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Myths are a special kind of story. They’re always changing, adding new colors and flavors to time-tested formulas. No two versions need be the same, and yet, they’re all so fundamentally similar. The best ones teach us important lessons, reflecting what we want to know about ourselves and what we think of our society. By design, myths are stories built to adapt.
The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t adapt, though. It putters along, like some animal with an unfortunate mutation, only able to get by with what’s already worked for its ancestors. It’s vestigial, not transformative. It’s not fit, so it won’t survive.
Of course, this sort of big-budget bonanza isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Although it’s only been five years since the Sam Raimi-led Spider-Man franchise ended, Spider-Man wasn’t doomed on arrival. If it were more daring and more ambitious — if director Marc Webb carved out a track of his own, rather than paying too much reverence to a story we’ve already seen — the movie could have been every bit as new and thrilling as Raimi’s first two installments seemed a decade ago. (But then again, maybe not: Thanks to an esoteric copyright law, Sony Pictures allegedly rushed the Spider-Man through production to hold onto to the character.)
Spider-Man’s origin story is just as you remember it, with a few tweaks. Peter Parker (a spastically charming Andrew Garfield) is bit by a radioactive genetically engineered spider, which gives him enhanced strength, speed, reflexes, and the ability to climb on walls. He gets brash and bold, makes a selfish decision, and his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) pays the price. He falls in love with Mary Jane Watson Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), learns something about power and responsibility, and then defeats a murderous corporate executive-turned-supervillain murderous scientist-turned-reptile (Rhys Ifans). All of this has happened before, and if the box-office returns for superhero movies keep skyrocketing, all of this will definitely happen again.
So, what is different? For starters, Webb’s Spider-Man is intimately concerned with defining Peter Parker as a teen. Garfield is delightfully gangly and awkward as a high-school student, and sparks an inner charisma that’s entirely appropriate for the sweet, geeky character. There’s a constant glint in his eye — he’s always psyched about having superpowers. (After all, who wouldn’t?) Unlike the subdued brooding favored by Tobey Maguire, Garfield’s Parker seems driven by equal parts adolescent arrogance and intellectual curiosity. It’s a delicate performance to handle, and he attacks it from odd, terrific angles.