Spider-Man is Joan of Arc is Jesus is D’Artagnan is Ebenezer Scrooge is Juliet. We know how their stories are going to turn out, but we love watching new versions of their tales over and over and over again.
So whatever your thoughts about rebooting the Spider-Man franchise after a mere five years in mothballs, “The Amazing Spider-Man” winds up being a thrilling and, occasionally, even exhilarating spin on a familiar saga.
The fine team of screenwriters — James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac”) and ink-stained legends Steve Kloves and Alvin Sargent — don’t intuitively transpose the thrills of comic books onto the big screen with the same verve that Joss Whedon accomplished in “The Avengers,” but they cram together an origin story, a love story, a tortured-adolescence story and a monster movie with a surprising amount of finesse.
They also succeed in weaving together all the elements we know are coming (the spider bite, the discovery of powers, the death of Uncle Ben, the creation of the costume and the crime-fighting persona) in new ways — no easy feat for a character whose origins have been told and retold umpteen times in various media over the last half century.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” opens with two characters often ignored in the character’s mythos: Peter Parker’s biological parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) who, at the beginning of the film, are on the run and forced to deposit their young son with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).
Teenage Peter (Andrew Garfield) is something of a nerdy outsider, but not the milquetoast of earlier versions; this Peter rides a skateboard, wears contacts and defends punier classmates from the bullying of BMOC Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka, “Kaboom”). Of course, no teenager who looks like Andrew Garfield has ever been a nerdy outsider, but then not too many teen girl science whizzes and debate team members favor mini-skirts and thigh-high boots like Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, who becomes Peter’s girlfriend.
Finding notes his parents left behind, Peter tracks down his father’s old collaborator, Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans); the two had been studying animal-human genetics, in the hopes that, say, a reptile’s power to regrow its own tail could help Dr. Connors regenerate his missing arm. Peter gets the spider bite, Connors takes an experimental serum that turns him into the maniacal Lizard, and New York becomes their battleground, despite the best efforts of Gwen’s police-captain father (Denis Leary).
The film gets the expected story beats down pretty well, but where “Amazing” vaults past the Sam Raimi trilogy is in its breathtaking visuals, particularly in Spider-Man’s swings across Manhattan. Anyone who thought director Marc Webb, best known for “(500) Days of Summer,” would focus too much on the teen romance and not enough on the action will be gobsmacked at the breathless charge of these sequences. (Unless you’ve got really strong objections to 3-D and/or IMAX, pay the extra cost. It’s worth it.)
There were some moments I could live without (a scene where a bunch of generic thugs chase a newly-empowered Peter through an alley is so obviously choreographed it could be part of the troubled Spider-Man Broadway musical), while others took me totally by surprise. Our protagonist’s third-act heroics are matched by the brave and selfless efforts of regular people on the ground, including cops, construction workers and especially Gwen, who calls on both her scientific know-how and her pluck to help save the day.
Did we need another “Spider-Man” movie just now? Probably not — but then we didn’t necessarily need new versions of “The Three Stooges” or “21 Jump Street,” and both of those wound up being exceedingly pleasurable. It’s a bit naïve to accuse a Hollywood studio of exploiting a familiar commodity for profit, as though that weren’t business as usual. When said exploitation is handled so well (down to the best Stan Lee cameo to date in the Marvel movies), you might as well enjoy it.