As Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield wears his sensitivities – crippled pride, a sense of abandonment, guilt and anger, and especially romantic fervency – like open wounds. You don’t wonder that the leading jock bully at his high school, Flash (Chris Zylka), targets Peter: emotionally he’s the perfect punching bag. Peter’s parents (played, in flashbacks, by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), a distinguished geneticist and his wife, were killed in a suspicious plane crash when Peter was a little boy, and though the uncle and aunt who raised him (Martin Sheen and Sally Field) have worked hard to give him both a loving upbringing and a strong moral foundation, his orphaned state has left him incomplete, and you can see it in his face, which is pocked with anxiety and etched with loneliness. Garfield is gifted but he hasn’t always been used well: neither Never Let Me Go nor Red Riding Trilogy did a thing for him, and he was all wrong as Biff Loman in the Mike Nichols revival of Death of a Salesman last season – and when he isn’t cast right he goes phony. But he showed a talent for mining adolescent feelings in The Social Network, and as Peter, a genius loser in whom a bite from a genetically enhanced spider in the lab of his dad’s old partner, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), releases both a physical prowess he never dreamed of possessing and an accompanying sexual confidence, he’s magnificent. Garfield locates the vulnerabilities of an ostracized teenage boy with unerring precision and then uses the fantasy narrative to build on them – and employs his gangly body to suggest at first awkwardness, isolation and masochism and then athleticism and physical invention. One friend made a brilliant comparison between Garfield and the young Anthony Perkins of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, and I can’t think of an actor since Perkins who’s been able to go quite so far with the bruised emotional palette of a young man who feels way too much.
|Martin Sheen, Sally Field and Andrew Garfield|
|Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors|
As she’s written and certainly as Stone plays her, Gwen is sexy, resourceful, tenacious and a bit of a rebel who earns both the exasperation and the admiration of her father (Denis Leary). (She isn’t merely a damsel for Spider-Man to swoop down and rescue; her participation in the climactic episode is crucial.) The key moment for Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s romance in the Raimi Spider-Man was an upside-down kiss; here it’s the moment when Peter reveals himself to Gwen by spinning a web that spirals her straight into his arms. Then he disappears off the twentieth-floor balcony of her apartment building and she murmurs, “Oh, I’m in trouble.” If Dunst’s Mary Jane was a romantic-comedy heroine, Stone seems to have stepped out of hard-boiled comedy; she has the feistiness, the smarts and the wisecracking quickness of a gentler, juvenile Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. The supporting cast is good, too, especially Sheen and Fields, who don’t seem as if they’d be ideally cast as Uncle Ben and Aunt May but truly are. A theme of the movie is the loss of parental figures, which generates one of the best visual moments, a funeral under umbrellas that Webb was wise enough to borrow from Our Town. (As the great D.W. Griffith knew, always steal from the best.) The Amazing Spider-Man is a genuine bright spot in a dim summer.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.