A story of one. Of a singular hero. While the bad guys may stack up, each setting out to outdo one another, Peter Parker stands alone.
And it’s not just because of contractual obligation, although, strictly speaking, Spider-Man is unique in so much as within his own cinematic universe he’s pretty much flying the flag for the good guy on his lonesome. While Wolverine has the X-Men to fight his corner, and the Avengers are legions deep in their number, Spider-Man works best on his own*. In Andrew Garfield director Marc Webb has the perfect vessel for his curious brand of loner teen, who eschews solemn nerdiness for whip-smart cool, complete with Antonioni posters and Thrasher tees. He’s an outsider by the nature of his unofficial profession, with the niche interests that would have plagued a child of the 1960s (the decade of Parker’s conception) no longer enough to consign one to the outcast corner.
New York is Parker’s great companion, and is more of a rounded character here than in any of the previous Spider-movies. The relationship between the two has long been an important staple of the source material, but seldom explored in any great detail on-screen. Following a brief prologue detailing the on-going mystery behind the fate of Parker’s parents, the action opens with Spider-Man swinging through the streets of New York, in scenes of beautifully realised ambition. It’s pure teenage wish fulfilment, with every corner of the concrete jungle at the mercy of the man infected with the venom of a radioactive spider. His ability is equalled only by his popularity with the people of the city, with Spider-Man the boy orphan the son of the masses he protects and brings hope to.
The scope of the relationship between the man and the city acts as a larger projection of the one between Parker and those closest to him. In lieu of the absent Uncle Ben his Aunt May steps to the fore. Shaping his moral standing in a knowing parental manner, without ever directly positioning the boy, May instills all that is good and righteous in the character. Gwen Stacy, the high-school sweetheart writ large, provides the emotional handle for the film. Having promised her father as he lay dying to leave Gwen out of whatever strained path he takes in future, Parker struggles with his own sense of honour and integrity, in the face of the contrasting feelings of the girl herself. Such complex feelings are handled fairly well for what is essentially a tale ground in spectacle.
Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Spider-Man’s foe of the week, has no such relationship with the city that never sleeps. He’s invisible, and downtrodden, and a neat symbol of what Parker could be without the support network of origin staples Gwen Stacy, Aunt May and Uncle Ben. His is a more torturous existence with his surroundings, with his gifted superpower granting him only further geographical incarceration. Rather than liberating Electro, his capabilities incapacitate him even further, and leave him open to further exploitation and emotional manipulation. He makes for an unstable caricature of the film’s protagonist, and while his character treatment isn’t entirely successful, it’s interesting nonetheless.
Things do verge on the pantomime at times. One moment in particular, as we see inside of the Ravencroft Instititute for the Criminally Insane verges a little too close to the high camp of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, with it’s overt stylings completely at odds with the rather affecting coming-of-age tale being told in the Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy storyline. That contradictory tone is actually present in much of the tale being told away from Parker, with The Amazing Spider-Man at times feeling like two altogether different movies fused together. It’s distracting, but doesn’t hinder on the overarching experience too much. It’s little surprise that a separate feature focussing entirely on Spider-Man’s roster of super villains is planned, with the filmmakers clearly eager to expand the mythology of the Spider-Man cinematic universe in the one direction available to them.
*Pedants corner. Spider-Man has of course been a member of the Avengers in the comics in the past. Contractual rights prevent this from happening in the movies any time soon.