood studio office
building. For the reboot has become cinematic de rigueur. Now
more ubiquitous even than that other “last refuge of the creatively
challenged scoundrel” - the sequel, with the reboot, while watching the
film’s trailer, the audience is almost allowed the rare “fly on the
wall” privilege of hearing the actual pitch meeting wherein the project
originated. For said reboots often smack of “the road more traveled”. The safe one,
where the filmic re-purposing of an established franchise, brand or
just the “name” of a property (21 JUMP STREET anyone?) is dished out to a
supposedly non-discriminating audience; … and now dished out with that
$4.00 3D surcharge tacked on. But understand, Hollywood. Audiences
aren’t so gullible. In strapping financial times they tend to cling to
their dollar a bit more curmudgeonly. And rightfully so.
Which is not to say, mind you, that all reboots are (as William
Goldman once opined about sequels) a “whore’s endeavor”. For in recent days
we’ve had our fair share of pretty good ones. After over 40 years, James Bond
got a great upgrade with 2006’s CASINO ROYALE. And Guy Ritchie’s 2009SHERLOCK
HOLMES was one of the most delightful surprises of it’s year. Even 2010’s
reboot/remake CLASH OF THE TITANS (which really isn’t as bad as most claim) was
followed by the far superior WRATH OF THE TITANS in 2012; ... a sequel to
a reboot no less. The gods must be crazy, indeed. But (and hear our plaintive
cry here, o’ studio execs), unlike say Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of PLANET OF
THE APES, the strengths of that trio of aforementioned films lay in the fact
that, with great writing and execution, they “updated“ their franchises by
almost counter-intuitively “going retro”.
it’s adventure in the contemporary world of international terrorism and grand
scale money laundering, CASINO ROYALE quite amazingly followed the plot (and in
many places even dialog) of Ian Fleming’s original 1953 novel - the first one in
the Bond series. For all the rapid-fire pseudo music vid “bim, bam, smash!”
editing of it’s theatrical trailers and TV spots, SHERLOCK HOLMES the film
itself emerged as a rather loving and faithful “throwback” rendition of Conan
Doyle’s world famous sleuth. And of all those movies supposedly “influenced by”
or “paying homage to” the legendary stop motion animation adventures of Ray
Harryhausen (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINAD, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, ONE MILLION YEARS
B.C.), WRATH OF THE TITANS (with the possible exception of JURASSIC PARK)
emerges as the one most effective at recapturing the energetic magic and grand
scale brio of his still seminal and “bar setting standard” JASON AND THE
ARGONAUTS (1963). All of which brings us to the new Spidey, … which, like those
others, is also surprisingly quite good!
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN - Trailer 3
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“WEB-HEAD’S” ORIGINS: LITERARY AND CINEMATIC …
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (no, we won’t say “swung” into theaters - give us more credit than that) arrived the day before the Fourth of July, on the wings of one of the largest and most expensive ad campaigns in recent cinema. Audiences (even the usually vocal fan boy set), used to such promo blitzes often being akin to the - eh, hmm! - “little” guy compensating with the big Porsche, greeted the pre-release splash, talk show appearances, press junket interviews, and convention stop-bys of cast and crew, with more than a bit of wariness. For it had only been five years since SPIDER-MAN 3, the final installment in Sam Raimi’s original trilogy for Sony/Columbia. And while for many the least liked of the series, it was a worldwide hit and still a tough act to follow so soon.
The world knows the Peter Parker / Spider-Man character. But to those unfamiliar with his literary and cinematic origins, a quick primer:
Created by Marvel comics “Smilin’” Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, “web head” (we’ve been fans since childhood; we can call him that) was born of Lee’s desire, after noticing the bulk of comics were purchased by teenagers, to create a teen character (angst and all) with whom that audience could identify. Not having a great deal of faith in a teen superhero lead (at the time they were sidekicks like CAPTAIN AMERICA’s Bucky Barnes and BATMAN’s Robin), Lee’s publisher, Martin Goodman, agreed to let him test the web-slinger in the final issue of the anthology mag AMAZING FANTASY (previously AMAZING ADULT FANTASY) #15 - Aug. 1962. The character became a hit, and years later was taken into other media.
For an entire generation … No! For successive series of generations, their first exposure to Spidey would be the ABC animated series which ran from 1967 - ’70, then was enshrined into pop culture via syndication. Still considered by many as the apex of animated comic book adaptation, the show’s 2nd and 3rd seasons were supervised by artist Ralph Bakshi, who would go on to fame as the filmmaker behind such legendary (and taboo breaking) adult animated features as FRITZ THE CAT, HEAVY TRAFFIC, WIZARDS, AMERICAN POP, FIRE AND ICE and COOL WORLD.
The first feature film attempt was spearheaded by the “Go Go Boys”: producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and their Cannon Films banner. Remembered as the house behind popular 80’s era “B” movie fare such as MISSING IN ACTION, BREAKIN’ 2, AMERICAN NINJA and DEATH WISH 3, Cannon would also, before it’s demise, shepherd critically acclaimed films such as BARFLY, TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE and STREET SMART into cinemas. With larger scale projects such as MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, “Go Go” hoped to carve a niche in the genre market, and SPIDER-MAN was the right fit … as no other studio was biting at the time. After two failed attempts (one of them a sci fi / borderline horror rendition with an eight limbed mutated Peter Parker), writer director James Cameron, fresh off THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, famously entered the creative fray.
Cameron’s sci fi slanted “scriptment” would feature fave Spider-Man villain Electro as the unfortunate result of a Philadelphia Experiment-style accident involving bilocation, atomic deconstruction and physical transporation a’la STAR TREK. While Cameron’s take on the character featured a degree of profanity, and even a sex scene between Parker and main squeeze Mary Jane, it’s eventual abandonment was caused not by them as much as by a legal and licensing juggling act which saw the SPIDER-MAN property volley between production house Carolco (TERMINATOR 2, the RAMBO films, TOTAL RECALL), 20th Century Fox, and MGM, before landing at Sony/Columbia where (after being presented to names as varied as Roland Emmerich, Tim Burton and David Fincher) Sam Raimi would finally take the helm, releasing the very popular SPIDER-MAN in 2002.
Steve Ditko self portrait
Originally slated to direct a SPIDER-MAN 4 (and even a 5 and 6 shot concurrently), Raimi walked away from the franchise, his stars Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst going with him, when Marvel/Sony’s targeted release dates for the films proved in his opinion detrimental to the quality of character and story he wished to maintain; the first signs of this creative conflict rearing it’s head during SPIDER-MAN 3’s somewhat hurried shoot and post-production phase.
Faced with a “use it or lose it” option on the Spider-Man character (wherein if the possessor of said property fails to make another film within a certain amount of time, the rights revert back to the original owner), Sony had to get another Spidey adventure into the pipeline quickly. Either that or give up one it’s most lucrative licensed properties to Disney - now the new home to Spidey’s old home, Marvel Entertainment; their newly minted production shingle, Marvel Studios, turning out hit after hit with IRON MAN, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and the at-the-time-in-the-works THE AVENGERS. Rather than bring in another director and cast to attempt a continuation of the Raimi / Maguire SPIDER-MAN narrative, Sony decided to go the (somewhat controversial) route of a reboot a mere few years after it’s last film.
As stated in our earlier review of THE AVENGERS, Marvel Studios heads Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, have taken more than a few knocks from fans and industry insiders for many reasons. But the one thing they've managed to get right more than wrong is their selection of talents (and attendant personalities of those talents) to adapt it’s various characters. As such Jon Favreau’s natural iconoclastic hipness (SWINGERS, MADE) would infuse IRON MAN, Tim Story (BARBERSHOP, THINK LIKE A MAN)’s dysfunctional/loving family dynamic would be at the heart of the FANTASTIC FOUR films, and the wild over-the-top “bad boy” filmic persona of Neveldine-Taylor (the CRANK films) would fuel Marvel’s ultimate “bad boy” character - Johnny Blaze in GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE.
Director Marc Webb
Attempting to maintain the quality of characterization brought to the Raimi franchise by writers such as David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK, CARLITO’S WAY, PANIC ROOM), Alvin Sargent (PAPER MOON, JULIA, ORDINARY PEOPLE) and Michael Chabon (WONDER BOYS, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY), Arad and Feige would, for the new film, bring back Sargent, along with writers James Vanderbilt (ZODIAC) and Steve Kloves (RACING WITH THE MOON, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, the HARRY POTTER series) to fashion it’s story.
Wanting a fresh, edgy visual vibe, the producers would also bring in (the appropriately named) Marc Webb as director. Having helmed videos for the likes of Green Day, Maroon 5, Diddy and others, it was the ironic combination of contemporary realism and romance Webb brought to his feature film directorial debut, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, which made him a perfect fit for what Arad, Feige and Sony wanted for their new take on the Spider-Man character. And the efforts are mostly successful.
“THE FLY” MEETS “DEATH WISH” …
Webb’s film is certainly darker (in look and tone) than Raimi‘s trilogy. While Raimi’s films are set in the real world, and not a DICK TRACY-like stylized metropolis, they do nonetheless take place in a (for lack of a better term) hyper visualized “comic book world“. This time out the tone, cinematography - nicely realized by John Schwartzman (BENNY & JOON, THE ROCK, SEABISCUIT), and feel is considerably more gritty. Not "Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT gritty", but the world in which Parker and his Uncle Ben and Aunt May live (and Martin Sheen and Sally Field are so good, if you don't damned near cry during at least three scenes, you aren’t human) is much more recognizably dangerous than in the previous incarnations. This was perhaps the film’s biggest surprise for us.
An important edict of any good comic book adaptation is that the primary character must command our interest as a bonafied intriguing person long before he/she dons their costume. And in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker certainly does. For an entire generation Toby Maguire is Peter Parker / Spider-Man every bit as much as Sean Connery to some will always and forever be the one and only James Bond. But in spite of this bias, Garfield acquits himself rather nicely.
While not officially “suiting up” in that iconic red and blue garb till near halfway into the film, everything up to that point is damned well written and performed characterization and drama; the 28 year old American-English Garfield’s take on Parker as a lanky, uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin, passive aggressive science geek and orphan turned angry vigilante, then selfless hero (whew!), commanding our emotional attention at every turn. It’s quite an engaging performance. Even Dr. Curtis Connors (the often humorous Rhys Ifans of NOTTING HILL and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS - PT. 1) emerges as someone we end up genuinely caring for, and as such we therefore hate to see what he becomes as he metamorphosizes into the deadly and villainous “Lizard“.
SPIDER-MAN co-creator Stan Lee has made reference to the film’s emphasis on TWILIGHT-style romance. And we think this is merely his (perhaps unintentionally inaccurate) way of acknowledging that the film does indeed have a pronounced romantic slant. But take heart, fellow “web heads”, the TWILIGHT analogy is waaaay off. In fact if the TWILIGHT films captured half the charm here between Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacey), maybe we’d take more of a shine to them (apologies to both Teams Edward and Jacob). In fact two sequences between our young couple n THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (the rooftop first kiss, and when an injured Parker is nursed by Gwen) are so magical, they'll surely melt the hearts of both men and women, young and old alike.
Composer James Horner has been somewhat absent from the major motion picture scoring scene since 2009’s AVATAR, with only a trio of films (THE KARATE KID, BLACK GOLD, and FOR GREATER GLORY) to his credit since then. Quite unusual for the most times “scoring factory” he’s become known as (a plethora of memorable films such as FIELD OF DREAMS, 48HRS., STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, WILLOW, COCOON, BRAVEHEART, TITANIC, DEEP IMPACT, A BEAUTIFUL MIND and others attesting to the fact). He makes a welcome return in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and perhaps signals (along with Alan Silvestri’s THE AVENGERS) that Marvel may finally be breaking it's streak of "unmemorable" themes/scores to it's films.
A deceptively simple “Spider-Man” theme at the beginning of the film seems simple in the extreme - even lazy. But as John Williams once mentioned, the most simple sounding tunes are often the most memorable. They're also the most difficult to fashion. And by the 3rd Act action climax, as Spidey soars over New York, Horner proves the truth of these words - our hero carried more by the now ebullient melody than the tensile strength of his webbing - both appearing slim, but in actuality carrying a great deal of weight.
play THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN - "The Ganali Device" (J. Horner)
Because the multi-faceted Horner is a classically oriented composer; and because we’ve in some respects become accustomed to not hearing REAL composition in most films of late, the delicate intricacies of some of his music in certain scenes (magical, heartbreaking, bad-assed cool) was at first rather jarring ... but in the best of ways. It wasn't what we expected. Horner here eschews bombast in favor of introspection, and chooses cleverness over electronic effects. In a couple of early humorous confrontation scenes we even hear "finger snaps" as musical instruments - faintly echoing another famous New York tale, WEST SIDE STORY.
The almost mathematic “crystalline” melody for the “Genali Device” (and Connor’s genetic experiments in general) is in some ways a more colorful and layered version of his “patterns within patterns” music from A BEAUTIFUL MIND and SNEAKERS. And his love theme for Peter and Gwen is heartrendingly gorgeous. Minimal in scale, but maximum in emotional impact; it is at it’s core a pean to the heart's yearning for things (for ideas and ideals) just beyond reach in the modern world. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN's score heralds the welcome return of an old friend.
FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD MASH-UP ...
As for the film’s NEGATIVES (such as they are) - there is really only one. And it stems from the "darker real world" positive aspect. The first third of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN owes a great deal to the verisimilitude of David Cronenberg's 1986 film THE FLY. SPIDER-MAN filmmakers Webb and co. go all out to make the logic and science (well, okay - science "fiction") of Parker's and Connor's transformations seem as though they could actually happen under these circumstances and for these reasons. Here too, as in Cronenberg’s classic remake, the plot involves the genetic splicing of human and animal to positive and negative effects. And it works incredibly well.
The 2nd third of our new film very much feels (and we’re fairly certain the screenwriters took inspiration from) Michael Winner’s 1974 nocturnal vigilante thriller - the original DEATH WISH. After the death of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben at the hands of a street thug (hey, no spoiler there ... I mean, "duh!", right), Parker becomes a dark vengeance obsessed vigilante. And it's wholly appropriate that, just as with Bronson's Paul Kersey character in DEATH WISH, the police (here led by Dennis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy) would want to find and stop him before others get similar and dangerous ideas. It is therefore because of the "realness" of the first two thirds of the film ...
When we get to the final section, the grand battle between Spidey and the Lizard, it's done in such fast hyper-real fashion (which is not to say it's not done well) it kinda feels like another film; going from authentic if dark (and even touching) drama to an "Oh, yeah - that's right, we're watching a summer action tentpole movie" film. From an aesthetic POV, much of the physical effects / stunts in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN’s first two thirds are "practical" ones (at times augmented with CGI) under the Second Unit direction of the legendary Vic Armstrong (the INDIANA JONES, James Bond, and SUPERMAN films, as well as RAMBO III, THOR, I AM LEGEND and others). Therefore when we get to that city-destroying climax (which is now necessarily predominantly CGI), it signaled for us at least, a subconscious reaction which kind of tended to take us out of the film. "Awakened us" so to speak from the transfixed dream state the first two thirds of the movie had put us in. Oh, and by the way, while the Lizard's plan for New York City has a very cool sci fl slant to it, it is perhaps a bit too reminiscent of another dastardly plot perpetrated in another pretty good Marvel film from some years back. You'll know it when you see it.
As said, call it a "negative such as it is". After all, most comic based films (the good and bad) tend to climax with the same type of "city-destroying super slam". We refuse to say it’s an “inherent weakness of the genre”, and instead choose to believe it’s a narrative conundrum yet to be solved satisfactorily by any comic based film as yet.
Oh, and by the way, when we finally saw Curt Connors as the Lizard WEARING THE WHITE LAB COAT! that's when we said, "Okay, now THAT's the Lizard I remember from childhood!".
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is lovingly dedicated to producer and studio head, the late Laura Ziskin (1950 - 2011). She is survived by her husband, screenwriter Alvin Sargent, and her daughter Julia Barry.
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