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.
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.