Comparisons to Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN are unavoidable, no matter how much Marc Webb and the other writers and filmmakers involved in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN would like it not to be. The Raimi movies are still fresh in our minds - SPIDER-MAN 3 was only 5 years ago, and it's been playing repeat on cable, along with the other two, since then. So when THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN goes over ground that we as an audience are already well-steeped in, there's nothing for it but to feel a little bit of "Been there, done that" with the movie.
That's unfortunate, because all the origin stuff, even though it's a retread, are some of the best things in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Marc Webb puts a real sense of earnestness and even urgency in the proceedings and despite the repeating nature of what we're seeing, we've become invested all over again in the story of a young man, learning his place in the world and adjusting to new superpowers, dealing with the tragic death of his uncle. Never mind all the ads forcing down our collective throats that this is the "Untold Story" of Spider-Man; there's not a whole lot new here. But the performances across the board, from Andrew Garfield's completely on-the-button performance as Peter Parker, Sally Field's Aunt May and Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben, are note-for-note perfect and completely work. You feel badly for them, because you want to see them in a real Spider-Man movie and not just a reboot.
And that, my friends, is the impossible hurdle - THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is a good movie - I'd even go so far as to say it's better than Sam Raimi's original in spots, but nowhere near close to SPIDER-MAN 2 - but it's strapped down with a story that requires everyone involved in jumping through those hoops again when you can feel them straining against all that to take flight. There are choices made - almost all of them at the story level - where the movie feels a little like Andy Kaufman just waiting for that moment in the Mighty Mouse song to shout "Here I come to save the day!" even though he's just repeating material. Sure, it gets it right - but it's all been gotten right before.
Andrew Garfield is leaps and bounds a better Spider-Man and Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire. He really dominates your attention when he's onscreen - so much so that you aren't waiting for the moments where he puts on the mask. Garfield, oddly enough, reminded me a lot of Jeff Goldblum's performance in THE FLY before everything goes south - he's nervous and twitchy, always feeling like he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, but still through it all has a good soul. Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacy, builds some nice chemistry with Garfield in their scenes together - she's the stabilizing force in his post-Uncle-Ben life. Martin Sheen does good work as Ben, but Sally Field's Aunt May feels a little outside the proceedings - not her fault, again, that's the strain in the writing - as she simply reacts to the events of the movie.
Denis Leary as Captain Stacy is quite good - he provides the snappy banter that the movie needs because J. Jonah Jameson isn't a part of the story yet. He's wary of Peter, being a dad, and he's dedicated to stopping Spider-Man any way he can. Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors/the Lizard is probably the biggest problem of the movie. It's not that he's bad - he's not - but again we have a situation where he's just saddled with bad writing. Once he goes down the path of the Lizard, the script has him reacting in ways that may make sense from a story standpoint but cause his performance to go from one polar extreme to the other and it's tonally all over the place. The Lizard as a foe onscreen looks awful - you can see Rhys Ifans in the facial work but I couldn't help feeling that they should have went more animal with it instead of the direction they did go.
There is one aspect that I'll say that THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN has it over Raimi's work, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's in the action scenes. The 3D is plarticularly playful when we ride along with Spidey through New York, and the action choreography is terrific - Spidey moves, jumps, leaps, kicks, and wiseasses his way through his battles and those scenes feel straight out of the comic book. I sorely missed Spidey's cracks during combat in the Raimi films and Andrew Garfield sells it completely. The presumptive Stan Lee cameo is by far my favorite cameo he's done in all the Marvel movies yet - just a perfect little moment of organized chaos and sheer geek joy. James Horner's score isn't bad either, but it doesn't have a recognizable theme that the movie needed at times.
However, the problems are almost all in the writing, and I can't help but think it's because many of the writers from the original Raimi films returned for this one. This one needed a really fresh take on the material, writers who weren't trying to capture that lightning again. Honestly, this had no business being a reboot. There would have been nothing wrong had they just continued the story from the first movies - Spider-Man certainly has a big enough rogues gallery that a new villain wouldn't have been a problem, and they were heading towards the Lizard story anyway - and the audience would have went with it, regardless of the new actors. I understand that the filmmakers would have wanted a fresh start, and a retelling of certain characters that show up in Spider-Man's history, but that should have been done further down the line. All the characters in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN are connected in some way, whether through Curt Connors and Gwen Stacy, or through Peter and his parents, or through Gwen and her father, and the result is that THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN feels much smaller in scale than Raimi's films.
Is it worth seeing? I'd say it is - the performances are great when the writing lets them be, the 3D is nice, especially in the action sequences, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing these characters again in a movie where they aren't so beholden to the source material. Garfield and Stone look like the two oldest high school kids on the planet, but that's easy enough to get over. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is a movie where you get the feeling that once Marc Webb and the writers are allowed to go their own way, there might really be something there that's worth seeing.
I have the feeling that a sequel to this could be quite good as long as they don't go the predictable "Kid needs to find the secret of his parents" route, and in the post-credits stinger you already know that is likely to happen, unfortunately. For those asking if the origin somehow is different now, I'd say no but the potential is there that instead of Peter's powers being some random event that it was all planned. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sets up a sequel as inevitable as this movie is, and if Webb and the screenwriters really want to make this its own series and not just a rehash of Raimi's films, they need to pull out all the stops to keep that from happening now. In short, I think it's time for Kraven the Hunter.