By Joan Ellis
Welcome to the thinking man’s blockbuster. The first scene grabs our attention without even a hint of pyrotechnics and gives us instead a story soaked in science. A small boy is playing hide-and-seek with his father when something goes wrong. The house is quiet; the tension grows. We like this boy (Max Charles) who grows up in moments to be Peter Parker, Spider-Man, played by Andrew Garfield in a memorable performance. With fine support from first-rate actors, Garfield carries the movie from beginning to end.
The first half paints Peter’s background from the moment of the hide-and-seek to the spider bite that bestows extraordinary powers on the enchantingly nerdy high school kid (yes, he’s too old for high school, but that’s irrelevant). We learn that after his parents had to leave home – triggering a compelling mystery about why – he was raised by Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). These veterans contribute mightily to the fun of the movie – Sheen with affectionate sternness, Field with unqualified love for Peter despite the unexplained adventures that bring him home at night bloodied and bruised. While it’s no surprise that Peter becomes both gentle and humble, what is striking is Garfield’s ability to convey those qualities so consistently and winningly even when doing battle with the bad guys.
After riveting us with a family mystery without violence or special effects, the movie plunges headlong into Spider-Man’s special gifts, all of which he applies only to deserving villains. Enjoy Peter’s pure joy as he learns that he can fly on spun webs and climb buildings with his sticky hands. The fun of the special effects in the second half springs from the real story so carefully laid at the beginning.
By the time Peter and Gwen (his love interest) engage in the coolest declaration of love I’ve seen in years, the audience is rooting for them. The casting department got this pair right. Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have the magical touch of mystery that all great actors seem to keep in reserve. We believe them.
Enter Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curtis Connors, former business partner of Peter’s father Richard (Campbell Scott). He is guardian of the secrets they were exploring in Cross Species Genetics. Curtis is an appropriate villain for our time – a man who loses sight of the good his discovery might do, and becomes intoxicated instead by its inherent power. He is the antithesis of Peter Parker.
In a spectacular tribute to New York, we follow Spider-Man as he spins and navigates and swings gleefully through the city landmarks on his tensile webs. The boy who loved skateboarding is in love again – with social justice, with the bright nighttime lights of his city, and with the wonderful Gwen. The story closes with a joyful whoop and holler from an appreciative audience. When did you last have this much fun in a movie?
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.