I owe a lot to Spider-Man.
I owe him countless hours of childhood joy, time spent reading comic books as a kid and marveling (so to speak) at the friendly neigh-borhood web-slinger’s daring exploits. I owe him for valuable life lessons he taught me: With great power comes great responsibility, and when you’re under pressure, it always helps to crack jokes. I owe him for an enduring apprec-iation of the redheaded female, courtesy of Spidey’s wife, Mary Jane.
In short, Spider-Man was the defining superhero of my youth. Superman was too square-jawed, an overgrown Boy Scout surrounded by idiots who couldn’t tell he was just Clark Kent sans spectacles. Batman was cool, yes, but ... cool. Cold. Detached. The X-Men were always compelling, but their stories were sometimes downright depressing.
But Spidey? He was bright and colorful, smart, witty, realized that a mask that covered his entire face might be helpful, and most of all, underneath the costume, he was just like me: A shy, nerdy kid who didn’t fit in, but gained all the confidence in the world when he pretended to become someone else.
That was the idea on which comic book legend Stan Lee created Spider-Man in 1962, for the common-for-the-era title “Amazing Fantasy.” It was part of the dawning of a new age of comics: Characters who were real people behind the masks, with real problems with which readers (particularly the youth audience that dominated the comics market at the time) could identify.
Now, 50 years after we first met Peter Parker on the page — and a scant 10 years after Tobey Maguire nailed the character to a T in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film —reflecting on the nature of the character makes me realize I’m getting old. Because the character himself has changed to reflect a new audience.
In the new film “The Amazing Spider-Man,” actor Andrew Garfield takes over the eponymous role, for better or worse. Having loved Maguire/Raimi’s first two films (I’m still trying to block the third from my memory), I was skeptical going in, wondering if this reboot of the Spidey mythos would even be tolerable. From the previews, I could tell this wasn’t my father’s Spider-Man ... nor mine.
And it wasn’t. That said, it was an enjoyable film anyway, and stood on its own two feet thanks to a sharp cast, a solid story, and the realization that everything changes generation to generation ... even our heroes.
Garfield portrays Parker not as a brainy bookworm but as some-one not too unlike the heartthrobs of a film like “Twilight,” with spiky hair, a teenage imperative to appear “cool,” and a skateboard in hand. He barely even wears Peter’s iconic glasses. He’s also no wallflower — whereas Past Peter would shrink from a fight until he got his super powers courtesy of one fatefully-placed radioactive spi-der, New Peter steps in to stop a bully from beating up another kid. Yes, Peter gets his clock cleaned doing so, but his approach is much more aggressive and modern than what we’re used to from the character.
And that’s clearly by design. I have no idea what’s been going on in the comics for the last 15 years, so maybe this reflects a transformation in print as well. However, I can see the creative minds behind this film deciding the modern young person might not identify with Peter Parker, School Geek. Today’s teen — a product of an era full of TV advertising, cell phones, Internet shorthand, and, well, skateboards — requires a different role model, someone just as much an odd duck in his own way but not someone you’d feel sorry for when you saw him. That’s who this Peter Parker is — and Garfield, to his credit, makes him endearing (particularly when he fumbles his words trying to ask out Emma Stone’s science-crazy cutie Gwen Stacy).
Where the new version fails is when Garfield becomes Spider-Man. Ol’ Webhead always tossed off glib one-liners while fighting bad guys, and Maguire felt perfectly natural doing this on the big screen. Garfield’s Spider-Man simply isn’t that funny ... and when he does try, he comes off as a bit of a jerk actually. I don’t know if that’s a failure on the part of the screenwriters, or if they succeeded in representing today’s teen but current kids just don’t have a good sense of humor. Either way, the best laughs in the film come from the actor I expected to be a bright spot, Denis Leary, portraying Gwen’s policeman father who isn’t thrilled about Spider-Man’s brand of vigilante justice (In the past, it was Peter’s bosses at the Daily Bugle making his alter-ego out to be a bad guy; now it’s his girlfriend’s dad. Poor Spidey — so misunderstood).
Rather than the Green Goblin or Venom, this new film dips deep into the hero’s rogues gallery for a fairly obscure Big Bad named the Lizard, a.k.a. Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Thanks to Connors’ more-mysterious-than-meets-the-eye connections to Peter’s late parents and his new love interest, what could have been a boring villain ended up capturing some of the same angst that was felt between Spidey and Doctor Octopus or the Goblin Osborn Family Jamboree in the past films. The stories are at their best when our hero is torn because of some family connection or source of sympathy between him and his antagonist, and Ifans delivered (even if the Lizard did look a bit Jar-Jar Binks-ish at times).
Director Marc Webb, the one who gave us the unconventional romantic comedy “(500) Day of Summer,” brings some of the same postmodern melancholy sweetness displayed there to the Peter-Gwen romantic dynamic. Gwen never feels like an unattainable princess on a pedestal the way Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane did; when she mutters, “I’m in trouble” at a key point, referring to her attraction to our protagonist, we identify with her as much as with Peter. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives.
Webb always does well to bring back the spirit of “New Yorkers coming together to help each other” found in the first Raimi film — that 2002 “Spider-Man” was the first real post-9/11 blockbuster, and brought the nation together in a wonderful, healing way — and it’s nice to see Hollywood vets like Martin Sheen and Sally Field as the Uncle Ben and Aunt May characters we’ve come to know so well (Field brings us a very different version of the aunt who would serve as the orphaned Peter’s guardian growing up, less frail and more relatable).
There’s a lot to like about this version of Spider-Man, so long as one accepts that it’s simply a different vision of him, a different interpretation in the same way characters like Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes have been reimagined over and over again.
I still prefer Tobey Maguire in the role though. But Garfield ... you’re growing on me. Just work on your jokes, okay?
"The Amazing Spider-Man," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence. Running time: 138 minutes. Three stars out of four.