The third instalment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series had been met with a more divisive critical reaction, but the box office was still high, indicating that audiences were still willing to go watch a Spider-Man movie regardless of what critics were saying about it. A fourth film was in active development, with a script being prepped by James Vanderbilt, and with Raimi and his cast all set to return, with a May 2011 release date in the books.
When the film got stuck in development and Raimi opted to walk away, Sony Pictures, in order to retain their rights to the character, opted to hit the reset button and go back to telling the origins of Peter Parker with a new cast and new creatives behind the scenes. The lead role was recast with Andrew Garfield, who had wowed audiences with his brilliant supporting turn in The Social Network, while aspects of Vanderbilt’s screenplay which had been set to be a continuation of the Raimi series were used as a means to launch a new series of films featuring the character.
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Into the director’s chair stepped Marc Webb who had directed Sundance favourite 500 Days of Summer, an indie film with a very imaginative flavour, with a doomed relationship at its centre and myriad pop culture references dotted throughout to the music of The Smiths and French New Wave Cinema.
While Webb’s interpretation of Spider-Man would not boast much in the way of sad British pop music or black and white French movie spoof/dream sequences, there would, in the end, be a lovely focus on character and subtle humour that would at least mark the film as a little different from what had come before, along with a romantic undercurrent that would be enhanced brilliantly by the chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and James Horner’s superb music score.
Being released in 2012 and with a somewhat grounded tone compared to the previous films (as grounded as one can get with a film featuring a villain who turns into a giant lizard), one couldn’t help but feel the influence of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy on this interpretation.
Where Raimi’s film had verisimilitude, there was also a degree of tonal shift that frequently worked, although that would prove somewhat of a hindrance by the time the third film came around. Here things are played more subtly and with less dramatics: yes Uncle Ben dies again, but his prior speech to Peter about responsibilities never opts for the iconic line about great responsibility, while Peter discovering the idea for his alter ego comes in an abandoned wrestling ring rather than a WWE-style amateur event.
To sit down and watch a film that was so similar in terms of story to one that had been released onlyten years previously could have been disastrous, but the movie that made it to the screen felt assured, confident and emotionally grounded in a way not seen since Spider-Man 2.
When The Amazing Spider-Man goes down the action route, with second unit work being handled here by the legendary Vic Armstrong, it’s incredibly entertaining, but it works so well because of the character work of the script (with contributions from Steve Kloves, writer of the Harry Potter films) and the performances from a wonderful cast.
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Garfield makes the role of Peter Parker his own almost right away and never once feels like he’s in the shadow of Tobey Maguire, while the love story between Peter and Gwen works so well thanks to the undeniable chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone. With every aspect of the Peter/MJ relationship exhausted in the previous incarnation, it made sense to go in a different direction, and best of all it never relies on the trope of Spider-Man’s girlfriend being kidnapped to kickstart the final act.
The rest of the cast is rounded off wonderfully with Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, Sally Field as Aunt May, and Rhys Ifans as Curt Conners, while Webb directs with an assured hand with an emphasis on bittersweet emotions and gentle humour. It also boasts a great James Horner score that works emotional wonders throughout, particularly in the final moments.
With a box office gross of $757 million, the film didn’t outgross any of the Raimi films, but it was still a sizeable amount that convinced Sony that there was still an audience out there for Spider-Man films. Released in 2012, it emerged during a summer that also featured massively hyped comic book movies such as Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises.
While its grounded emotional tone and lesser reliance on action sequences of an over the top nature would suggest that Sony was pushing for a Batman Begins-like direction, and the final part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a billion-dollar box office success, it was Avengers Assemble that was going to prove to be the most influential comic book movie beyond 2012, with its reliance on humour, and connecting a shared universe.
In an attempting to recreate that with its own Spider-Man rights a mere two years later with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony’s Spider-Man movies were about to come undone.