Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

An action-packed ride with top-notch acting, great effects and stunt work, and a plot with more holes than a spider web.

The Amazing Spider-Man was off to an amazing spider-start of $50.2 million in international box office the weekend before it even opened in North America, so any review at this point is likely of interest only to film academics and comic-book historians. But like Spidey's ever-beleaguered alter ego, Peter Parker, we'll give it our all in the face of insurmountable odds, an indifferent, even hostile public, and all the J. Jonah Jamesons of the world. Which is ironic, since J. Jonah Jameson doesn't appear in director Marc Webb's origin-story reboot of the 2002-2007 Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy.

That's just one of the differences between that canon, starring Tobey Maguire, and this new take starring Andrew Garfield. Whereas the 2000s Peter Parker graduated from high school, moved into an apartment with his college roommate and got a job all in the first movie, The Amazing Spider-Man sticks to high school. Instead of Mary Jane Watson, Peter's girlfriend is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), daughter of NYPD captain George Stacy (Denis Leary doing his patented Denis Leary, blowing away everyone in every scene he's in, and whose dinner table tête-à-tête with Peter is the movie's acting highlight). And no one utters the signature line "With great power comes great responsibility," which is sort of like Hamlet without "To be or not to be.”

Most significantly, aside from being aimed at a high-schoolish audience—skateboarding plays a big part—the story centers on Peter's quest to learn about his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), who in an opening scene set in Peter's childhood rush to parts unknown after an intruder has broken into their home seeking Richard Parker's scientific documents. They frantically drop Peter off at the Queens, New York abode of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field), who raise the child after his parents are reported killed in an airplane accident.

Field does the best she can in a role composed mostly of fret and inspirational admonitions, and the actors overall are top-notch, right down to Chris Zylka's arrogantly bullying yet believably repentant Flash Thompson. Stone plays a brainy knockout whose interest in good-looking geek Peter plays convincingly, and both Rhys Ifans as one-armed geneticist Dr. Curt Connors and Bollywood star Irran Khan (Spider-Man comics are big in India) as his menacing superior Dr. Ratha could have stepped out of a Merchant-Ivory film.

Less convincing is the back-lot look of much of New York, and the lack of care about details: Why show a building clearly addressed 3 Columbus Circle, at Eighth Avenue, when Peter looks across the street at the building where Connors works, and then show that building's address as on Sixth Avenue? Why does Gwen give her family's apartment number as 26D, but calls it the 20th floor? And what 20-story building has an outdoor fire escape, where Peter surprises Gwen outside her bedroom window? It's not nitpicking, because here's the big question: Why go to the trouble and specificity of setting something in New York and then treating it like Gotham City, Metropolis or some other made-up place?

Other plot holes abound. For one thing, Ratha simply disappears halfway through the film. And in this post-9/11 world, how can a movie from Columbia parent Sony Pictures let Peter fake his way into a major corporation's headquarters without photo ID when you can't even get into Sony's building in Manhattan without one? And thematically, Peter always justified being Spider-Man out of guilt for an action that directly led to Ben's death, yet Peter isn't responsible for Ben's death here—in fact, Ben contributes to it himself by doing something truly irresponsible. So Peter's motivation is no longer guilt, but vengeance. That's fine--but that's Batman.

Still, particular set-pieces shine, such as Spider-Man's rescue of a boy trapped in a car (Garfield really is astonishingly talented), a high-school battle sequence with the Lizard, and a climactic scene involving synchronized construction cranes. No question The Amazing Spider-Man is a far better movie than Green Lantern or Superman Returns, and it's "an action-packed thrill ride," as critics tend to say. But how do three screenwriters, including a two-time Oscar-winner and the writer of virtually every Harry Potter movie, create a plot with more holes than a spider web?