Hardcore fans of Marvel Comics' legendary teenage superhero Spider-Man and the three summer blockbuster movies the pulp crime series has spawned within the past decade (2002, 2004 and 2007), might be forgiven for casting a jaundiced eye on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which at first blush seems like taking three steps backward to make one debatable leap forward.
This so-called “rebooting” of the franchise involves some delicate juggling of tried-and-true foundation elements and several nifty new wrinkles, taking the film on a path that seems to handily pay its dues to picky comic-book fanatics and to court the more casual crowd of summer popcorn munchers merely expecting a bang for their box-office bucks.
Stepping in for crafty veteran director Sam Raimi (who seemed to be running out of steam by 2007's “Spider-Man 3”) is Marc Webb, a daring choice as a newcomer to the blockbuster fraternity, having been hired on the success of his smart 2009 romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer.”
And slipping smoothly into the sneakers of bullied high-schooler Peter Parker (and the silky spandex tights of shadowy crime-fighter Spider-Man) is slight but hunky Andrew Garfield, a stage and screen marvel who brings more of a James Dean broodiness to the role than did the more callow and chipper Tobey Maguire.
Those are two of the more radical departures from the earlier trilogy — Webb contributing a certain energized grittiness to the screen that contravenes the pastel-hued, synthetic quality of the previous films; and Garfield essaying a skateboarding Peter who is awkward and vulnerable but nobody's nerd. He's not afraid to confront injustice, stand up to bullies and take his licks. Also, Garfield convincingly butches up when he dons the red-and-blue tights and handles the action stuff with lithe athleticism.
A lot of time is spent upfront retelling the familiar “origin” story in which Peter lives with his loving Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field), gets bullied at school, flirts with a pretty girl (this time Emma Stone's kooky-sexy Gwen Stacy instead of hot girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson), visits a research lab, gets bitten by a genetically engineered spider and suddenly gains incredible arachnid-like powers.
There is an intriguing flashback sequence involving Peter's absent father Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) suggesting some dire conspiracy involving his work in cross species genetics and regeneration and leading Peter to seek out his dad's former colleague Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a conscientious, one-armed researcher whose passion to help mankind is at war with a dark obsession to regain his lost limb.
The rest hardly bears synopsizing as it follows the familiar Marvel mythology, relating a tragic crime and Peter's halting transformation from angry vigilante with rudimentary, spidery super powers to the nimble, cocky, web-slinging crime fighter.
Garfield is a graceful revelation as the newly minted superhero, and the supporting cast is superb: Sheen and Field both earthy and wise; Stone spunky, sexy and smart; Ifans cerebral and maniacal, and Denis Leary as Gwen's police chief father stern and straight-laced.
True to Marvel's tradition, the villain of the piece is a well-meaning scientist whose experiments go horribly awry. While Ifans is fine as Dr. Connors, The Lizard seems merely a by-the-numbers CGI monster, slithery and raging. His battles with Spidey have a sort of pat, forgone-conclusion feeling that rob the last act of any real sense of urgency.
Still, “The Amazing Spider-Man” sets a solid foundation and poses a few intriguing mysteries for the inevitable sequels. If it too often seems to cover old territory, it does so with polish and flair and a promise of deeper, darker things to come.
‘The Amazing Spider-Man'
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field, Martin Sheen
(Sequences of action and violence)