I've read probably the first 100 issues of Spider-Man in Marvel's phenomenal Essentials collections (and that artwork sings in black and white. Trust me.). I can't exactly remember when I first came to Spider-Man, because he was on The Electric Company, starred in TV movies, was in the paper, and was on Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. I don't remember either the first Spidey comic I read, nor the last. I do remember reading the wedding issue when it hit the newstand (it was such a big deal, guys). But reading Kraven's Last Hunt totally wigged me out and made a bit of a Spider-Fan of me.*
But between the cartoons, the mainline comics, The Ultimate Comics (of which I think I read the first 10 trades), and however many iterations in cartoon form, and stuck it out through JMS's implosion on the title... I've seen me a lot of Spider-Man in my day.
I'm not sure I'm done with Spidey or Spidey origin stories, but I'm also a big fan of Sam Raimi's work on the first two Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire, partially because it felt so, so close to how I felt about Spider-Man and how I thought of the characters when the movies came out. So, what I'm saying is that for this mid-tier Spider-Man fan, these guys had an uphill battle.
No question, this is an origin story for Spider-Man. He doesn't put the suit on until at least half-way through the film. It's also an origin story that's incredibly inward looking. If you know your Spidey-lore, connections are created for the movie that didn't exist when some characters were created, and those that you know are inevitable are in place well enough that you can sort of see where the next few movies are headed.
The movie feels, in general, less like an attempt at epic mythmaking that I think Sam Raimi had in mind, and more of the modern era of comics with attempts at explaining it all for the audience. Oddly, this focus on drawing causal connections has an odd effect on the overall pacing of the movie. It sometimes feels like a series of storyline checkpoints whizzing by, focusing on some moments too long (sadface Peter) and not enough on building relationships between the characters in a way that feels tangible, including Aunt May and Uncle Ben (why hire Sally Field if you're going to sideline her until the last two minutes of the film? She's frikkin' Norma Rae, for goodness sake). And most especially between Gwen and Captain Stacy, when Gwen and Captain Stacy were such a big part of the comics for a period there.
In general, while it's very different from Maguire's sadsack nerd Parker (to me, lifted straight from the first 20 issues or so of the comics), Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker seems more like a guy living in his own world, maybe smarter than all the other kids to the point where he's figured out he's just in this high school thing as a transitional period. Some part of him already has the edginess required to go off and do something as nutty as leap off skyscrapers whether he's bitten by a spider or not, but there's just something crucial missing for me in the reconstruction of the myth as director Mark Webb tries so hard not to just remake Raimi's movie and leaves out some important set pieces like the career in show biz. This Peter is never set up with any life. There's no friends, no decoration to his room other than a pair of posters put there by some set-designer who feels like they've never seen a teen-aged boy's room. He's all morose loss, and there's some of that which felt like it could have been handled a bit better.
But to be honest, as a Spidey reader, I'm glad we get Gwen Stacy before MJ, and I'm glad that the part is written as more than "girl in peril" and a peer of sorts to Peter. It always felt that way in the comics. Plus, Emma Stone really does a great job of doing more than just smiling and being desired by two guys. She's her own character, on her way to a life of the mind. It's pretty good stuff.
The B-Plot of the movie is the villain story in this film, and it uses one of my favorite Spidey villains, more or less reducing him to a two-dimensional mad scientist with a plan that I am sure was in the comics at some point when some writer's well had run pretty dry.** In general I liked the pathos of Kurt Langstrom. I mean, Curt Connors as he struggles with his transformations to Man-Bat. I mean, The Lizard. The movie removes the reason the Lizard can be interesting (he's normally a happily married scientist with a family), and like Parker, he's just a guy waiting around to get involved in the machinations of the plot. When you compare this to what was going on with Norman Osborn or Doc Ock in the previous movies before they went all supervillainy, it just feels oddly sterile and lifeless.
The FX are pretty neat, the CGI fights convincing (did I talk about the web-swinging? Man, yeah. Webb did a pretty great job there) and not overwrought. I do think maybe somebody overthought the whole "lizards can regenerate limbs" thing, but... whatever.
At the end of the day, my problem with the movie is maybe one of the things I just am tired of in superhero comics, TV shows, etc...
Much like the events of Avengers, our lead character is dealing with a mess caused accidentally, incidentally, or intentionally by themselves. They're basically cleaning up a mess that, in some way or other, they helped cause. And I'm not saying that Peter wouldn't have done the things he did in the movie from a point of motivation, but... it's all so insular that it sort of starts to make the whole universe of these movies and comics a lot more about personal responsibility much more than public responsibility.
I shall put it this way so as to avoid spoilers...
One of my favorite ideas around Superman is the John Byrne depiction that Superman more or less publicly debuts because he saves a crashing plane from (a) crashing, and (b) in the middle of Metropolis. It's an act of generosity, and maybe he's compelled to do it because nobody else could do it, but he's not doing it because Superman by some omission or action caused the plane to crash. He didn't enter the wrong flightpath in the computer. He didn't inspire criminals to take the plane over and hi-jack it. The plane is crashing, and he helps out.
It's a pretty simple formula, but while watching this film, I was struck by how everything was so connected, it felt almost hermetically sealed, like.. Spidey will always be fighting criminals ties to the OsCorp, who is also responsible for his father's death, which created him, which put him on a trajectory for... I know it's fiction, but... I'm not sure just dealing with your personal mess makes you a hero, even when you do it on an epic scale. It can make you the protagonist, certainly, and there's no doubt Peter knows he should probably be the first one to take a swing at The Lizard, but the cops in the movie who show up to shoot at the the giant mutant thing without the aid of spider powers look a spot more heroic than our guy cleaning up the mess he made/ enabled.
It's hard to ignore the fact that I watched a different guy in the tights just a few years ago, and were Columbia Pictures not legally required to produce a Spider-Man movie within a fixed time period, I'm not sure what we'd be looking at when it comes to whether this movie existed or not (I don't think people would be sitting around emailing Columbia about a need for a franchise reboot). But it is here, and it's on the studio's head to try to make me care.
Some other minor issues:
- some of the news media voice over stuff was a little too on the nose
- Peter lives in New York. I think Raimi handled this better. This felt like "generic city, USA".
- Some of the graphics used to shorthand the science, etc... to the audience... was just horrendously silly.
- I think there's a cut out there that's 40 minutes longer that's probably a much better movie.
It's easy to bag on the things I had issues with while watching the movie. But I would say: it's fun, in general.
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield are actually pretty good. The web-swinging stuff is great, and I like the fact that they used web-spinners instead of the organic web shooter concept. Garfield in the suit looks like Spider-Man far more than Maguire did, and they really use that in the web-swinging scenes. Some of the uses of webs were really creative. I'm glad nobody in the movie in the immediate vicinity of Peter is played off for a bit of a fool with the dual identity jazz.
It's also often a very pretty and well shot movie, with seamless CGI inserted.
Again, this movie has Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 to love up to. It's almost in that ballpark, but just didn't quite make it for me. Where Raimi went appropriately storybook, this movie went for low hanging fruit and a straight forward retelling, and it seemed embarrassed to peddle the idea of heroism as a virtue. Perhaps in the sequel.
*man, that story. I still think it's poetry in motion.
**just because it may have once been in the comics does not mean that it's automatically a great idea