Five minutes into The Amazing Spider-Man, I got bitten. With pleasure. A friskier, sweeter-natured variation on the story Sam Raimi told in his recent trilogy, with greater emphasis on human relations than on special effects, this Spidey reboot refreshes an old story through the on-trend notion of making a Marvel superhero less…super-heroic. With an effortlessly winning Andrew Garfield now in the title role and the irresistible Emma Stone by his side as Gwen Stacy, the most delicious high school girlfriend a bug- and love-bitten young man could hope to woo, The Amazing Spider-Man may be the first big-ticket, big-budget, big-action-sequence comic-book movie that also doubles as a lilting coming-of-age indie.
I mean an indie at its very best, with smart attention paid to coming-of-age issues, including the prickly shyness of a social outsider who’s an easy target for bullies, the sexual and romantic awkwardness of a first-timer in love, the run-amok emotions of adolescence, and the unrest of a teenager who feels abandoned by his father. Of course, attention is also paid to a supervillain: the Lizard, a giant, destructive reptile played with impressive commitment to scaliness by Notting Hill’s Rhys Ifans.
In keeping with the tonal makeover, The Amazing Spider-Man is directed by Marc Webb, a relatively under-the-radar thirtysomething helmer whose first and only other feature, (500) Days of Summer, told a quirky indie love story as pocket-sized as an iPod Nano. I can imagine the new guy getting the hang of his directorial superpowers in a hit-or-miss fashion similar to Peter Parker’s own learning curve, showcased in one of the movie’s most delightful scenes of self-mastery: The kid seeks a quiet place to see what he can do with stringy spider goo. Webb keeps showy stuff to a minimum, even during climactic moments. The modesty pays off.
Through it all, Garfield fills both his slackerish Peter Parker identity as well as his Spider-Man rubberwear with star-quality confidence. Mixing self-effacing sweetness with believable teen boy arrogance, then adding a wee drop of snark, the exciting British-American actor with the JFK Jr. dark good looks defies anyone to hate him because he’s beautiful — or because he’s not Tobey Maguire. And any time the actor shares a scene with the radiant Ms. Stone…well, the two are a chemistry experiment gone as blindingly right as reptilian Dr. Curt Connors’ little lab test goes terribly wrong. What’s most amazing in The Amazing Spider-Man turns out to be not the shared sensations of blockbuster wow! the picture elicits, but rather the shared satisfactions of intimate awww. A?