Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield in "The Amazing Spider-Man." (Jaimie Trueblood, Columbia…)
The unmistakable air of Hollywood calculation hangs over"The Amazing Spider-Man,"but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The studios wouldn't survive if they didn't make smart bets from time to time to balance their multiple bonehead maneuvers, and this new superhero saga is a shrewd wager that mostly — but not entirely — pays off.
The first piece of calculation was the determination that, only a decade past the first "Spider-Man"film and five years after "Spider-Man3", the world was ready for a complete reboot of the franchise, starting the story from square one with Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, a.k.a. the Man, and Emma Stone as First Girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Given the hundreds of millions that have been sunk into marketing, that part of the bet will likely pay off.
The second nervy maneuver was to hire Marc Webb, whose only previous feature was the inexpensive indie romance"(500) Days of Summer"to helm a major summer tentpole with a budget estimated at $220 million.
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What executives remembered was that the relationship between stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst was a key factor in the $2.5 billion the three previous "Spider-Man" films earned. If Webb took care of business there — which he has — they could always surround him with canny Oscar-nominated veterans like cinematographer John Schwartzman and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen — as well as four members of the stunt coordinating Armstrong family — to take care of the heavy lifting the major action sequences demand.
Effective as that strategy is at times, its de facto division of responsibility means that "Spider-Man" feels less directed with a consistent vision than simply cobbled together. What especially falls through the cracks are the nonromantic, nonaction parts of the story, which take up a healthy chunk of a movie that has been allowed to unreasonably bloat to 2 hours, 18 minutes.
The result is that "Spider-Man" goes in and out of focus. This is a film that is memorable in pieces but not as a whole, doing enough right things in key areas to ensure box-office success but permitted to drift into earnest pokiness when the spotlight is not on.
The best piece, obviously, is the relationship between Garfield's Peter Parker and Stone's Gwen Stacy. Not just because this is a strength of the director and the James Vanderbilt-Alvin Sargent-Steve Kloves screenplay but also because of the abilities of the actors in question.
Though most American audiences know him only through a supporting role in"The Social Network,"Garfield is indisputably one of Britain's top young actors, someone whose impressive skills are visible in such diverse films as "Red Riding Trilogy,""Never Let Me Go"and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,"not to mention an extraordinary Tony-nominated performance as the troubled Biff in the recent Broadway revival of"Death of a Salesman."
Having an actor of this high level of ability goes a long way toward making the implausible plausible, and Garfield also brings an interesting whiff of James Dean-type teen anguish to the role of a young man whose parents up and disappeared when he was small.
Because Garfield can be quite handsome in a brooding kind of outsider way, the crush attractive Gwen Stacy has on her fellow classmate and ace photographer at New York's mythical Midtown Science High is plausible as well.
Though her résumé tends toward lighter fare ("Easy A,""Crazy, Stupid, Love,""The Help"), Stone is gifted as well. So whether it's getting to know each other, getting romantic or fighting the villainous Lizard, the times these two interact on screen are all they're supposed to be.
Before all that can happen, however, back we go into Peter Parker's past and watch as his brainy scientist dad (a cameo by Campbell Scott) disappears from his life, leaving him to be raised by his kindly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and even kindlier Aunt May (Sally Field).
Things get more dramatic when Peter stumbles upon an old briefcase filled with perplexing scientific formulas, which leads him to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans, very different from his wacky turn as roommate Spike in "Notting Hill"), who turns out to be an old colleague of his dad's.
Dr. Connors, as it happens, is a top scientist at the all-powerful OsCorp firm, working on cross-species genetics and hoping for "a world without weakness." What he ends up with is something else again.
That visit to OsCorp also leads Peter to the celebrated spider bite that brings on unintended super powers and the scene on the subway ride home when he inadvertently discovers his expanded abilities is one of the film's most amusing.
Though the film's conclusion is also appropriately rousing and contains "Spider-Man's" most impressive 3-D vistas, it has to overcome the burden of that over-extended running time and the parallel tendency to treat Parker's story with excessive reverence.
Even the Lizard, heaven help him, though effective in moments, is not quite an opponent for the ages. Garfield and Stone are good enough to ensure that you won't miss their predecessors, but you may well wonder where Doc Ock is now that we really need him.