Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: Adolescent Hero

Andrew Garfield stars in The Amazing Spider-Man

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
I had a wonderful time at this latest Spider-Man picture, which was directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), but I don’t understand the Beatles-vs.-Stones arguments it seems to have generated. Many fans of it feel compelled to put down the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, while many Raimi apologists pronounce it extraneous because it replays much of the plot of the 2002 Spider-Man. Both positions seem silly to me. Raimi’s movies were steeped in comic-book mythology and his visual style was ideal for the material; Spider-Man 2 in particular contained sequences (like the one in which Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man stops a subway train from falling into space and the grateful passengers reciprocate by succoring his exhausted body) in which the pop imagery had an almost miraculous emotional resonance, the way it does in the 1976 King Kong and in Tim Burton’s Batman – the only two comic-book movies I can think of that are even better.  Wittily, in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 the sticky webs Parker generated stood in for his sexual coming of age, simultaneously confusing and embarrassing and powerful.  The scenes between Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson came straight out of romantic comedy.  Spider-Man 3 was an amalgam of mostly lousy ideas, but it was the kind of mistake almost every franchise makes at least once; it showed, perhaps, that Raimi had outgrown the series, but I don’t think he should be crucified for it.  The Amazing Spider-Man, which was designed by J. Michael Riva and shot by John Schwartzman, looks lovely, and the action sequences are very entertaining, but Webb doesn’t have Raimi’s consistency at creating marvelous images, and there’s no controlling metaphor. Moreover the villain isn't very interesting. It's Connors who is emotionally scarred from having been born without his right arm and obsessed with fixing human weaknesses, including his own. Under the effects of a serum he develops from mutant lizards using Dr. Parker's research (which Peter finds and makes available to him), he turns into a giant reptile. The best thing about the Lizard is his look: the artists who designed him had the cleverness to make him look like something the great special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen might have come up with.  (When the Lizard chases Peter down at school, bursting out of the sewers through a toilet in the boys’ bathroom, fans of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer may remember how much more effective the Sunnydale High School graduation scene was, where the Mayor transformed himself into a huge, voracious snake.)  But playing opposite the disarming Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy, Peter’s classmate and the daughter of the chief of police), who has crack comic timing and a voice like a hollowed-out bubble, Garfield is able to paint a portrait of an adolescent hero that both goes deeper than the Raimi-Maguire Parker and spans a broader spectrum.

Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors
He’s helped by a beautifully worked-out script, which was co-written by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and two proven experts on the coming-of-age experience, Alvin Sargent (who wrote the superb 1969 film The Sterile Cuckoo, and also had a hand in the scripts for Spider-Man 2 and 3) and Steve Kloves (who wrote all but one of the Harry Potter films).  This trio of talented screenwriters gives Peter some decidedly dark notes. Initially he uses his newly acquired flexibility and strength to humiliate Flash on the basketball court, a payback that displeases his righteous Uncle Ben, but Peter isn’t in the mood to listen to his guardian’s lecture and storms off.  When Ben, in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets shot on the street by a thief after a convenience store robbery that Peter witnessed, Peter feels implicated:  the clerk had just refused to sell Peter a container of chocolate milk because he was two cents short, and the first thing the thief did after emptying the till was to toss him the milk.  But Peter’s grief and guilt and his frustration at the cops for not finding the shooter make his early attempts at crime solving, in the persona of Spider-Man, mean-spirited and self-aggrandizing.  He enjoys making petty criminals feel small, and if he can make the cops look like assholes too by delivering crooks to them, dangling at the ends of webs, that’s a bonus pleasure for him.  It’s only when, during his first confrontation with the Lizard, he saves a little boy from falling off the Williamsburg Bridge and witnesses the child’s reconciliation with his helpless father that, in his love for his lost parents and his murdered uncle, he moves past the need for revenge to a greater generosity of spirit.

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 ReviewThe 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.

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