Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of recycling. But when it comes to movies, that idea can go a little too far. Remember a few years ago, when it seemed like every TV show that ever made it to the airwaves was going to be turned into a major motion picture? Well, these days the strategy is not to remake but to reboot — to take a franchise that’s getting a little bit creaky and revitalize it with a new creative team.
The latest example of this is director Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which tries to overhaul the legend of Peter Parker. He’s the high school kid who turned into a superhero after being bitten by genetically modified spider. In director Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man films, Peter, played by Tobey Maguire, was a shy, introspective nerd. In “The Amazing Spider-Man,” British actor Andrew Garfield takes over the part and turns Peter into a highly intelligent but emotionally guarded outsider. Garfield, whom you might recognize from “The Social Network” and “Never Let Me Go,” is absolutely fascinating to watch, and by far the most interesting aspect of “The Amazing Spider-Man” is the intoxicating chemistry he generates with the effervescent Emma Stone, who plays Peter’s equally smart classmate Gwen Stacy. There was nothing wrong with Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the Raimi “Spider-Man” films — they were appealing without ever being more than mildly engaging — but they couldn’t hold a candle to what’s going on between Garfield and Stone here. They are a powerhouse couple, so much so that the love story becomes somewhat more exciting than the “save the city” plot.
As for the rest of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” it’s generally flashy and creepy enough to distract us from the nagging feeling we’ve seen this all before. Because we really have — and not that long ago: The first of Raimi’s “Spider-Man” flicks came out exactly 10 years ago, and the last one arrived in 2007. Because it’s going back to Peter Parker’s roots, “The Amazing Spider-Man” has to cover some already familiar territory, including his relationship with his protective aunt and uncle, nicely played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen, and his adjustment to his newly discovered powers (which makes for some truly funny scenes, as Peter’s adhesive-dripping fingers stick to keyboards and his ultra-powerful grip makes the simple act of trying to brush his teeth seem like a demolition derby).
On the positive side, “Amazing” does not pale in comparison to Raimi’s handling of the same material. It also reminds us that visual effects have come a long way in the past decade: When it’s finally time for Garfield to swing through the city streets or scramble up the sides of skyscrapers, these sequences are pretty breathtaking. The movie also scores a few extra points for its utilization of the right-at-home Denis Leary as a skeptical police officer out to bust Peter, and for involving the take-charge Gwen in the action instead of keeping her stuck on the sidelines.
While many of its stunts and smash-ups are more or less familiar, “Amazing” does work in an unusual villain, a geneticist named Curt Connors who takes a wrong turn while trying to create what he calls “a world without weakness.” The morally challenged Connors is played by Rhys Ifans (of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Anonymous”), and he does a commendable job of being both sympathetic and scary, a victim of circumstance with a startling streak of viciousness.
So is “The Amazing Spider-Man” really amazing? Not really, unless if you are completely unfamiliar with this particular superhero saga — or utterly enamored with Stone and Garfield, as many viewers may soon be. But that title certainly does sound a lot better than “The Perfectly Respectable But Premature Remake of Spider-Man That Was Entirely Unnecessary But Turns Out To Be Pretty Good Mid-Summer Entertainment.”