Live Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

( INTRODUCTION, SPIDER-MAN 1, SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN 3,
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2,
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME)

Our Live-Action Retrospective Review proceeds to 2012 with the first reboot: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). The following is my review of this film. I am making my own observations and subjective impressions here. I am not remotely commenting on everything inside the film or making any final word here.

Ten years after the first Live-Action Spider-Man feature film hit theaters in 2002, the first reboot of the series hit screens in 2012. By that time things had changed. 2012 was also the year The Avengers released, just a couple of months before TASM-1 premiered. 2012 was the 50th Anniversary of Spider-Man and Brian Michael Bendis’ comics crossover Spider-Men, released that year, where Miles Morales met 616 Peter for the first time, proved to be the more significant event in the Spider-Man franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man failed to capture the pomp of the occasion. It didn’t signify an impact comparable to the first Raimi film in 2002 because it became another superhero film in the year of the first superhero team-up in mainstream films. Too much had changed in a very short time. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was released in 2007, one year ahead of The Dark Knight (2008) and Iron Man (2008). Those films altered the course of superhero media.

NEW SERIALIZATION

Christopher Nolan's Batman: 10 Parallels And Connections The Movies Share

A continuity reboot in a long serial franchise is somewhat of a new thing. Remakes of course are old. A remake is technically a reboot but usually, remakes are solos. John Carpenter’s The Thing remade a classic horror film as a solo, whereas J. J. Abrams Star Trek movies is a reboot (but also in continuity with the series in a fashion) with a new serialized continuity. The 2000s was the decade of the reboot, dominated by Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005, one year after Spider-Man 2).

The Dark Knight: How Much Of Joker's Story Was Planned With Batman Begins
Joker card at the end of Batman Begins

When Batman Begins made it’s debut, it was 8 years after Batman and Robin (1997) and 16 years after Burton’s Batman (1989) created the continuity of that version. Nolan had time and distance, and cultural amnesia, to introduce Batman anew, since children young enough to see and remember movies were born after Batman and Robin. For them the Burton film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson might as well be as ancient as the Adam West Batman TV show was to audiences in 1989. In addition to popularizing the franchise reboot, Nolan introduced a new playbook for superhero serialization. Batman Begins was intentionally a low-stakes film (relatively speaking) that avoided pitting the hero against his most outlandish threats. The threats featured tended to be bereft of gimmicks (Ra’s Al Ghul isn’t an immortal mastermind who dips in the fountain of youth, he’s merely the latest head of a centuries old secret society). Nolan made the first film with full knowledge and expectation of a sequel. He tossed that gauntlet at the end of the first film with the final scene focused on a tease of a familiar playing card. The last scene of Batman Begins exists solely to make a non-diegetic reference that would only make sense to an audience outside the film who knows who the Joker is.

Nolan provided a model for what I’d like to call “new serialization”. It’s not that sequel teases are a new thing. Spider-Man 2 ended with a tease that Harry Osborn might become a Goblin but that is entirely diegetic to the film, in keeping with the rules of the fiction of that world where it was established that Norman was the first Goblin, that his son is struggling with his father’s legacy; so what we saw there is grounded in the setup of the films whereas the Joker playing card at the end of BB wasn’t. It would have been different Spider-Man 2 ended with a tease for Flint Marko or the Venom Symbiote who ultimately appeared in Spider-Man 3. The latter hypothesis is what Nolan put into effect. Now a superhero franchise film wasn’t a pure standalone, it now existed as something satisfying but also as a bridge to setup and preemptively promote its direct sequel. It’s only a short leap from the Joker playing card to the post-credits scene in Iron Man (2008) where suddenly Samuel L. Jackson shows up as Nick Fury announcing the “Avengers Initiative”.

Here Are All The Marvel Cinematic Universe Post-Credits Scenes

I will have more to say about MCU when we get to Homecoming. But in short, the success of Raimi’s films set in motion the first wave of Marvel films: Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), The Punisher (2004), Fantastic Four (2005) which generally failed to capture the cultural zeitgeist the way the Spider-Man films did. Not seeing enough returns from their IP licensed to other studios, executive David Maisel proposed a plan for Marvel to develop its own studio focused on properties Marvel already owned so they could keep all the profits [1]. So directly and indirectly, the Raimi films in fact led to the formation of the MCU, it was its success that made Marvel IP on the big screen viable and marketable.

The MCU had low-profile properties at the outset but through use of ‘new serialization’ they were able to promote a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It would have been extremely hard to envision an Iron Man solo franchise, where each sequel was built on the threat of a new villain (similar to the Burton and Raimi films) because the character has historically lacked an interesting rogues gallery, with his biggest enemy being a character so problematic that he was ultimately dispatched to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). But by tying Iron Man into a larger universe, ‘new serialization’ promoted expansion and novelty that bypassed those problems, that converted weaknesses into strengths. Iron Man 2 was a weak sequel that released before TASM-1, but it earned success on the novelty and interest for the “road to Avengers” subplot that papered over the fact that it’s main antagonist Ivan Vanko was too much of an underdog for the film’s overpowered hero. This was in effect a compelling simulation of comics serialized continuity in live-action. But that also meant that there was an expectation and demand for greater serialization across the board and new emerging films series had to compete with the new order.

NEW INTERPRETATION

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films were a distinct interpretation of the character that governed all its choices from visuals/story/casting/costume/design. It was an attempt to develop a Spider-Man that is “all things to all people” and in the first two films it was successful with that interpretation. This was more or less the mold of the Richard Donner films and the Tim Burton films as well. Christopher Nolan was a director who earned notices for his oddly structured independent films such as Memento, and in 2005 he had a mandate to deliver a Batman of the 21st Century that departed from Tim Burton’s German Expressionist homages and Joel Schumacher’s Adam West-meets-Las Vegas revamp. Both those movies were far enough away that it’s shadow did not define him and Nolan drew on new aesthetics for a vision of Batman in a believable world. So that put him in the odd position of delivering a reboot with a “new interpretation” that was also ‘all things to all people’.

For the film-makers of the TASM series though, the memories of the first two Raimi films were still fresh in people’s minds. In a certain sense Spider-Man 3 can be seen as analogous to Batman and Robin but that film’s negative reception wasn’t on the same level. Spider-Man 3 released five years after Spider-Man 1, whereas the fourth Batman film was a near decade away from Burton’s film, so that meant that the goodwill and interest in that version and interpretation of Batman had fully gone dry, whereas that wasn’t quite the case with Spider-Man 3. As late as 2010, Spider-Man 4 was still in production but ultimately Raimi walked away.

The Amazing Spider-Man 1 had to compete with new trends in the genre on one hand. On the other hand new demands and expectations for serialization on the part of the audiences. They had to deliver a film that was different from Raimi’s films but at the same time those movies had enough pull on the audience that they needed to appeal to the qualities that audiences liked in those films.

The result is that The Amazing Spider-Man 1 was a new interpretation that was a reboot but which was also constantly in dialogue with the previous interpretation in a way that Nolan eschewed. TASM1 featured Gwen Stacy, George Stacy and Curt Connors who had supporting roles in Spider-Man 3, whereas Batman Begins did not have Robin, Batgirl or Vicki Vale or anything from the previous film series. BB was absolutely new in a way that TASM-1 wasn’t.

SELECTIVE ADAPTATION: MISNOMER OF A TITLE

Amazon.com: Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection, Vol. 2:  9780785128861: Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley: Books

It always baffled me that the Marc Webb films are titled The Amazing Spider-Man when in fact they are based on, as admitted by the film-makers on many occasions, on Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man from which it pulls far more than it does the original 616 Spider-Man. It does feature some story elements from the original run but the majority of its ideas comes from Ultimate and not Amazing. I have discussed the development of Ultimate Spider-Man in detail here. The short of it is that in 2000, Bendis was commissioned by Bill Jemas to work on a new continuity version of Spider-Man that reinterpreted him as a high school student who never aged whereas the classic comics version had aged and progressed serially. Now Spider-Man 1 also drew some ideas from the very first story-arc in USM, namely Peter gets into an argument with Uncle Ben before his death, which wasn’t there in any previous version of the comics until USM#4-7. But mostly Raimi’s films was aiming for a more comprehensive version of the character across his 40 year publication history.

The Amazing Spider-Man pulls many details from USM in story elements while other borrowings are more aesthetic:

I love how 1610 Richard Parker looks like 616 Peter (Ultimate Spider-Man  #38) : r/comicbooks
Briefcase in the top part of this detail, is retained in the film. Art by Mark Bagley.
  • TASM opens with a flashback featuring Peter’s parents, and sets up a “family romance”. Peter’s father Richard being a scientist whose work and legacy is something Peter seeks to untangle. It was Bendis who interpreted Richard Parker as a great scientist. In Ultimate Spider-Man, the web-fluid formula is an invention that Peter’s father was working on which his son completed, much later, Bendis introduced Venom as a top-secret project that Richard was working on so as to interpret the symbiote as something earthbound, evolving away from its alien origins in the mainline continuity. There’s a McGuffin in the film of Richard Parker’s briefcast which we saw in USM:
Spiderman's Dad an HP Calculator Fan?
  • Ultimate Spider-Man inspired the Ultimate Marvel line and they introduced a rhetoric of streamlining. That meant that multiple villain origins were made simpler because they were tied or joined together to an over-plot. 616 Comics were made as they go along and multiple characters got origins that were self-contained and isolated, whereas in Ultimate Marvel everything is tied to its version of SHIELD which offered military contracts to different corporations leading to the development and sponsorship of genetics program and arms race that lead to supervillains like Green Goblin, Electro, Lizard, Doctor Octopus, and even Richard Parker’s Venom project was ultimately an extension of the same.

  • In the TASM films, a souped-up Oscorp plays this function tying together multiple characters and origins together. Richard Parker worked for Oscorp, as does Curt Connors, and Gwen Stacy has an internship there. TASM-2 will connect Felicia Hardy, Rhino, Max Dillon, and through background shots of plots, future villains, to Oscorp projects. The Oscorp building and corporate headquarters are heavily featured in both films and in effect the two films are essentially elaborate office politics by Oscorp employees and their descendants.

  • Bendis’ work on USM as explored in the link above is very character driven, and not action-focused and that meant that he often had characters without masks and this coupled with the characters origins tied together meant that Spider-Man and his identity was constantly exposed in USM and the double-life/secret identity issue was greatly de-emphasized. This is generally featured in TASM where Andrew Garfield’s Peter constantly has his mask exposed even in situations that make that incongruent (which we’ll get to later), and has his identity shared and revealed by everyone around him. Bendis’ decompression style on character interactions and flow are also an ideal fit for a new reboot that was intended for serialization rather than be a comprehensive standalone film like the first two Raimi movies.

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 1 is set entirely in high school whereas in Spider-Man 1, the characters aged up partway into the film. The heightened focus on a teenage high-school setting is definitely in line with Bendis’ influence, which also means that the TASM movies eschew the adult supporting cast of the Daily Bugle that in fact dominated the Lee-Ditko 616 Continuity. Bendis in Ultimate Spider-Man introduced and shoehorned characters from the college era into the high school background because he was, much like Raimi, trying to sell the teenage continuity as viable not on the strength of the threadbare Lee-Ditko high school era but by compositing later elements, so college-era characters like Harry, Gwen, Mary Jane are high school classmates but with altered and streamlined personalities. Peter and Mary Jane have a teenage relationship that’s essentially a teenage encapsulation of their married selves.

  • Curt Connors in 616 Continuity was a married man and a scientist in Florida when Spider-Man first encountered him. Connors then showed up as a supporting character, as occasionally an ally to Spider-Man (most notably in ASM#30-33). Ultimate Spider-Man featured a Curt Connors more personally involved in Peter’s story and someone with knowledge of his father’s work. The latter interpretation governed Rhys Ifans’ characterization more than the 616 version.

Now of course there are some borrowings from the classic continuity, namely the storyline “The Death of George Stacy” (ASM#88-90), as well as the Peter-Gwen Stacy romance (ASM#57-121).

SELECTIVE ADAPTATION: THE STACY FAMILY

Gwen Stacy and the Challenges of Comic Book Continuity
Gwen Stacy in her original appearance by Steve Ditko. All Frowns No Smiles.
1994 Spider-Man episode #65 SERIES FINALE-"Farewell Spider-Man" - Spider  Man Crawlspace
Gwen Stacy in Series finale of Spider-Man:The Animated Series (1994-1998). First media adaptation.

Gwen Stacy has a weird history in the Spider-Man franchise. Something worth revisiting in detail later. The short of it is that Gwen is a character known among readers of Spider-Man comics but until the late 2000s was invisible to the wider fandom of Spider-Man media, as compared to Mary Jane Watson. MJ had appeared in adaptations as early as the third season of the 1967 cartoon. The first appearance Gwen Stacy made outside comics was an AU version in the 1990s Fox Cartoon series. The second appearance was in Spider-Man 3, followed by the 2008 The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon.

Originally the serialized nature of Spider-Man comics meant that Peter went through a few relationships before settling with Mary Jane. The first Spider-Man films favored Mary Jane as the sole romance given that the compression of high notes across the franchise favored her over others. But certainly after Spider-Man 2 closed their story arcs, there seemed to have been an interest in introducing the serialized romance tropes in the third film which led to Bryce Dallas Howard being cast as Gwen far too late to really make her viable as any kind of spanner or spoiler. Howard’s Gwen was combined with Ann Weying and was essentially there to generate conflict between Topher Grace’s Eddie and Peter. With the Reboot, the idea seemed to have been to have Peter/Gwen as the main relationship to distinguish it from the Raimi films. Separating the two interpretations with a second different “classic” romance gave it a distinct identity.

Art by Mark Bagley. Ultimate Gwen Stacy (Earth-1610)
  • Peter met Gwen Stacy in ESU college and not in high school. She was the first major relationship Peter had in comics, and certainly the only example in continuity, with a woman outside his social class, being that she was richer and of higher status than him. Peter’s other relationships before and after Gwen (Betty, Felicia, Mary Jane) were with women who came from the same social class as him, more or less. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis reinterpreted her as a troubled goth girl who was known for swinging switchblades and wasn’t really a rich girl anymore which helped explain her as part of the same high school.

  • Spider-Man 1 had the same problem explaining Harry Osborn’s presence in a low-income public school but at least offered an out of Harry being a failson who has embarrassed his father by dropping out of previous schools, slumming down the social ladder as a form of self-sabotage. Whereas Emma Stone’s Gwen is supposed to be a perfect student who lives in a fancy apartment in Manhattan with her parents who belong to an upper-middle class family. As such it’s more than a little unbelievable in the film for Peter and Gwen to attend what seems like a regular high school for the sticks. The movie super-imposed the college Gwen on to high school without any of the explanations offered by Bendis for Ultimate Gwen.

  • In terms of personality, Gwen Stacy seems based on the mid-to-later Lee-Romita run. At the same time there are outright innovations such as Gwen being a science genius who has higher grades than Peter Parker. These elements weren’t a part of her characterization in the 616 comics where she was often featured as a socialite. It’s true that Gwen was part of Peter’s science class but there was no hint that she had aptitude for science as a subject. The TASM films introduced this element, and Gwen having an aptitude for science has her play a role in the film’s climax as the person who synthesizes the antidote for Connors’ “make humans into lizards” masterplan.
ASM#87 – This is Peak Gwen Stacy. You may not like what it looks like. But this is what authentic Gwen ls.

If Gwen Stacy had a single consistent trait in comics, it’s that she liked Peter Parker but hated Spider-Man. In Amazing Spider-Man #87, Peter for a brief moment reveals his identity to her but she reacts in denial and hysterics, forcing Peter to call a favor from Prowler and gaslight his friends that it was all a gag. Later continuity changes stated that Mary Jane and Gwen’s father George Stacy knew his idenity. In that light this panel of MJ teasing Gwen about her inability to reconcile Peter’s two sides certainly does convey the qualities that led readers to favor Mary Jane over Gwen.

Ultimate Spider-Man (2000) #13 | Comic Issues | Marvel
USM#13

This element of Gwen’s characterization was removed entirely from the TASM movies. And since it’s her most defining characteristic, it’s a debate whether the TASM movies can truly be said to adapt Gwen Stacy. One reason could be that the film-makers wanting to give their films a distinct identity did not wish for a second extended romance where Peter’s conflicted about revealing and sharing his double life as in the first two Raimi films. They wished instead to present Peter in a relationship on co-equal terms to better differentiate it from the Raimi movies and its romantic melodrama.

Likewise, Peter being in a relationship with a woman who hates his alter-ego and who he keeps lying to maintain a relationship worked in the Silver Age melodrama of the comics but would come off as masochistic and ethically dubious when done in a more realistic presentation.

The reality is that in the comics, there’s only really one major example of Peter in a relationship with a partner who knows and supports his two identities. That’s Mary Jane Watson whether in 616 or Ultimate. From Ultimate Spider-Man #13, comes the issue of a teenage Peter sharing his secret life with Mary Jane, a girl he has a crush on and who has been friends with him.

Art by Mark Bagley (Ultimate Spider-Man)

As such Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a real chimera of adaptation, part her original self, and part an alternate version of Mary Jane Watson, and another part entirely new and other. Given that Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves is credited on The Amazing Spider-Man, one can’t help but wonder if Hermione Granger from the HP films, a brainy overachiever, was the true inspiration for the film’s version of Gwen.

SPIDER-MAN AND THE POLICE

Arguably the change with Gwen Stacy is not as drastic as the one with George Stacy (Denis Leary). He briefly appeared in SM3 as an old police captain played by James Cromwell. Neither version is exactly like the original character who was a fairly unique supporting character.

One of the reasons why Spider-Man feels like an underdog compared to Batman and Superman is that the latter two have support systems with the media and government institutions (the Daily Planet, Commissioner Gordon) that Spider-Man on account of class and circumstance is deprived of. Captain George Stacy was introduced several issues after his daughter and he was presented as a quasi-father figure who approved of Peter dating his daughter. In fact, in publication, the first kiss between Peter and Gwen happened with her father in the same panel looking on in approval. Captain Stacy unlike his daughter Gwen, liked Spider-Man and often posed as an ally to him and defended or questioned Jameson’s narrative about him. So Captain Stacy was presented a bit like a “Commissioner Gordon” figure for Peter.

ASM#90

Denis Leary’s George Stacy is absolutely not like Lee-Romita’s character at all. He’s presented as a caring dad for Gwen and doesn’t exactly forbid him from seeing Peter bur he’s also not impressed with Peter either. He also dislikes Spider-Man for being a vigilante and sponsors a manhunt against him. In ASM#88-90, Doctor Octopus hijacks an airplane and makes terrorist demands. Spider-Man foils him but that leads to a duel between them on city rooftops. During that fight, Spider-Man tosses a chemical solution to fuse Otto’s arms together forcing him to knock debris off the roof. This debris was about to hit a child and Captain Stacy sacrificed his life to save the kid. On his deathbed, George Stacy admits to Peter he knows he’s Spider-Man and he offers him support and tells him to take care of his daughter. Dramatically, Captain Stacy’s death is interesting and ironic because Stacy’s death inverts that of Uncle Ben. Ben died accidentally without final words or goodbyes or knowing any of his nephew’s secrets. Captain Stacy dies giving all to Peter and yet this validation makes things worse because Spider-Man carries a secret that nobody else would believe, and Gwen openly blames him for her father’s death. The metaphorical forgiveness that Peter gets from Ben, the parental validation he wants, makes thing worse.

ASM#91 – Sam Bullitt: “Law and order, That’s the Ticket!”

In ASM#91-92, the aftermath issue, Gwen enraged at Peter taking photographs of Spider-Man more or less breaks up with him. She then volunteers to work with Sam Bullitt, a DA who runs a “law and order” campaign because he promises to bring Spider-Man to justice. Bullitt is framed as someone who George Stacy saw as a political opponent with Stacy framed as a ‘liberal’ policeman.

I bring this all up to point out that Denis Leary’s George Stacy is a lot more like Bullitt than his comics counterpart. He’s framed and presented as the embodiment of the Post-9/11 militarized police-force. He says to Peter: “Law and Order, That’s what I stand for! Okay? I wear a badge”.

Complete with state of the art helicopters, policeman in riot gear with military grade assault rifles. Politically, it’s interesting how an explicitly liberal character is made into a policeman who talks of ‘law and order’ in a movie adaptation. Undoubtedly, from an adaptation perspective, having Captain Stacy retain and exhibit the unsympathetic traits that comics Gwen had helped make TASM-Gwen a likable co-lead. The result however is that when George Stacy dies at the end, it lacks any of the tragedy and irony of the comics. George Stacy’s final words telling Peter to stay away from Gwen feels like a melodramatic touch to introduce tension with the leads who are otherwise perfect for each other.

TASM-1 is the only Spider-Man film (until perhaps parts of NWH going by the trailer) to feature Spider-Man on the run from and battling the police. Elements of this were featured across the comics and the Sam Bullitt two-parter (ASM#91-92) but were otherwise scanted or only lightly featured in the previous Raimi films. At one point, Captain Stacy refers to Spider-Man as an “anarchist” which politically codes him as a Republican or a conservative and centrist Democrat. The anti-authoritarian touches in TASM which Garfield seems to have lent into, does provide this film with a a degree of charm you won’t see in the movies before or since.

At the same time the conclusion of the film, still has George Stacy wielding a shotgun coming to rescue Spider-Man from the Lizard and dying in the process. That makes George Stacy the incarnation of the policeman martyred and the heroic militarized cop dying on duty to whom the superhero Spider-Man has a debt.

It’s a bit different from Captain Stacy dying by saving a kid from debris tossed by Doctor Octopus, and Spider-Man in the follow-up against the DA Bullitt explicitly depicted in the Lee-Romita era as an opponent of white supremacy and its allies infiltrated in the police force.

ASM#92

There’s a meme going on the internet about how “comics are political” pointing ot that comics across time have addressed important political issues. At the same time it does seem to be the case that superhero movies actively repress and overturn the political ideas in comics. ASM#87-92 is an extended story-arc dealing with the Stacy family, how the liberal George’s death in selfless conditions is twisted as propaganda for “law and order” which his own daughter supports, causing all kinds of social tensions that ensure Peter Parker is seen in a larger dimension. In the film, we have a “law and order” policeman passed without political criticism for those words historically used as euphemisms and “dog whistles” and then dying in the line of duty in a way that normalizes and validates the militarization of police.

CASTING AND CHARACTERIZATION:
ANDREW GARFIELD’S PETER PARKER

All of the three actors to have played Peter Parker in live-action feature films, have had their supporters and detractors. To reiterate what I said in the Introduction I do not consider any of the actors to be inherently closer to the character than the others. Yet I think it would be fair to say, that of the three actors, Andrew Garfield’s interpretation has been the most controversial. He has had several defenders online and vocal critics across the spectrum. At the time of the film’s release in 2012, I was a critic of Garfield. While I liked him as an actor I felt he was miscast and I didn’t care for the films at the time.

On seeing the films again, I actually find Garfield’s performance by far the most interesting elements of these films. I’d also argue that Garfield was a bigger influence on Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire’s. Garfield’s more physical performance as Peter and Spider-Man in terms of his janky body language, and exaggerated gestures is something we see far more in Holland’s Spider-Man, as opposed to Maguire’s stoic Buster Keaton approach in the first two films. Physically, Garfield with his brown eyes, angular face and his long hair does have more physical features in common with the original designs of Peter Parker. Peter, in my estimation, was most likely inspired by ’50s actors like Montgomery Clift and Tony Curtis, and Garfield at least looks like Tony Curtis more than Maguire and Tom Holland does. He does look a fair bit closer to the default John Romita Sr. version of Peter than both Maguire and Holland do (who have the boxy features of AF#15 Peter but not the aspects that he would subsequently gain).

Garfield, like Holland, was British and where Tobey, an American, could readily affect an organic performance style of steadfast friendliness (in the mold of Tom Hanks), those two actors had to sport accents and research a NYC milieu to situate their roles. In addition to reading the comics, Garfield drew on The Catcher in the Rye as a reference seeing a connection between Holden and Peter [2]. I have written before on the connection between Salinger’s Holden and Peter and how their characters differ, but it does hint on Garfield’s part as an actor to bring a superhero character in dialogue with stuff outside the genre. One can argue that a British actor would necessarily only give a more affected performance than someone who can portray the character naturally, that’s possible. And those have been criticisms directed at Garfield.

In terms of casting on paper, Garfield isn’t a bad pick at all if you want a Peter Parker who’s college age and older. The problem is that he’s cast to represent Bendis-Bagley’s Ultimate Peter Parker who’s a 90s’ white kid. In SM1, Tobey Maguire was 27 playing a character who aged out of high school midway into the film. In TASM1, Garfield is 29 years old playing a high school kid. There’s a line in the film where Gwen tells her Dad she’s 17 (the actress was 24yrs during filming) so that means that like Maguire’s Peter, he’s very likely a high school senior as opposed to the 15 year old Peter of AF#15 and USM. So the casting does feel a little at cross-purposes with the film’s writing and vision but that’s more the production’s fault for insisting on USM as a reference rather than revamping the college-era.

Garfield’s Peter Parker is all busyness. The actor is constantly making gestures, moving his face, and emoting and that was genuinely off-putting to many reviewers and fans. It’s a heart-on-one’s-sleeve performance and one can sense the great personal investment by him in that role. As Peter, Garfield runs the spectrum with Peter as troubled asocial kid, Peter as sorta bohemian rebel, Peter as incredibly cool guy. As an actor, in theory he could have played a serialized Peter who ages and develops across a trilogy from the Ditko Peter to the Lee-Romita and Conway-era Peter. Unlike Maguire and Holland, his performance as Peter allows one to imagine a fuller spectrum of characterization.

Of course some parts of his interpretation don’t work. The exaggerated gestures and intensity leads to try hard mannerisms such as the skateboarding shtick. There also seems to be a big dichotomy between Garfield’s performance and the vision and mandate of the film-makers. The fault ulimately seems to lie more on the latter than with the actor.

VISUAL DESIGN

The director of the Amazing films is Marc Webb who directed a romantic comedy called (500) Days of Summers that became an unexpected hit. He then directed stuff on television before being asked to do the Amazing films. Sam Raimi came to Spider-Man with a solid repertoire in horror films and crime dramas, and was a briliant visual stylist. Webb excels a lot in the quieter character scenes, comedy bits, and romantic interactions than he does with the action scenes and he doesn’t hang it all togehter the way Raimi did with the first two.

From Justice League Unlimited Season 3 – In his contempt for turn humans into animals schemes, Luthor was truly all of us that day.

TASM1’s Lizard is frankly not an impressive villain. Rhys Ifans is also British, but he keeps his accent and he’s a comedy actor playing a dramatic role so he doesn’t have a great deal of menace. The story plot of Connors wanting to turn Manhattan into lizard-people is not impressive at all, and deserves Clancy Brown’s Luthor pulling a coup on him. The lizard-plan is too bizarre to play for dramatic stakes. The CGI make-up of Lizard looks a bit like a LOTR-cave troll’s face on the body of a large armadillo.

Lizard Left – Cave Troll from LOTR1 Right
Oh Irrfan, how could you let us down so in Spiderman?-Entertainment News ,  Firstpost
Irrfan Khan in TASM1

The late great Indian actor, Irrfan Khan, as a corporate shark is far more cool and impressive in his brief turn than Ifans is. Curt Connors as played by Ifans feels too much like Molina’s Otto (also a British actor playing an American, but at least Molina can do accents).

Marc Webb’s films in terms of visual aesthetics does create a look of a 21st Century background rather than Raimi’s timeless frozen-in-amber look. So on that level it’s a modernization. People use computers and internet (although Peter using “Bing” search engine is still a riot) and no longer look up classifieds which does remove the romance, sadly.

Peter constantly being on the internet is a problem because he’s scientifically brilliant and yet looks up basic information that someone like him should know. In the comics, Peter’s major is chemical engineering (which Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse reminded us), a field involved in synthetic fabrics. I am pretty sure someone like him wouldn’t need to look up search engines to know what “spandex” is, given that it’s the most famous synthentic fabric of all. [ASIDE: Someone involved with chemical engineering would obviously have the knowhow of fabric design to make a proper and effective costume, but that’s for another day]. This feels like the dichotomy of the film simultaneously doing Peter as “special prince scientist kid” and Peter as DIY everyman and not threading the needle. Sure, the Raimi films de-emphasized Peter’s science skills by removing organic webbing, but it still had Peter be smart enough to warn Otto in Spider-Man 2 that his experiment very likely could blow up on him, a warning that went unheeded leading to tragedy for Octavius. Garfield’s Peter is more interested in science but also keen to remind everyone that he picks stuff up from the internet like any kid, and not off of Peer-Reviewed Journals and papers, which Tobey’s Peter seemed to be reading off-screen.

Secret Identity, Lol!

Most of the film takes place at night rather than day and that helps offset the fact that the TASM-1 Spider-Man costume is aesthetically an eyesore. Throughout the film, we see Garfield taking off the mask any chance he gets even in situations that don’t make sense. Such as after the Lizard’s attack on high school, when the police are coming in, we see him sneak around the hallways maskless. In terms of verisimilitude, it irritates me. But as a viewer, I welcome this because the costume is ugly, with the textures looking like baskbetball leather, and the eye lenses being an ugly brown instead of white.

In general the decision of film-makers to change up costumes and introduce looks has less to do with realism and more to do with merchandise. Spider-Man 1 introduced an interstitial costume before the Spider-Man suit, TASM-1 did the same and this will continue in the MCU movies. More costumes, more variants, more toys, more cosplays; more money in the IP holders’ balance sheets. So I don’t accept “the argument of realism” that these costumes represent a more “believable” superhero costume from someone of Peter’s class, than the one developed in the comics or in SM-1. Ultimately, these are aesthetic objects and it’s better when it looks good than when it looks “believable”. Even in a realistic superhero story like Watchmen, both Moore and Gibbons wanted the costumes to look good.

SERIALIZATION: PERILS OF OVERPLOT

  • TASM-1 opens with a flashback featuring Richard Parker and the closing credits has some mystery man warning Connors about Peter’s Dad. So in essence, where Spider-Man 1 is about “a girl” about Mary Jane Watson and the love story that threads through everything, TASM-1’s emotional focus is on Peter’s “family romance”, his quest to find out more about his Science Dad. This comes at the expense of his relatonship with Aunt May and Uncle Ben (well cast by Sally Field and Martin Sheen, but wasted).

  • The ‘family romance’ is a term from psychology, and it applies in literature to stories about kids learning about mysterious family legacies, fixated on relics belonging to their dead parents and so on. In short, Harry Potter. The screenwriter for the HP movies, Steve Kloves, has a credit on TASM and one can’t help but see Richard Parker and the family mystery as an attempt to make Spider-Man into Harry Potter. Like many observers have noted before, Peter Parker’s parents being great scientists, makes Peter less of an everyman and underdog and more like a lost prince. To the extent there’s foundation for this in the comics, I will concede it’s “fair game” as far as adapting goes. But it’s still a dubious choice in terms of aesthetics.

  • The staging of Peter’s origins in TASM-1 is really weird. Peter lets a burglar go and sees him kill his Uncle and then sets off on a quest for revenge while dressing in variations of civilian spandex. All he’s searching for is a burglar with a mark. The implication seems to be that this is a subplot that will have a payoff in a future film, but it’s still incoherent and unsatisfying.

  • The most charismatic element of these films is the relationship between Peter and Gwen and while that’s central ot the film’s second half, it’s not really what the film’s focused on. Gwen Stacy essentially serves as Peter’s sidekick who also makes out with him, and that’s also her role in the sequel. The actual plot and story doesn’t integrate her into the story which is Peter’s quest to learn about his father, finding weird runes and mystery stuff leading him to Oscorp, Connors, Spider-Powers, lashing out to Ben, Ben dying and so on.

The author Terry Pratchett once talked of his series Discworld and how he connected the stories together. But he also noted that on account of the City Watch often being the recurring characters tying everything together, it meant that any story was really a story about the Watch and it felt repetitive over time. That applies to the serialization perils we see with the “Overplot” of the TASM movies. Where everything is tied to Oscorp. Norman Osborn we are told in TASM-1 is “dying” and he sponsors research because he wants a cure and also extra-diegetically we know Norman is a bad guy so he’s also tied to other shady stuff. There’s also conspiracy and family secrets tied to Peter’s father that will be a subplot to bring out down the line. And this seems essentially a way to build and set up future films but it also means that the standalone is essentially frustrating and murky and likewise repetitive. It narrows the scale and makes it a world where everyone knows everyone, and it feels small and insular rather than large.

MISCELLANEOUS OBSERVATIONS

Things I like.

  • I happen to like greatly the great physical gag when Peter’s powers activate and he types on the PC and the keys on the board stick on his hands. It’s genuinely witty and Garfield sells it well and it’s more than earned.

  • Emma Stone’s eye-roll about her dad building a chocolate house is great.



  • I like the fact that twice, Peter throws his web line to catch someone in mid-air. Comics and adaptations have avoided this owing to, what I consider an irritating gag gone wrong in ASM#121, but I am glad that we see TASM1 showing Peter yanking people, including Gwen Stacy. Whether as foreshadowing or as dark gag it’s nice.

Things I find iffy:

  • Peter occasionally seems to be punching down. It’s true that Peter’s not beyond playing pranks in the 616 Continuity but that was usually at the expense of Flash, Jameson, Johnny Storm, characters who aren’t entirely innocent or completely likable figures.

  • In TASM-1, he steals an Internship ID from a random person, whose name being Rodrigo Guevara, hints at a Hispanic-American student whose identity a white guy hijacks and passes for, and which another white character (Gwen) treats as a reason for flirtation, even after the real guy gets thrown off presences in what would have been a true humiliation for someone from that background.

  • In the subway scene as Peter’s powers activates, he behaves clumsily and in one scene rips off the top of a woman and then attacks other passengers who are minding their business.

Both scenes are played for gags, and there’s an element of accident to it. But optically I don’t think having Peter Parker as a friendly neighborhood superhero works when he activates his powers attacking and inconveniencing random people who aren’t white or male. Sure Spider-Man 1 had a gag where Tobey’s Peter insults Bonesaw with gendered insults so it’s not like there weren’t issues before, but there’s a lot more of that in the TASM-1.

Elements such as this do little favors for Garfield’s interpretation and it’s perhaps some of the reasons why this film rubbed people the wrong way. To me this is down to the writing and direction more than the actor.

CONCLUSION OF TASM-1 REVIEW

Rebooting Spider-Man’s continuity after the Raimi films isn’t a bad idea in theory. Raimi’s distinct vision obviously reached limitations in Spider-Man 3 and his vision, the cast, and his writing served a particular version of the character at the exclusion of others. So I don’t think, or rather I no longer think, it’s inherently blasphemous for Sony to reboot the films so close to the previous films. I say this even if I don’t fully agree with the interpretation and execution of the TASM films. Visually, it’s a notch below Raimi’s films.

Even if the CGI effects and technology is obviously a step higher and the conversion from organic to mechanical webbing leads for a more geometrically logical swinging, it lacks the cohesiveness of uniting different tones that the first films achieved. I think if the films were made a little later having the same distance from the Raimi films that Nolan did from Burton and Schumacher, it could perhaps have reached for its own interpretation outside the previous film’s shadow. On the other hand, this might have aged out Andrew Garfield from getting a shot at playing Peter.

Given that Donald Glover originally campaigned to play Peter Parker, and this campaign was one of the inspirations for Miles Morales, I can’t help but wonder how an African-American Peter Parker would have changed thins. In a movie centered on a policeman attacking Spider-Man as a major storyline, while the hero is dating that guy’s daughter, having Glover’s Peter not be at the center of that feels in 2021 a great missed opportunity (Glover was 29, same age as Andrew Garfield in the runup to the film’s casting) and given the happenings of 2020 a “lost future”. Still there’s a lot of charm in TASM-1, the second half of the film focusing on Garfield and Emma Stone is excellent and Garfield has definite screen presence. I definitely can see why people like this film and grapple on to the actor the way they did. I wish their faith was rewarded by better collaborators all around.

Next, I will look at the sequel and the last film of the first reboot (which would make the TASM series a diptych rather than a trilogy but I digress).

REFERENCES

  1. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/marvel-studios-origin-secrets-revealed-889795/

  2. “Andrew Garfield: Caught in a web”
    https://gulfnews.com/entertainment/andrew-garfield-caught-in-a-web-1.1039678

One thought on “Live Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

  1. Just starting a new series with Peter in college/established as Spider-Man, even though not the same continuity as the previous films, would have been more creatively interesting though not sure about financially rewarded.

    The conflict with the police was one of the few fresh things TASM brought but yes too much by making George Stacy unlikeable.

    I’m not sure comics George, though sure liberal compared to Jameson or Bullit (a pretty demonized interpretation of conservatism), was particularly liberal rather than also for law and order – or that law and order firmness, though emphasized much more by the right, is really particularly incompatible with liberalism, I think comics Peter tends to embrace both and to be pretty centrist overall.

    I wouldn’t consider either Ditko or Romita Peter to have long hair, Garfield’s version felt and looked pretty different from either.

    I did like the costume, it looked homemade-enough while also cool enough. Garfield Peter also having organic webbing, rather than creating webshooters (and maybe stealing the webbing for Oscorp), would have felt more in-line with the 2012 film otherwise.

    Emma Stone as Gwen was the best part (and Peter revealing his identity early on the other big fresh aspect) but I thought she was really pretty much playing Ultimate Mary Jane and it probably would have been better for her to just also be called Mary Jane.

    The Lizard’s plan is yes pretty dumb but in context I thought didn’t come off too bad.

    Liked by 1 person

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