At first glance, it would seem that we identify with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) because he is an Everyman, a kid really, who stumbles upon great power and accepts the weighty responsibility that comes with it. But dig a little deeper and, in fact, there’s nothing at all about Peter Parker that’s relatable. He’s downright extraordinary from the moment we lay eyes on him in the new incarnation that graces the screen thanks to Marc Webb, the relationship guru who gave us (500) Days of Summer with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
To be fair, though, every version of Peter Parker is a bit too special. Sam Raimi’s trilogy featured a more mutant-aligned Spider-Man, with organic web shooters and psychosomatic issues. That Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) wasn’t ever all that comfortable being Spider-Man. He was always on the verge of quitting, surrendering the mantle of power because it complicated his mopey life.
Webb foregoes that level of neuroses; his Peter Parker has no problems being a superhero. Truth be told, that’s obviously where he’s completely free. The amazing thing about this Spider-Man is the immersion we feel in the sensation of movement alongside him. Richard Donner’s Superman may have introduced us to the idea that a man could fly, but Webb races past merely flying. He gives us the weightlessness, the freefalling and the snap of those moments when you’re at the end of the tether. Watching Webb’s web slinger is akin to the thrill of extreme sports in an urban landscape.
Of course, since this Peter Parker/Spider-Man has no issues with the super-heroics of it all, then he must struggle with love. Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the daughter of Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) — one of the all-too human heroes of the Webb reboot — is beautiful and smart, just the kind of millennial woman for super guy, but Parker’s saddled with a conscience and the pledge he made to her dear old Dad just before he died.
Everyone figures out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man (Gwen and her dad were among the first to do so), which means his loved ones will always be in danger, so he’s supposed to stay away from Gwen. That he can’t stay away just proves that Peter Parker is either a special romantic or an obsessive stalker armed with homemade webbing (because he’s super-smart too) and an arsenal of quick-witted (and engagingly endearing) quips. Like I said, there’s nothing ordinary about our Peter Parker. Nor has there ever been.
But, at the end of the day, is Webb and Garfield’s second take on the character — let’s call him “Spidey” from now on — as extraordinary as its central figure? That’s a difficult question with no easy answer.
We certainly get that this Peter labors under the weight of daddy issues. His father Richard (Campbell Scott) abandoned him, although we are teased with a few more details surrounding Richard’s secret work for Oscorp and his own heroic nature. There’s also surrogate father figure Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who never appears this time, but hangs over the proceedings as he surely does every Spider-Man title in the Marvel Comics line. And let’s not forget Captain Stacy, who does haunt Peter/Spidey in moments of crisis. The kid can’t imagine letting the good Captain down.
And to a larger extent, there’s a fear in Spidey and the movie as well, a concern about being a disappointment. So we get all of the familiar tropes — old friend Norman Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and his own father issues, a somewhat nuanced balance of goofy charm and sinister undertones from mild-mannered Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who will become the shocking villain Electro — but the whole shebang rests on the emotional resonance between Peter and Gwen and Spidey and the whole populace of New York City.
The push and pull dynamic between Peter and Gwen echoes the rhythms from (500) Days of Summer (if that movie had truly featured a couple equally in love), which sets the stage for something special. Unfortunately, though, where Webb falls short of the amazing standard inherent in the title is in the interactions Spidey has with the citizens of the Big Apple. Once again, much is made of the hero’s jokey hipster sensibilities (a holdover from the comics), but there is nothing here that comes close to matching the mythic subway scene in Raimi’s second Spider-Man where the recently saved riders silently carry the unconscious body of Spider-Man back into the train, lay him to rest and then rise up to defend him from Doc Octopus (Alfred Molina).
That was one of the most genuine expressions of love and support I’ve ever encountered on film, and it is in no way diminished because it occurred in a comic book movie. Webb, for all his efforts, fails to ensnare us that completely, but the stage is set for Spidey to give it another try. Maybe next time he will rise to the occasion. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: B-
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