Much has been said about this reboot of the 2002 classic starring Tobey Maguire. In the tradition of many comic book movie makeovers (think Batman's Dark Knight), The Amazing Spider-Man is packaged to be edgier and grittier than the original, using the backstory of Peter Parker's parents as the impetus that drives him to seek answers and eventually be bitten by that life-altering arachnid. In theory, I can see why this might seem like a more well-thought-out alternative to being bit by a spider on a school trip. But in practice the effect is drawn out and directionless, eating up so much of the movie's beginning that I couldn't help but look at my watch. I longed for the simplicity and quick pace of the first movie, a theme that was to become increasingly apparent throughout the next two hours.
Even more disturbing than the cumbersome plot line is the change in Peter's character. Maguire's Peter Parker was articulate, self-effacing, and sympathetic. You (or least I) really felt for this high school nerd-turned-photojournalist just trying to make sense of it all. Yet Andrew Garfield's version speaks in mumbles so unintelligible that I honestly wondered if he was supposed to be portraying a Spidey with a speech impediment. What's more, the new Peter Parker is more snarky than witty and more brash than brave, a strange hybrid of absent-minded scientist and half-baked badass that doesn't pack the same punch as the first more authentically nerdy Parker being hurled, wonderstruck and unprepared, into a world he doesn't understand. Garfield's Parker is about dispassionate science and empty bravado, whereas Maguire's is about imagination and self-discovery, a tone echoed by that movie's colorful and dare I say whimsical, just-leapt-off-the-pages-of-a-comic-book sets. By contrast, the sets of the remake are dark, somber, and uninspiring.
Finally, the switch from Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson to Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy falls flat. Because I'm a girl (as opposed to a comic book-toting fan boy), I'm going to spend a lot of time here. I understand that Gwen doesn't come out of nowhere, that she does, indeed, precede Mary Jane in the comic books and is in this vein a more accurate choice of leading lady. But in the realm of the movies, it was Mary Jane who came first, and, at least to me, makes for the more genuine heroine.
In Spider-Man, MJ and Peter grew up next door to each other in the same shabby row homes, establishing a shared history that lends depth to Peter's unrequited love for the pretty and popular MJ. MJ is kinder and more layered than her A-list status suggests, traits revealed by her distaste for her boyfriend's boorish behavior and her post-graduation move to Manhattan to become an actress. It takes character to chase down a goal that's not only unattainable but frowned upon, and MJ's courage in doing so renders her as gutsy and vulnerable. She's both when she runs into Peter and tells him she's an actress only to have her boss at the diner where she really works scream after her that her register's short. She shouts back, smiling ruefully as she opens her trench coat to reveal her waitress uniform. Then she tells Peter that she's dating his best friend Harry (James Franco), establishing the love triangle that gnaws at us for the remainder of the movie. Compounded with her infatuation with Spider-Man (who could forget that famously steamy upside-down kiss?), Peter and MJ's dynamic makes for a compelling love story. Is the whole girl-next-door-on-a-pedestal-thing something that we've seen before? Well, yeah. But that's what makes it so good and what makes us root for Peter. Cliches, after all, are cliches for a reason.
The romance in The Amazing Spider-Man is completely different. Peter and Gwen are not friends; in fact, they barely know each other. Gwen is an over-achiever who spends her spare time tutoring the class basketball star and leading the Oscorp Labs intern program (hey, she's not a student at Midtown Science High for nothing). Although I respect that she's smart, the science angle is just as uninteresting and unglamorous here as it is when Peter is working out algorithms, and as a result Gwen comes off as a little uppity and wooden. Peter's garbled wooing of her is painful to the ears, and it is a mystery to me why she falls for him in the first place. Even more unbelievable is that their very first date is dinner with Gwen's parents (her father is the no-nonsense police captain, played by Denis Leary), which Peter bungles from the start by arriving outside Gwen's bedroom window instead of at the front door. As if all of this isn't contrived enough, Peter tells Gwen that he's Spider-Man just after dinner! Actually, he says, "I've been bitten," to which Gwen dreamily replies, "Me too" in an exchange so farcical I couldn't help but wonder if it was making fun of itself. I get that this big if premature reveal was probably designed to make Gwen more of an equal partner and less of a damsel in distress. But it came at the expense of romantic tension and general plot suspense, not to mention being just plain out of character given Peter and Gwen's lack of chemistry.
The Amazing Spider-Man is meant to be more modern, more real, and more indie than its predecessor. In some ways it is. But it lacks the heart of the original. Admittedly, that's the opinion of someone who came of age along with that original, and who is not the target audience of the remake. Still, it's the heart of any superhero saga that holds it together, cutting through the special effects and the bad guys to make it amazing.