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Emma Stone is excellent in her own right. She’s stuck with a few awfully dopy lines and yet plays Parker’s love interest with irreplaceable verve and humor. Together, they utterly carry Spider-Man through its many dull, aimless sequences. In almost any other movie — a romantic comedy, perhaps — that kind of chemistry would be a coup. Webb smartly keeps the story tightly framed by the two actors, but nonetheless, they’re merely a respite from everything else that’s going wrong. No amount of tongue-tied, cute back-and-forth between can solve the ill-defined mystery about Peter Parker’s parents, or explain the villain’s motivations, or make relevant the forgotten Uncle Ben plot — which, as any Spider-Man fan will tell you, is pivotal to this origin story.
That’s the problem with Spider-Man: It tells a comic-book story without sticking to a comic-book message. After the final blowout, it’s unclear what Peter Parker has learned, save for a few trite discoveries about courage and character. Webb’s clearly got an eye for flair — his shots of Spider-Man swinging through New York City are exhilarating, when they don’t feel like a 3D roller coaster ride — but he’s too faint (or Sony was too constrictive) about the heart of it all.
Spider-Man, like every comic-book superhero, is a modern-day myth. It doesn’t matter that we know the beats of his origin, or that his story hasn’t fundamentally changed, or that others have already told it in brilliant ways. All that matters is what’s told now, and how it’s told differently. Because a myth is such well-trod ground, the way the story’s told is as affective and important as the story itself. Spider-Man isn’t a bad movie — but it’s an entirely unrealized one.
Look to the end of it all, when Webb firmly plants Spider-Man towards its all-but-guaranteed sequel. Peter Parker’s sitting back in English class, listening to his teacher drone on about the secrets of storytelling. A writer, she says, once told her that there are only 10 different kinds of plots. She disagrees, and the facade drops: “There is only one plot: Who am I?” Too bad Spider-Man never gives us an answer.