New characters rescue familiar superhero film

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(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Back when Sony announced “The Amazing Spider-Man” as a reboot of the franchise after director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire bailed on a potential fourth installment, they might have been a little off. After all, a reboot implies a reinvention, and while “The Amazing Spider-Man” makes a few small tweaks to its hero’s origins, it’s really a remake of “Spider-Man,” a mere 10 years after that film hit theaters.

If you saw the 2002 original, or have any familiarity with Spider-Man’s history, you know most of the story already. The smart yet awkward Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is bitten by a radioactive spider, one that gives him the ability to climb walls and impossibly fast reflexes. He learns the consequences of his powers after his Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) death, and dedicates his life to fighting crime. “The Amazing Spider-Man” mixes in a few new elements, namely Peter’s interest in the circumstances that resulted in his living with his aunt and uncle. This ultimately leads him to Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose obsession with growing back a missing arm leads to his becoming the Lizard, a scaly, near-immortal beast.

In their reinvention of the franchise, Sony went with “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb. This could have been a total disaster, throwing a rookie director into very deep water, but Webb rises to the challenge admirably. His strongest scenes are still the bumbling, sweet moments when Peter and his crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) get to flirt with one another. However, Webb also delivers an exciting, satisfying spectacle of a finale, and his use of the film’s Manhattan setting, particularly as Peter is first learning about his powers, is a franchise best. Webb also made some truly inspired casting choices, ranging from Martin Sheen’s warm take on Uncle Ben to Denis Leary, whose role lacks his trademark bite but still manages to play out an interesting, vital character arc.

Garfield was an interesting choice for Peter Parker, cast long before Garfield started amassing Oscar buzz for his performance in “The Social Network,” and he nails the character’s trademark awkward charisma. His take on Spider-Man is much more humorous than Maguire’s, and much more fun to watch. Garfield plays Parker as much smarter than the original films gave him credit for as well, something that comes across in small details like Garfield’s boyish face in his father’s oversized glasses, or in the big ones like the web shooters Parker builds for himself.

Casting Stone was another bold move, especially when they asked her to play Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s love interest from the first three films. However, so early in the story, the characters are more or less interchangeable, and the gracelessly charming way Peter relates to his love interests is more or less the same with both characters.

A major problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man” is, frankly, that there’s no reason it couldn’t just be “Spider-Man 4.” The James Bond films get away with recasting their hero without much confusion, so why can’t superhero films adapt to the same standard? The Raimi films had also spent time setting up Dylan Baker’s Curtis Connors, who Raimi planned to transform into the Lizard this time around, and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see Baker’s take on the villain. While Ifans is perfectly fine in the role, it seems to demand a subtle creepiness that Baker could have delivered.

More importantly, “The Amazing Spider-Man” spends half its runtime telling the exact same story that “Spider-Man” told just 10 years ago. Audiences may have short memories, but it’s still a waste of time to tell Spider-Man’s origin story if you’re just going to wheel out the exact same narrative with a few cosmetic tweaks to it. “The Amazing Spider-Man” may not be telling a particularly new or original story, but thankfully, Webb still keeps it exciting, coaxes strong performances out of each of his actors, and crafts a familiar but entertaining superhero film that will surely keep you sated until “The Dark Knight Rises” hits later this month.