It’s a shame really, because the Lizard, the villain for this first outing with our new Spider-Man, should be great. He’s a perfect foil to Peter Parker – a genius scientist, who gains super powers due to some gene-splicing. In this new incarnation, he’s also a former colleague of Peter’s geneticist father, and the mentor of new squeeze, Gwen Stacey. Unfortunately, he’s also crap.
Quite apart from the not very good design – he looks like a leprous incredible Hulk – and the even less good use of an all-digital character, which at best seems out of place, and at worst looks like a cut scene from the inevitable X-Box game, he’s also dull. A semi-intelligent beast, rampaging around the streets of New York. It’s the same thing we’ve seen done much better before, most recently in The Incredible Hulk, but also in Cloverfield, King Kong* and Godzilla (actually, that’s not fair, Godzilla was awful, but the point still stands). He’s also nowhere near as interesting as his alter ego, Curt Connors. In fairness, it’s not just The Lizard with that problem, but more on that in a second.
This lack of a decent bad guy, and certainly his lack of any real motivations (yes he has a villainous scheme, but it’s as crappy as the CGI) causes the film real problems. It begins to go flaccid about half way through the second act, and although it picks up every so often, it quickly falls back down again.
Most of the flat periods involve a Computer Generated Spider-Man doing battle with a Computer Generated Lizard, but it’s not the fact that the characters are clearly sprites on a screen that causes the problems, instead it’s the fact that most of these fights are inconsequential. We know that there’s another fifty minutes of screen time, and with a big green monster, who only serves as a punching bag for a bad guy, we know that he’s not going to be defeated yet.
And that’s only one of the problems with the movie. It feels oddly paced, as if someone is speeding it up and slowing it down, apparently at random. It also has the inevitable 21st century action issue, where the camera moves a little too quickly for us to be able to know exactly who is punching whom and why. Moreover, it has the very real air of a movie that’s had a lot of Studio level tweaking. There is an entire sequence in the film, from the end of an encounter between Spidey and New York’s finest, through to his final conflict that feels horribly twee, and entirely crow barred in to appeal to the US domestic audience. An example of New Yorkers coming together that could have been lifted from the post 9/11 reshoots on the original Raimi Spider-Man movie. And it’s not alone, but simply the best example that springs to mind.
But, while these things should be utterly unforgivable faults, they’re not, because more than any other, this really is a Spider-Man movie. Yes, we’ve had movies called ‘Spider-Man’ before, we’ve had the red and blue suit, and the hero’s been called ‘Peter Parker’, but none of them ever got the tone right**. Peter was a whiny git, who deserved to lose every fight and never get the girl, while Mary-Jane Dunst had, over the course of three films, all the character development of a doormat.
Now, in Garfield-Peter, we have the guy who millions of readers have identified with from page one. He’s sharp, funny and sometimes gets in trouble because of it. He’s also a decent guy, who would put himself in harm’s way to help other people out. And he’s a genius. More to the point, in this new incarnation of the character, he’s all of these things before he gets super powers. Which not only makes him more likeable, but also makes more sense. After all, if Peter were only motivated by revenge, why would he ever help anyone?
It does also lead to another slight issue for the film, which is that Peter Parker is far more interesting than Spider-Man, but that’s always been a problem with the character. Indeed, the scene in which Spidey is most endearing and engaging – one where he rescues a boy from a car – is endearing and engaging because in that moment Garfield is playing Peter, and not Spider-Man.
The tone is also perfect. It’s fun and humorous, but at times poignant, managing to be sincere, without being too serious. And although there’s a very clear influence from the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, Marc Webb has certainly has his stamp over it; there are some moments that feel very much like 500 Days of Summer. Obviously the romantic element between Peter and Gwen has that feel, but also a lot of the interaction between Peter, and Dennis Leary’s Captain Stacey.
It’s also worth mentioning the cinematography. John Schwartzman’s previous work is pretty mundane, but here everything is lit beautifully. In particular, an early scene with Peter in a fluorescent room, filled with Spiders matches anything Avatar has to offer for beautiful spectacle, while a fight between Spider-Man and The Lizard in the sewers of New York are simply beautiful.
It’s true that this is a retelling of a story we’ve seen before – albeit in a better way, with more engaging characters and a villain who, whilst not great, is at least not a Power Ranger – and for that, it will no doubt have its critics, but for fans of the comics, particularly those who found Raimi’s take a little lacking, it’s also a much better, and more satisfying and incredibly entertaining movie.
( (3/5) if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder about it being a reboot).
*the 1933 version, not the Jackson one.
**Yes, even Spider-Man II
The most menacing scene in the film is a stilted conversation between Peter and Connors