We pick up the tale of The Amazing Spider-Man at the beginning. Or the beginning of the middle. Certainly not the beginning of the end, for the end of this particular thread of the Marvel Comics multi-franchise will never be reached. Call it the middle of the beginning.
Peter Parker, played by Andrew Garfield, is a picked-on teenage nerd in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s odd to see British actor Garfield, from The Social Network and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, skulking around the halls of an American high school. When he’s not getting pummeled by jocks or becoming infatuated with a blond classmate named Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone from The Help), science fan Peter burns to snoop around the headquarters of biotech firm Oscorp, where the seemingly amicable Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is conducting experiments in cross-species genetics. That’s a subject dear to Peter because his researcher father was working in that field right before his puzzling disappearance years earlier.
Coincidences accumulate. Peter gets bitten by a mutant spider at the lab and starts his transformation into a crime-fighting superhero. Movie touchstones abound. At first, bewildered Peter behaves like the Jeff Goldblum character in The Fly, then he settles down into a kind of Anthony Perkins in tights, forever ducking his head in the presence of Gwen and her police-captain father (Denis Leary). Spidey’s first forays have an ingratiating amateurish tinge, à la Kick-Ass. Meanwhile, as the mad doctor goes through his Nutty Professor paces, we’re faced with a sober, restrained Ifans, seemingly in rebellion against his company’s predatory profit motive and Spider-Man’s supremacy.
We begin to wish that The Amazing Spider-Man had the same joie de vivre as The Avengers. Aside from the thrilling fight scene in the sewer with Lizard Man, the movie maintains a somber tone that saps whatever energy director Marc Webb can inject into it. As usual with A-list special-effects productions that tend to run long, we take note of the two-hour, eighteen-minute running time and mentally look for ways to lose the extra eighteen minutes — despite the fact that things like people’s salaries, product placements, etc., are built into them. America needs those eighteen minutes. Garfield and especially Ifans, clearly out of their comfort zones, seem baffled by the scenario, as if they’re aware they’re only place holders in an endless succession of sequels. Spidey is truly God’s Lonely Man, and the Arach War can never be finally won.