Quick! Give me a quote from the original Spider-Man movies.
You said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” right? You might have said, “Go get ’em, tiger,” or, “I’m Spider-Man” (inflection going up on the end of the phrase), but you probably first recalled the first quote. It is the famous Spider-Man quote, after all, predating even the first Spider-Man movie from 2002.
In that first trilogy (the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3). or at least in the first two films of that trilogy, Peter Parker tries to reconcile his dual identity. He has to accept the calling thrust upon him by god/fate/whatever to save and protect people from harm even though what he really wants is a peaceful life with Mary Jane.
This was a Spider-Man for the era immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The first film is replete with pro-American imagery, like New Yorkers helping Spider-Man by throwing rocks at the Green Goblin from a nearby bridge. The film’s iconic final shot is even of our hero high atop a New York skyscraper perched confidently on an American flag. The earliest trailers for the movie even included a scene in which Spider-Man traps a helicopter full of fleeing bank robbers in a web stretched between the World Trade Center towers. (The scene was removed from the film following the September 11th attacks.)
America at the time, flush with the economic boom years of the 90s, was brash and confident. The U.S. had been attacked, sure, but that was the price the nation had to pay for being (as it perceived itself) the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. America had a responsibility, it felt, to hunt down the terrorizing goblins that lurked in the planet’s shadows, and if that meant its citizens couldn’t have a peaceful life, so be it. That was a price its citizens were willing to pay for the power they possessed.
A decade later, things have changed in the world. The “war on terror” turned out to be much messier than America anticipated. America’s idealism deteriorated faster than the quality of movie between the second and third Spider-Man installments. No longer is the U.S. a country of flag-waving, economically confident, gunslinger bravado. Now, it is a recession ridden nation of corporate greed, partisan bickering, and military secrecy.
Enter The Amazing Spider-Man.
Instead of continuing Sam Raimi’s web-slinging series, Colombia Pictures opted to reboot the series with a new director, new cast, new origin story, and, most importantly, a new thematic structure.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a good movie, thanks largely to two things: Andrew Garfield’s quirky, cocky take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man and director Marc Webb’s strident devotion to the film’s theme expressed both visually and narratively.
Tobey Maguire was an awkward, nerdy Peter Parker and a friendly, funny Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield, on the other hand, plays Peter as twitchy and troubled, more reclusive than socially awkward. His Spider-Man is a smart aleck. Shrouded by Spider-Man’s mask, Tobey Maguire’s iteration of the superhero gained confidence and grace. Andrew Garfield’s version of the hero gains boldness behind his mask, but this boldness is mostly in his secrecy, as if keeping secrets is a strength, a way of protecting oneself and others.
This new Spider-Man is always noticing, listening, watching, thinking, and conniving. While the former Spider-Man was primarily “good,” this Spider-Man is primarily “clever.” The quality of his character is up for grabs, and for most of the movie he is selfish, vengeful, and rebellious.
This more subtle Spidey is perfectly formed to fit the theme of this movie – that keeping secrets has costs and the relentless pursuit of answers leads not to peace, but to further strife. Marc Webb sticks resolutely to this theme giving this movie a strong sense of cohesion.
Notice, as you watch this movie, the Rear Window (a movie about secrecy and suspicion) poster on Peter’s wall. Notice all the shots of Peter observing people and things like a detective divining truth from disparate clues. Notice all the dialog about secrets and secret keeping and truth and lies. The old Spider-Man had to stay true to the high calling on his life no matter the cost. This new Spider-Man has to be open and honest and learn to accept that not all questions have answers.
This is a Spider-Man for a new era in American life. Peter Parker here gains his powers as a side effect of corporate greed (not university research as in the old movie). He is rightfully condemned by a peace keeper for wrapping his private vengefulness in a cloak of communal justice. His secrets and rebellion create his enemies. This is a post-recession, post-“war on terror” Spider-Man.
There is even a scene much like the bridge scene in the original Spider-Man, where a group of blue-collar construction workers with a giant American flag hanging in the background help Spider-Man swing from their crane booms to the Oscorp building to save the city. What are these construction workers building? Clearly, they are building, or perhaps rebuilding, the city.
If Spider-Man was about America’s need to be self-sacrificing in the face of mounting global pressures given the particular place appointed to it by god/fate/whatever, what then, is The Amazing Spider-Man suggesting about The United States? Clearly, the movie is recommending that if America wants to move forward, it must lay aside its greed, partisan bickering, and tendency toward secrecy. The U.S. can’t be selfish, arrogant, and vengeful. It must be humble and allow some ambiguity in the world as it works together with others to maintain peace.
Or so says The Amazing Spider-Man, and it says it quite entertainingly.