I am reminded now, as I follow the buzz coming out of Comic-Con for the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel (coming next year), that Superman is still the only superhero I get excited about. A lot of that is probably due to Christopher Reeve and the Superman movies of my childhood, but mostly it’s because I didn’t grow up with the proliferation of superhero movies the way kids (and fanboys) do now. Superman was pretty much it for me. So I’m a tough sell for all these other guys, the Thors and the Iron Mans and the X-Men and the revamped Batmans of the world. I’m not the automatic built-in audience who will line up on opening weekend. It takes more than a teaser trailer to get me there. In short, you have to make a good movie. Which is, apparently, easier said than done.
There are three things that make a superhero movie work: keep it simple, keep it fun and cast it right. Good examples: X-Men and Iron Man. Bad examples: The Avengers and Iron Man 2. Unless you are Christopher Nolan and you are making a Batman trilogy that is more about atmosphere and character exploration than about action, the movies that work do so because they tell a relatively simple story, have a clear-cut villain, have easy-to-follow action sequences and are cast with actors who are not only perfect in the role, but are skilled enough to carry a superhero storyline (and dialogue) with nuance and personality (looking good in spandex doesn’t hurt). The perfect example? The Amazing Spider-Man.
Yes, FINALLY, we have a Spider-Man worthy of Comic-Con hype. I know we’ve seen Spider-Man before, most recently in 2007 in the third and last installment of the Sam Raimi Spidey trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. But those movies never really did anything for me and I think most of that came down to the fact that I didn’t like either of the two leads, Tobey Maguire or Kirsten Dunst. But now we have a Spider-Man, in Andrew Garfield, who is everything the character is supposed to be: unassuming, likeable, smart, smitten and inherently noble—and is played by a great actor. I know it sounds strange to say that a good superhero movie all boils down to having a great actor in the lead, but it is crucial. Since you’re not surviving on dialogue, what makes a superhero movie work is the connection you feel with him—his vulnerabilities, his weaknesses, and his eventual transformation and adaptation to his powers and persona and this requires more skill than you would think (I would love to use the pronoun “her” here, but Hollywood still has a long way to go—Wonder Woman, where are you?). So much of why I hated the Star Wars prequels, for example, was the fact that Hayden Christensen, the actor who played Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, gave such a disastrously wooden performance (of course, even the great Ewan McGregor had trouble making his lines work). But the superhero movies I’ve loved the most—X-Men, Iron Man and Nolan’s Batman—all feature incredible actors who flesh out their characters with real texture. And here, in Marc Webb’s latest reboot of Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield is just as good.
Again, the reason The Amazing Spider-Man works is that Webb keeps it simple and focuses the film’s attention where it should be: on Peter Parker and his transformation into Spider-Man. This is the only superhero who transforms as a teenager and that, in itself, makes the character ripe for internal conflict and a rebellious nature, which are all perfect for character exploration. And if you’ve never heard of Andrew Garfield before now, let me tell you that not only is he great to look at, but he’s one of his generation’s greatest talents. It seems really odd to say that when I realize he’s only made three movies before this one, but, having seen all three (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Never Let Me Go and The Social Network), I can easily say this kid is here to stay. (His performance in Never Let Me Go is heartbreaking, brilliant and still with me.) So when you get to watch a truly talented actor play out the character conflicts and layers that naturally inhabit any superhero, it only adds to the fun.
And that’s the key ingredient here: fun. Director Webb (best-known for (500) Days of Summer, a decidedly un-action movie) doesn’t overload us with complicated storylines or overwhelm us with overblown action sequences (what, a superhero movie that DOESN’T destroy a major city? How novel.), but instead he lets us live with Peter Parker and his exploration of his newfound powers and it is exactly what it should be: fun. The Amazing Spider-Man is—finally—exactly what a superhero movie should be, no more, no less.
I also loved Emma Stone as Peter’s love interest and Rhys Ifans makes a great villain (another great actor), but it’s actually Webb’s low-frills direction that made this one of the most enjoyable summer movies I’ve seen in a long time. Superman, you’d better bring it.