One telling scene in “The Amazing Spider-Man” is also the movie’s defining moment. A high school English lit teacher explains to her class the premise of fiction and she gives it in three short words: “Who am I?” That’s the question Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, struggles with in this reboot to the famed superhero franchise.
And as a charming but gawky high school senior unsure of everything in life, this self-pondering fits Peter like a tailored, umm, Spidey suit. After all, Peter’s a teenage geek (but an adorable one) by day and a web-spinning superhero wrapped head to toe in spandex by night. Can you blame the guy for having identity issues?
This new “Spider-Man” installment once again explores the origins of the title hero and answers such burning questions as: Where did he come from? What was he like in school? And of course, where did he get the suit? (Though this turns out to be boring: on the Net, most likely the sportswear section on Amazon. Yawn.)
Not that the movie comes up with anything blindingly new: A lot of the information is a resifting and retreading of stuff we know from past “Spider-Man” films, enhanced in 3-D. But it has been five years since the somewhat controversial “Spider-Man 3” (which many critics panned) and as a refresher course, “The Amazing Spider-Man” works extremely well.
To make sure everyone is on the same new page, the producers have made a break with the past. Goodbye to the “Spider-Man” trio consisting of director Sam Raimi, hero Tobey Maguire and love interest Kirsten Dunst. The new reign is helmed by indies wunderkind Marc Webb, director of “(500) Days of Summer,” and stars two of Hollywood’s hottest young things, Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network”) and Emma Stone (“The Help,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”). For a movie about a teen haunted by his past and embarking on a quest of self-discovery, against the backdrop of East Coast middle-to-upper-class-did-you-remember-to-get-the-organic-eggs, it’s an iron-clad combination. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
And nothing does, really. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is so well orchestrated that even a pratfall from Peter (very rare, but still happens) feels like a carefully practiced move by a standup comedian. At the next instant, he’s his gorgeously vulnerable, slightly brooding self, aching for a sense of redemption while adamant to discover what really happened to his parents — in particular his dad (Campbell Scott), who disappeared when Peter was 8 — and to track down the killer of his guardian, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen).
In the meantime, he also has to save the world from evildoers, scale the clifflike faces of Manhattan skyscrapers and be on the spot when old ladies are getting mugged. Spider-Man is the old kind of superhero: He works very hard, and he does everything the hard way.
At times, the sheer smoothness of the whole thing starts to get to you, and you may begin to long for the peanut-butter chunks that made the previous “Spider-Man” films so watchable.
In this sense, maybe Maguire was better equipped for the role. Physique-wise, Garfield is tall and ballet-dancer graceful, with long limbs that offset the Spider-Man costume. Maguire, on the other hand, made his awkwardness and challenged stature part of the package. If he could be a superhero, so could anyone, and the series banked on that suspension of disbelief. Instead, “The Amazing Spider-Man” blesses Peter with the kind of effortless good looks that almost invite resentment, before sliding into worshipful admiration.
It doesn’t help either, that Peter’s love object is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the prettiest, most perfectly groomed, most well-bred young lady ever to stride a high school corridor in a succession of elegantly narrow boots (no chunky Uggs for this girl). Webb seems to have a penchant for this type of heroine (like Summer with her precise bangs in his previous movie). Unlike her classmates, you couldn’t hope to catch Gwen in jeans or sweats, and she resides in a high-class condo on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her equally groomed, well-meaning parents. Nice girl, nice family.
The burden of un-niceness and slimy sewage detail fall exclusively on the shoulders of Dr. Curt Connors (an excellent Rhys Ifans), aka The Lizard, whose psych chart would have delighted Carl Jung and whose skin would have an army of dermatologists screaming for help. The Lizard harbors the sadness of deformity and depraved longing, and it’s no spoiler to say that he goes on the obligatory rampage.
Like all of Spider-Man’s foes, failure seems pretty much a given. But the poignancy of him being an ugly, giant amphibian in a room full of beautiful people … Well, it could just make you cry.