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Nifty techniques not enough for new ‘Spider Man’

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Posted: Friday, July 13, 2012 7:49 am

I fancy myself a halfway intelligent person, but I always seem to make the most head-smackingly stupid mistakes. A “for instance” would be the fact that I didn’t realize the News-Sentinel had an early deadline for the Fourth of July holiday, and found myself prepping for a late screening of “Magic Mike” as I discovered that the Lodi Living section was getting ready to go to press. It seems my stupidity knows no bounds.

But we’re back in the swing of things this week with a look at “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which puts us squarely back in the inexplicable summer funk we’ve been suffering for months with little reprieve. Bright side: There are a few promising titles now playing in wide release (“Ted,” “Savages” and the aforementioned “Magic Mike”), and I’ll play catch-up with at least one of them next week since the impending release of “The Dark Knight” has ensured that no “real” films are opening this weekend.

I’m betting that they’re all pretty great compared to the competition, and I may have made another one of my regrettable mistakes by rolling the dice with “Spider-Man” instead of trusting in the proven talents of Steven Soderbergh and Seth MacFarlane. Live and learn.

One of the more ambitious superhero reboots of recent years, “The Amazing Spider-Man” aims to remove itself as much as possible from Sam Raimi’s comparatively lighthearted trilogy of action spectacles. Taking a page from Christopher Nolan’s incredibly successful Batman films, director Marc Webb and his stable of screenwriters have fashioned a far more brooding Peter Parker/Spider-Man than we’re used to, and situated him in a world that is far more realistic than the bright, “comic-booky” universe created by Raimi. The results are ... strange, for lack of a better word.

One could argue that this superhero is more suited to the vibrant colors and easy charms delivered by the first three “Spider-Man” films, and the dark alleys and existential quandaries should be left for Nolan alone to explore. But I’m not sure I buy the idea that the Batman movies have a monopoly on darkness and realism. There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with toying with different approaches and tones in the realm of the superhero genre, and in any case making another film in the vein of Raimi’s trilogy would make this seem like even more of a rehash than it already does. In fact, I give the appropriately named Webb brownie points for at least possessing the vision to try something new and relatively bold with this character.

For a while, it even looked like he might succeed. From the opening scenes, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a handsome film, well-shot and assembled by a filmmaker with obvious natural talent (Webb previously helmed the effectively bittersweet romance “[500] Days of Summer”). Webb clearly knows how to use a camera, and his POV shots of Spidey swinging through the streets of New York are more immediately arresting than anything Raimi was able to present over the course of three films. And the scenes depicting Parker (played by future Oscar winner Andrew Garfield, of “The Social Network” fame) first learning to harness his newfound powers tap into a genuine sense of discovery that eluded Webb’s predecessor.

However, at the end of the day this is a superhero action flick, and nifty camera tricks and aesthetic nods to New Hollywood and French New Wave filmmaking can only get you so far. Eventually, the people demand to the entertained. And since the plot itself (a disposable reworking of the exact same origin story we saw just 10 years ago) is far too weak to support a two hour-plus movie, the last half of the film hinges on the action as Spider-Man does battle with The Lizard, the horribly mutated form of renowned genetics researcher Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).

Unfortunately, though Webb does a decent job of handling the kinetics of an action sequence, it’s just not all that thrilling to watch our hero fight a giant lizard. Their fight scenes are strictly by the numbers, with no real wit or flair to distinguish them from the literally hundreds of similar scenes we’ve seen and yawned at before.

This leaves the cast to pick up the pieces, and although Garfield and romantic interest Emma Stone (as teenage scientist Gwen Stacey) are both immensely appealing and talented young actors, the clunky screenplay never really allows them time to “click.” It doesn’t help that Stacey is only attracted to Parker after his transformation finds him beating up school bullies, painting her as a typical danger-seeking tart who falls for the bad boy.

It’s all kind of a mess, and even though “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a good-looking film with some definite high points, I see little potential for a future with this franchise. Perhaps in another decade they’ll try again, and by then we’ll all have learned that an appealing cast and competent filmmaker are not necessarily enough to save a movie whose screenwriters have no idea how to tell a story.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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