When a new actor slips on the Spandex for a superhero franchise reboot, we should notice. And we do with Andrew Garfield, who plays Peter Parker in director Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, which opens Tuesday.
Garfield provided the skeptical conscience of The Social Network as Mark Zuckerberg's fellow Harvard student Eduardo Saverin, and here, anchoring his first franchise outing, he represents a significant change from Tobey Maguire, who played Parker/Spidey in the three Spider-Man films from 2002 to 2007. Maguire was all wide-eyed astonishment cut with a blasé comic delivery of the lighter material. Garfield by contrast is pure adolescent angst (although he's nearly 30), more openly emotional and James Dean-y. He's a rebel with a cause and an ultralight ultra-thin metal cable shooting out of his wrists.
And he's very good. The nerve-wracking duality of his character's situation — abruptly and mysteriously disappearing parents; a serious mid-film loss of a loved one; warring responsibilities as ordinary citizen and extraordinary crime-fighter — is all there in Garfield's face and body language, the behind-the-beat reactions when he's with the girl he loves (Emma Stone), the open-mouthed half-grin when figuring out his next move. The Spider-Man guise gives this jangling bundle of loose ends a purpose and a physical grace.
Director Webb, whose previous film was (500) Days of Summer, has a clean-lined script credited to James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves that clears away the clutter of the most recent Spider-Man installment, from 2007. (The best of the Sam Raimi pictures by far was No. 2, the one with Alfred Molina as Doc Ock.) Here the storytelling carries the virtue of simplicity and a lack of camp. Peter squares off against Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), a genetic expert and an associate of Peter's now-missing father (Campbell Scott). Dr. Connors, who gave up his right arm in the name of science, transforms into The Lizard, a character from the early-'60s Spider-Man comics. Martin Sheen and Sally Field ease comfortably into the roles of Peter's aunt and uncle.
This is not a film of stunning set pieces, which isn't to say Webb hasn't delivered a good Spider-Man. He has. For better or worse (at the box office, that is) this film is interested in character and, to the degree the Marvel franchise machinery will allow, pacing and rhythm (although it feels a bit long). I'm not sure about the way the Lizard is handled here as a terrifying digital mini-zilla who periodically turns The Amazing Spider-Man into a full-on horror movie. But when he gets the chance, Ifans, a fine and subtle actor, works in the same confidential and privately suffering key as does Garfield.
Is the interest in a new Spider-Man sky-high? I'm speaking only for myself now: Not really. It has been only five years since Maguire gave up the modified wrestler's mask. (How Peter Parker gets the notion for his Spidey persona, specifically the headgear, becomes a clever addition to the new film.) Five years isn't long enough to miss a crime-fighter. Similarly, it seems as if Superman Returns (2006, of middling interest) just came and went, and next year brings the arrival of the reboot Man of Steel.
That's a lot of superheroic air traffic, but Webb and Garfield can't do anything about that. All they can do is attempt to pull off the illusion that this is the first time we've seen this story. And, more or less, they have.