Every time someone says The Amazing Spider-Man is better than Sam Raimi’s trilogy I cringe. In fact, it hits me right in the heart, because as a critic I aim to understand how and why people respond to films in certain ways – and so I sympathize – but I also present my own interpretation, which says that’s bollocks and has nothing to do with the quality of the actual film.
It’s nearly two weeks since The Amazing Spider-Man came out. In less than a week it’ll be a moot point because The Dark Knight Rises will dominate film discussion for the rest of summer alongside the still-omnipresent The Avengers. I was going to write a bigger, much more in-depth article on The Amazing Spider-Man closer to its release, but I’ve dawdled too long and other critics have since explained my position with greater clarity. Check out reviews by Bob Chipman and Film Critic Hulk to see my complete stance on the film with other great points I never thought of.
So why am I still writing about this film if it’s been dissected to death and will cease to be relevant come July 20? Because there’s one angle I feel needs to be attacked, twice as hard as the other critics have hit it because this is the point I’ve seen in Facebook statuses and heard in many film discussions. It concerns the film’s two leads, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and their on-screen romance.
When people talk about The Amazing Spider-Man I don’t hear mention of the jaw-dropping special effects (they’re adequate), the brilliant action scenes (they’re bland, unmemorable) or even the engrossing narrative (it’s riddled with plot holes and incomplete threads, saddled with a rote script rehashing the first Spider-Man – utterly milquetoast). They talk about Andrew Garfield rubbing noses with Emma Stone, two attractive actors who also happen to be good at their job. And yes, in the film the two are endearing, they have great chemistry, and it’s more adorable when you find out they’re dating in real life. It’s the only reason the film is worth seeing at all.
Their love scenes, taken alone, are nice moments. In any other conventional romantic comedy they might be truly memorable. The problem is this isn’t a conventional rom-com; this is Spider-Man, the story of an average kid who gains spider-like superpowers and must selflessly defend New York after the death of his uncle, and Garfield and Stone muttering incoherent “I like you’s” tells us nothing about Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, or the world they’re in. It has nothing to do with the Spider-Man story and distracts from the film’s real problems, which are many and frequent.
The Amazing Spider-Man belongs to a long tradition of film including, on the positive end of the spectrum, Hawks’s The Big Sleep and Titanic, and on the horrible, “bleach my mind to forget” end the Affleck-Lopez vehicle Gigli. It has a pair of attractive star leads it wants to flaunt for an eager public, so it flaunts them as themselves – not characters but the actors we pay to see. Marc Webb did the exact same thing in (500) Days of Summer, where Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel went by different names but played themselves once their love scenes rolled around. It’s a common practice and not necessarily a bad one. But it comes with rules, the chief one being: “Build the story so it coexists peacefully with the stars.”
And in both his films, (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man, Marc Webb just can’t get that.
In (500) Days of Summer, he built around the Levitt-Deschanel dynamic a shallow but ostensibly “smart” story about what love is and why we fall in love and all those big questions nobody knows the answer to and shouldn’t bother answering directly. Self-aware touches like narration, split screen, music numbers and animation only drive the point further that (500) Days of Summer wants to look, act, and maybe be smart, but it can’t manage any of those. The end result is a pale imitation of Woody Allen’s oeuvre, stripped of its compassion down to the superficial technical touches, with two lead characters whose actions are supposed to illuminate love even though it makes no sense because the characters make no sense: they’re just Deschanel and Levitt being cute together.
If that’s what the movie wanted to be about this wouldn’t be a problem. Howard Hawks made The Big Sleep, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler hardboiled detective novel, but reworked it to focus on real-life couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The result has all the mobsters, death, blackmail and convoluted plotting you’d expect from film noir and the crime genre, but it also has Bogart and Bacall flirting and exchanging the raunchiest dialogue you could hear in Code-era Hollywood. The flirting played into the film’s sleuthing scenes because both were written with the same sharp, witty dialogue Chandler was known for, while Bacall and Bogart have stage personas marked by dark, gritty mystique – exactly what film noir needs. The Big Sleep never pretended it was making lofty statements about the human condition. It was a pulpy, exciting film, celebrating the relationship at its heart, pushing them through a convoluted-for-its-own-sake plot and kidding itself the whole way.
It’s an unabashed star vehicle that’s still considered one of the best film of all time because it’s honest with its intentions and it makes them work. (500) Days of Summer is not; The Amazing Spider-Man is even worse. It doesn’t even try to strike a balance.
When The Amazing Spider-Man begins, Peter Parker – or Garfield, as he might as well be called – is the unpopular kid at school. A girl asks him to take pictures of her… and her boyfriend (Waa-waaa), he can barely reach in his locker because of a couple making out against it (Wa-wa-waaaaa), and the school’s big bully makes fun of him a little (Wa-waa… etc.). Raimi’s Spider-Man began the same way in every movie but the third, with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man facing an uphill battle to get any respect, let alone the girl of his dreams. It set a tone it intended to elaborate on, carefully, with enough suspense to keep the audience riveted, waiting to see if Maguire and Dunst would get together. It didn’t reward us straight away. It knew the basic rules of drama.
Five minutes into Webb’s Spider-Man, Garfield bumps into Emma Stone and they start flirting immediately. Twenty, thirty minutes in and she’s invited him over for dinner with her family, which is followed immediately by a kiss. And we still have an hour-and-a-half to go.
Even films focused on a cute star couple must use them in a way that’s dramatically effective. The Big Sleep toyed with the question of whether Bogart and Bacall’s characters could get together, let alone trust each other, before rewarding us with a happy ending. Titanic made DiCaprio and Winslet’s romance so prominent in order to make the ship’s sinking, and the death that entails, all the more striking and terrifying, because it forces tragedy on the relationship we’ve been rooting for. The Amazing Spider-Man brings Stone and Garfield together and then… it just mucks around with them until the end of the film, when some drama surfaces only to be squandered. The character’s romance has no effect on the plot nor vice versa.
It’s not like there aren’t any opportunities. Halfway through the film, Garfield reveals to Stone his secret identity as Spider-Man. At this time Stone’s father is staunchly opposed to Spider-Man, dubbing him a terrorist and a threat to the city’s peace, and Garfield has placed himself in a serious of increasingly dangerous confrontations. Stone has every reason to be wary of her boyfriend being a web-slinging vigilante, both because of her father’s relation to him and the possibility he might be killed at any time. She could draw away from him, protect him obsessively, get split between duty to her father and Garfield… So much could be done in just this one moment.
Except all that happens is Stone kind of gasps and they go back to kissing. She has no trouble keeping her dad from finding out and when Garfield stumbles into her room covered in bruises she doesn’t worry about what he’s doing. The film keeps trucking along, dramatically inert, sterile as the labs Emma Stone works at.
What we have then are a series of scenes where Stone and Garfield never develop as a couple. They start off liking each other, continue to like each other, and they end liking each other. Worse – maintaining the status quo requires the film destroy everything that’s important about the character of Spider-Man. The original Peter Parker understands once he becomes a crime fighter that he’s putting his family and friends in danger. If his enemies find out who he is his there’s no telling who might get hurt. Raimi’s Spider-Man understood this and made it the main narrative thrust – the reason Peter can’t be with Mary Jane right away. It also means Peter is by nature a person torn between upholding his principles and satisfying his desire to have happy relationships with the ones he loves.
The Amazing Spider-Man turns Peter Parker into a lovesick jerk who will ignore everything if it means fulfilling his libido. That hint of drama I mentioned at the end of the movie? It’s the first time Garfield’s Peter is forced to decide if he should take responsibility and sacrifice his own happiness or continue clinging to his personal feelings. He chooses the latter, of course, with only a minute’s worth of deliberation, and with a line of dialogue so selfish it cancels out everything Spider-Man stands for and what the movie was building up to. It’s ridiculous, aggravating, and all done so the filmmakers can devote more time to Stone and Garfield being cuddly in the sequel.
Maybe it’s nice to see stars having a happy relationship for a short while. For a moment it’s kind of sweet. Stretched across a two-hour movie, it becomes a drag unless we’re given further reason to care. Raimi made us care by giving his characters very specific reasons for their romance. Peter Parker had known Mary Jane all his life, they lived next door, they encouraged each other’s dreams. When Mary Jane decides at the end of the first Spider-Man to tell Peter Parker she loves him we know exactly why: because she realizes he’s always been there for her. When Peter turns her down it’s also for clear reasons, stemming directly from his character and personality: he doesn’t want her in harm’s way. I can’t explain the decisions Garfield and Stone make to be with each other besides: “Because they’d be good together.”
What works in the short run won’t last beyond the initial rush of satisfaction. A month from now – even less, if it hasn’t happened already – I don’t think anyone will remember much about what Garfield and Stone did in The Amazing Spider-Man, let alone anything else from the film. Even Spider-Man 3, the bloated mess that it turned out to be, still stands out fresh in memory, for good or bad, because its characters make decisions, develop, and change (Would we remember disco dancing Peter if he was like that from the beginning?) The worse fate is for a film to travel a flat, unbending line. Then it’s not just bad; it’s forgotten.