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"The Amazing Spider-Man" might be the movie most difficult to spoil, ever. In second place, "The Ten Commandments." The last and the next iterations of "Romeo and Juliet." Maybe that odious "Cat in the Hat" debacle of a few years ago. We've moved into the realm of canonical source material that simply cannot be over-shared. Call it a reboot if you want; fact is "The Amazing Spider-Man" can't help but be a retread when a movie called "Spider-Man," which featured many of the same characters along much of the same storyline, came out just 10 years ago. Two sequels followed. They got a little shrill. Sam Raimi, who directed those three movies, stepped off the carousel that would've led to three more sequels. Sony retreated again to the first chapter of the Book of Arachne. Now kids who were 4 when "Spider-Man" landed and who've been gorged on syndicated Spidey cartoons are of prime "Amazing Spider-Man" age. For everyone else, it's the same hymn, different key. Moses splits the Red Sea, Juliet stabs herself, Spider-Man saves the day, now and evermore.
Since Spider-Man debuted in 1962, you've come to know this tale. Boy meets girl. Spider meets boy. Boy's uncle gets shot. Boy develops superpowers and a vigilante streak, dons skintight costume and swings on webs through the avenues of New York as Tarzan might commute vine-to-vine. If this hoary fable is your jam then familiarity be damned — this is a shipshape version of the Ol' Web-slinger's origins. The gonzo horror auteur Raimi has been downgraded to a director named Marc Webb, whose bona fides (other than his surname) include "500 Days of Summer" and Green Day videos. Otherwise this baby carries some notable upgrades.
For starters Andrew Garfield plays the dynamic, cocksure Peter Parker that Tobey Maguire never quite mustered. Nearly 29, Garfield is two years older even than Maguire was at Spider-Man's release — yet he cuts the more convincing teen-ager, fidgeting, mumbling, shuffling through the hallways of his high school. He also has better chemistry with Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) than Maguire had with Kirsten Dunst (as Mary Jane Watson). The Stacey character is more fun anyhow. She's a fearless science nerd with a cop dad (Dennis Leary — don't get too attached) and more involved than Mary Jane was by "Spider-Man 3," in which she seemed mostly to shriek as Venom dangled her off the side of a skyscraper. Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Peter's Uncle Ben and Aunt May are warm and believable. Stan Lee's cameo might be the best of any Marvel movie yet.
Spidey's foil here is a villain called the Lizard, a burly, brilliant, dinosaur-like beast that results when Peter's missing dad's former partner, a geneticist named Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), shoots himself up with a serum intended to graft reptile DNA onto his own. Naturally there's a valid scientific reason why a respected researcher would subject himself to a highly volatile experimental mutagen in a late-night haste. Why, it's so obvious we don't even need to dwell on it. Besides, if that strikes you as implausible, just wait for the sequences in which Peter uses Bing to find quick, accurate search results.
Will anything here astonish or inspire? Aside from the first-person vantage shots that made the trailers so striking, "The Amazing Spider-Man" won't break much ground for older fans. (That is, anyone old enough ever to have smoked a cigarette.) Marvel identified this problem with its comics canon recently and in response created an entire parallel universe last year. Spider-Man didn't emerge from that overhaul as a lanky, tousle-haired white dude. Instead, Peter Parker got whacked by the Green Goblin and was replaced by Miles Morales, a half-Hispanic, half-black kid from the Bronx. Earlier, when Marvel set a line of comics in 2099, it was a buff Latino named Miguel O'Hara who adopted Spider-Man's identity. Nothing against Garfield and Stone, but it's hard to see marginal improvements on existing characters as more than an opportunity lost. This "Spider-Man" could've looked 87 years to the future. Instead, it rehashes a vision now 50 years old.