Back many moons ago … I was a huge Spider-Man fan. Like most of the Marvel characters, Spider-Man is a complex character … far moreso than the sterotypical comic book character. 10 years ago, Sam Raimi helmed two excellent (and one not so excellent) films to bring this character to life, and with the body still warm, Columbia Pictures opted to just reboot the whole thing from scratch. More money? Sure … but that didn’t mean it had to be a bad film.
It isn’t a bad film … but it was hardly a great film.
Spoilers from here …
The film opens with young Peter playing hide-and-seek with his dad, and walking into his dad’s study which has been trashed. His dad enters, pulls out a secret file from a hidden compartment of a desk drawer, and bundles the family off fro Uncle Ben/Aunt May’s place. Mom and dad leave young Peter there … and are never seen again (we learned later they were killed in an airplane crash.
Fast-forward … Peter is a high school senior and living the life of a sort-of genius-emo-skateboarder, very detached from the world around him. After being beat up by the local bully, he comes home to find the basement has been flooded, and while cleaning it out, he finds a leather satchel that was with his father the night he was dropped off. He finds something inside showing that dad worked for OsCorp with a man named Curt Connors, and what appears to be a technical paper outlining an equation for a chemical’s decay. Peter sneaks in to OsCorp, where he learns the crush of his life Gwen is the good doctor’s assistant. Connors is impressed with his knowledge of his work on inter-species gene splicing. While wandering around the lab, Peter finds a door with strange markings similar to his father’s hidden file. He enters and finds a large frame which supports the work of mutant spiders weaving a new kind of web that is much stronger than steel. Peter is, of course, bitten by one, and one the way home, accidentally nearly kills an entire subway car of patrons. The next morning he nearly destroys the house, as he gets used to his new strength.
He decides to hand over his father’s work to Connors who has been stuck for years in searching for a way to have limbs regrown (Connors himself has only one arm), and with Peter’s help, Connors’ work begins to show promise. Connors is threatened by the higher ups at OsCorp. Norman Osborne is, the company’s founder is dying and wants the work pushed faster. When a company suit threatens to take Connor’s untested drug to a VA hospital to try it on some unsuspecting veterans, Connors refuses. The suit fires Connors, and when the suit leaves, Connors decides to try it on himself. It works, but it also transforms him into a lizard man, complete with the hyper aggression of a predator … and goes after the suit.
Peter has meanwhile gotten an invitation to Gwnen’s home where he meets Gwen’s dad, a NYPD captain who is trying to deal with this Spider-Man vigilante who has been capturing criminals on the street (by now, Uncle Ben has been shot, and Peter is searching the streets at night for the killer). Peter sneaks out, when the Lizard begins rampaging on a bridge, but not before he tells Gwen who he really is. Spider-Man and the Lizard do battle, and the Lizard get away while Spider-Man saves some lives. Connors reverts back to normal, and sets up shop in the sewers. He decides that being turned into the Lizard has made him stronger, faster, smarter, but not wholly accepted in society … a matter that can be overcome if everyone were turned into a Lizard. This sets up the final confrontation at OsCorp’s headquarters where Spidey has to prevent the Lizard from turning New York into reptile central.
It is a visually great looking film … one much darker and foreboding than the Raimi films. Unlike every other portrayal of Peter Parker, this Parker is an almost clinically depressed individual. He seems to be well cared for, but he seems far more distant from his Uncle Ben than in other portrayals … something that has always been key to the character because it is his emotional ties to his uncle and guilt over what happens that cause him to become the vigilante. In this story, Peter Parker is written as too emotionally detached to really make the reaction of a vigilante realistic. The only person he does seem to care about is Gwen, but given his sheepish detachment (bordering on creepy/stalker), her attachment to him seems out of place.
Another hallmark of Spider-Man is that, unlike in Batman or Superman, Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is inhabited by people who are basically good, but are victims of circumstance (it is hardly a Spider-Man only thing, Magneto is the ultimate expression of this). As a part of the Spider-Man mythos, it is very common to feel sympathy for the devil (or goblin or tentacled scientist). While Connors is certainly portrayed as a man overall trying to help people (and a bit obsessed about getting his arm back), he too seems a bit detached (compared to the fatherly Willem Dafoe, and the genuine heart of Alfred Molina in the first two films). In short, I found it really hard to identify with the two main characters. Even Captain Stacey (well played by Dennis Leary), is too difficult to get into … at one point Peter goes to him and tells him what is happening to Connors, leading the Captain to dismiss him as a delusional delinquent, but then decides to go and look him up anyway. It is wholly inconsistent!
More breakdown in the writing. As the Lizard moves on OsCorp, he begins using gas grenades filled with the lizard mutagen on the police, getting them to turn into lizardmen themselves. I kept waiting for a battle royale of lizard carrying automatic weapons vs. Spider-Man … but as soon as they started showing the police transforming, they cut away and never showed them again until Spider-Man has saved the day bey substituting the antidote for the mutagen in the launcher that the Lizard was getting ready to use.
Another issue (they are piling up). Given that the Spider-Man films are themselves only ten years old, the target demographic is very aware of the Spider-Man origin story. If you wanted to spend a little time talking about Peter’s parents, Great! However there was really no need to drag out the “Peter gets bullied … Peter has an unrequited romance … Peter is raised by his aunt and uncle … there’s a spider bite … the uncle is killed, etc” .. which is what happened. I may have experienced some time stretching, but I think this carried the first hour of the film,and not only was it largely unnecessary, but it was not well executed. A lot of the time wasted there could have been shown developing the Connors character … maybe even developing the budding relationship between Connors and Peter which would have melded well into the film … or spending more time on the “what happened to his parents” part. Sadly, as if the filmmakers wanted to rub it into the audience’s face, the last scenes sees Peter arriving for an English class and the teacher telling the class that while some people think there are like 12 different kinds of stories, there is really only one : “Who am I?” (you will not that these are the words that Tobey Maguire started and ended the first film with). I wanted to answer “we knew that 10 years ago!” The point is:
1. After 2 hours we still really don’t have a good idea who Peter Parker, in this incarnation, is, and
2. Raimi’s second film was much more than “Who am I?” … and we lost a golden opportunity to move beyond that.
The battle scenes are well done, and the cinematography is also top notch. However, they were on screen far too little. If you are going to make a film with great action, then spend time on that. If you are going to make a relationship film, spend the time to do it right. This film just didn’t seem to know which direction to go. I just couldn’t help walking away thinking that they had a remarkable cast, and that there was a breakdown at the writing and direction level somewhere.
Personally, I would see this, but I would wait for video. No need to rush out for this one.