Comic books are flexible folklore. The stories of characters' lives are not as set in stone as they are, theoretically, in novels. A volatile combination of corporate authorship and artistic license makes it possible for details to change. Fans distinguish between retcons, in which isolated details are altered, often in the context of "everything you thought you knew is wrong," and reboots, in which monthly continuity goes back to square one or someplace close to that. In comic-book movies, the most prominent example to date of a reboot was Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which requires no knowledge and claims no relation to the four Batman movies made between 1989 and 1997. Nolan's picture came out in 2005, eight years after Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin. Now, five years after Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, Columbia Pictures releases Marc Webb's reboot of Spider-Man, and some observers think the reboot has come too soon. Admitting that Raimi had run out of steam, critics ask why the movie franchise should have reverted to square one. Why not simply re-cast and carry on? Does Spidey's origin need to be retold? By comic-book criteria, Webb answers the question by introducing new details and introducing a backstory involving those famously absent figures, Peter Parker's parents. Why is he being raised by an aunt and uncle? Comics writers have been tempted to answer that question, and now comes the movies' turn. Superficial details of the origin event itself have also changed. Elements that Raimi carried over from the original comics, like Parker's early attempt to make money as an entertainer, have been set aside, though the new picture includes a clever evocation of the earlier wrestling angle. Characters prominent in Raimi's films (Mary Jane Watson, J. Jonah Jameson) are absent for now, while a villain left dead in Raimi's series lives again but is held in reserve for a future picture. One reason for movie reboots is the bad habit of comic-book movies killing off their villains, the Joker's survival at the end of Nolan's The Dark Knight being a morbidly ironic exception. Comics almost always find a way for a villain to return from seemingly certain death, but if movies want to use a popular villain a second time they may well have to reboot. Tim Burton killed the Joker and the Penguin. Raimi killed Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. That's not how comics work -- though the Goblin did remain dead in Marvel Comics for a generation before a retcon revival (he hadn't actually died, you see) in the 1990s. Until studios learn that comic-book closure doesn't require a villain's indisputable death, reboots will remain frequent. Suffice it to say that in story terms, enough is different in the screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Steve Kloves and Raimi holdover Alvin Sargent to justify a retelling by comic-book standards. By movie standards, however, the element of artistic license is arguably more important.
In comics, a reboot is just another way to give a trusted creator carte blanche for reimagining an established character. In movies, a distinctive vision would seem to be the major justification for a reboot. Burton, Schumacher and Nolan have all contributed unmistakably distinctive interpretations of Batman and his milieu. For Spidey, however, Columbia has the alternate model of Marvel's in-house movies culminating in The Avengers, which eschew genius visions in favor of a continuity-based house style. Based on what we see from Webb, a distinctive directorial vision wasn't the studio's first priority. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't look exactly like a Raimi film because Webb doesn't think in sight gags like Raimi does. But the cityscapes are essentially the same and so are the ways Spidey navigates them, except for the new film appearing in relatively unimpressive 3-D. If Webb brings any particular vision to the project it must be an affinity for young people based on his sole previous feature, a youth film unseen by me. Recall that Raimi left the Spider-Man franchise in part because of a dispute over his desire to cast an older actor as The Vulture, the studio reportedly preferring younger faces. Sony and Columbia apparently wanted a younger, female audience that Raimi wasn't drawing in. Thus rumors that the new Parker would be none other than Robert Pattinson, and the reality of Andrew (Too Tall) Garfield playing high-school student Peter Parker with a Pattinsonian shock of hair at the age of 28. While Tobey Maguire was nearly an ideal Parker by the standard of the original comics, Garfield reflects a studio feeling that the character must be appealing to girls before the fabled spider-bite empowers him. Garfield was impressive in his first high-profile movie role in The Social Network, but he strikes me as wrong for this role, visually and emotionally. The script weighs him down by making his parents' absence a cross for him to bear before the defining death of his uncle and forgetting to write jokes for Spidey apart from one scene involving muggers and cops. Everyone seems more interested in Garfield's scenes with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy -- admittedly the best thing in the picture and a fair facsimile of the boots-favoring comics character -- than in his super exploits. His feud with Rhys Ifans's Curt Connors, the one-armed scientist whose restorative serum, self-tested under duress, turns him into the megalomaniacal Lizard, has an obligatory if not perfunctory feel. Connors combines some elements of Raimi's Green Goblin and Doc Ock and the storyline crafted for him had potential, but there's nothing revelatory about his CGI fight scenes with Spidey. One encounter falls particularly flat: a confrontation on a bridge during which the Lizard simply leaves without fighting our hero after tossing some cars into the air. The scene actually exists only to set up a labored climax later when a father whose child Spidey rescues offers the web-slinger some high-rise assistance. The 3-D simply isn't enough to make this stuff fresh, and the fight scenes themselves are the all-too-typical muddled messes of hurtling figures and hurtling cameras. The simpleminded, predictable score by James Horner makes the picture sound even less fresh.
None of these criticisms proves that they shouldn't have done a reboot, but they do suggest that they should have done the reboot better. None of the actors really improves on their predecessors, apart from Stone surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard virtually by default. None of them do badly, really, though casting Sally Field as Aunt May misses the point of the character's frailty and Garfield, as noted, is not bad but wrong in his role. The Raimi films are not so great that they can't be improved upon, so I don't think I'm judging the new film unfairly. It just didn't quite work -- it wasn't new enough to justify the expense. Bracketed as it is this year by two climactic films, The Avengers and the imminent Dark Knight Rises, the limitations of starting over from square one are exposed starkly here. But The Amazing Spider-Man's success is probably a good thing, since almost by the nature of these series the second film is almost always an improvement on the first. I suspect that that'll be the case here, and that lets me close with a question: why can't they make a second movie first?