The charismatic teenage superhero from Marvel Comics has returned to the big screen once more. Like most superheros, the Spider-Man character and mythology has gone through several incarnations within comics and other media, most notably Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film trilogy from 2002 to 2007. The Amazing Spider-Man, helmed by (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb, feels similar to the Christopher Nolan Batman films in the way the psychology of the character is at the forefront. Just as the Nolan and the Tim Burton Batman films can co-exist as variations on the same character, this new version of Spider-Man flourishes on its own strengths without undermining or being held back by Raimi’s vision.
The focus in Webb’s film is on Peter Parker as a teenage boy, impressively played by Andrew Garfield, whose transformation into Spider-Man is his coming-of-age. While the film possesses a high level of scientific detail to explain Peter’s physical transformation, the film is more interested in his moral and emotional development. Early scenes reveal Peter being picked on at school, yet brave enough to still stand up for himself and others even though doing so rarely seems to end favourably for him. He is a good son to his surrogate parents Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), although still troubled by the loss of his birth parents. He has an artistic eye with a love of photography and he is highly academic, especially in mathematics and science. He’s an extremely likeable protagonist and unlike Batman who is driven by trauma, Peter’s struggle is not to allow his judgement to be influenced by the pain in his past.
Early scenes of Peter discovering his powers are feverish and confused as he comes to grips with what is happening to him. Throughout the film there are very faint echoes of David Cronenberg’s 1970s and 1980s films, especially The Fly (1986), where the ability for humans to use science to bypass evolution is seen as a positive thing until hubris, obsession and possessiveness takes over and the monstrosities occur. Peter’s struggle to choose the right path for himself mirrors Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who makes different choices resulting in very different outcomes. Peter is initially torn between personal fulfilment and social responsibility. A scene where he humiliates a bully out of revenge is portrayed as having a snowball effect that results in tragedy. Acting selfishly is a character trait that result in disaster in The Amazing Spider-Man. Skipping reasonably quickly over the details of how he learned to use his powers, create his webshooters and develop his suit, the film is more interested in how Peter comes to realise his responsibilities towards helping others rather than just himself. Spider-Man therefore becomes a hero of the people, where he is also reliant on the help of others, which is demonstrated in a key scene leading up to the film’s finale.
A crucial part of Peter’s maturing/coming-of-age is reconciling his identity with that of not just his father, but all the father figures in the film. There is his absent birth father; a man devoted to his work who left behind mysteries and a major gap in Peter’s life. Then there is Uncle Ben who provides moral guidance, Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) who is the authoritive father that stands in the way of Spider-Man’s crime fighting and Peter’s love for his daughter Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and finally Dr Connors. Connors is an amalgamation of the other paternal figures as he is connected to Peter’s father, occupies a similar position of authority over both Peter and Gwen, and has to make significant ethical decision. Peter’s challenge in the film in terms of establishing his own identity, which is expressed through the film’s action narrative, is to decide to what extent will he submit to or defy these various figures. The resulting tensions and inevitable showdown offers a very sophisticated allegory for an adolescent becoming their own person and emerging from the shadow of their parents. And ultimately it is Aunt May who guides Peter down the path of righteousness in terms of doing what’s right for both the community and himself. The traditional rule of the father is undermined while the nurturing side of fatherhood, which makes way for the next generation, triumphs.
The strong cohesive story and representation of adolescent identity give real depth to the action scenes. The first-person effect delivered in many sequences is exhilarating and the space of each scene is established to give the various fights and carnage logic and coherence. It’s not on the same scale as The Avengers, but it displays a similar consideration for how the audience needs to feel invested in moments they can grasp onto rather than be forced to experience sensory overload that only gives the illusion of excitement. And while the film is a lot darker than Raimi’s film, it doesn’t abandon the lightness at the heart of the character, so there are plenty of fun quips from Spider-Man, plus a wonderful sound and site gag in the middle of a major action sequence. Deft touches like this by Webb and the other filmmakers, not to mention extremely strong performances by Garfield and Stone, is what makes The Amazing Spider-Man a cut above other comic book adaptations, nicely situated between the glossy spectacle of The Avengers and the dark brooding of Nolan’s Batman films.