Having battled all forms of evil over the years, Spider-Man faces perhaps his toughest challenge yet: managing expectations. Just a decade since Sam Raimi first successfully brought the daring wall-crawler to the screen in a trio of creatively satisfying mega blockbusters, fortuitously named newbie Marc Webb has been tasked with re-birthing a franchise while the corpse is still warm. He mostly pulls it off by smartly putting the focus more on the man than the spider, and staying largely faithful to the formula that has sustained the popular character for five decades.
Lanky Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) inherits the mask from Tobey Maguire, and he plays high school outcast Peter Parker more as an introverted, slightly emo genius than the amiably goofy nerd that Maguire portrayed. This Peter already has the guts to stand up to jock knucklehead Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) even if he gets thoroughly stomped while trying to protect an even wimpier classmate. This Pete is still shy but, with his skateboard and Army jacket, has a cooler demeanor, one that catches the eye of blond cutie Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter's original, lost love from the comics. Emma, all too conveniently is the daughter of a hardass police captain (Dennis Leary) and works as an intern at research giant Oscorp, which is also home to brilliant but emotionally damaged geneticist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The tortured doc lost an arm, and now labors in the field of "cross species genetics" in an effort to regrow missing limbs. He thinks he's found an answer in the DNA of various lizard species, and, under corporate pressure for fast results, he uses himself as a test subject. You can guess that won't end well.
Even more coincidentally, Peter's Dad was a colleague of Connors, on the verge of a breakthrough before he and his wife were killed in a mysterious plane crash. Before long, the hyper-curious young Parker is following Pop's paper trail, and snooping around the lab, where he gets bitten by a gene-spliced super spider, and the stage is set for a reptile vs. arachnid showdown.
All the elements will be familiar by now, not just to geeks but to the casual fans as well, though Webb and the team of screenwriters have made some very minor tweaks that have more to do with attitude than detail. Everything is rooted in real emotion, and the excellent cast is up to the job of making these characters into real and recognizable humans. Stone is typically enchanting, and her chemistry with Garfield is palpable, leading to a moment almost as memorable as the famed upside-down kiss between Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the original. Also strong are the supporting players, such as Sally Field as Aunt May and Martin Sheen as Peter's doomed role model, Uncle Ben. Caring about the people involved helps immensely in the third act, when the movie is overtaken by dazzling effects work and epic fights with the somewhat generic, dinosaur-like baddie.
One drag is that James Horner's bland score implies the sound of something heroic without ever inspiring. Hearing this pleasantly forgettable stuff, I longed for Danny Elfman's more eclectic and ballsy music from the trilogy, though even that lacked an iconic, hummable theme like the ones Superman or Batman had.
Though it's not on his official stat sheet, one of Spider-Man's greatest powers is the ability to send electric sparkles up the viewer's spinal column; it took a while, but I did feel those familiar tingles creeping through my body, very late into the run time of this ambitious reboot. The moment of electricity finally comes when our fledgling wall crawler gets a timely assist from a teamster who's son Spidey had previously rescued. It's the sort of thing that the best superhero fiction is capable of — a warm, ennobling fantasy about benevolent demigods who are empowered not just by pseudoscience, but by the adoration of the saved, and the purity of doing what is difficult and dangerous, simply because it is right and just. If that doesn't make your spidey-sense buzz, I can't help you.
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