More honourable than “amazing,” the latest reboot of the Spider-man franchise brings Marvel Comics web-slinging super-hero down to earth, in a mostly satisfactory way. Benefiting largely from the twitchy, cerebral English actor Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), the new film, directed by Marc Webb (  Days of Summer) is less a wish-fulfilment story than an emotional coming-of-age story. In the first and best half, the film focuses on high school science geek Peter Parker as he comes to terms with his anger and parent issues, and finds a soul-mate.
The first Spider-Man, which concluded with Spider-Man in front of an American flag, seemed to reclaim the air space of Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks from eight months before. The new film is literally more earth-bound: The early action sequences are less about flight than the French obstacle-course sport of parkour, with its emphasis on vaulting, rolling, running, jumping and hand-to-hand combat. The script reverts to Stan Lee's original conception of Spider-Man as a precocious scientist who invents the super-strong web material from which he swings, rather than having it spontaneously eject from his palms.
Why another origin story so soon? The obvious reason is that the Spider-Man franchise has has made more than $2.5-billion to date, Sony will lose rights to the Marvel Comic franchise if it doesn't keep producing movies, and the 3-D ticket premium can't hurt. From a fan's perspective, the Spider-Man franchise had lost its momentum by Spider-Man 3 (2007) and reinventing stories is a common practice in the comic book world, where retroactive continuity, or “retcon,” is a handy way to tie up loose ends and set up new sequels. In the current film, for example, the script finds a common cause for Parker's transformation into Spider-Man and that of his eventual enemy, Oscorp employee Dr. Curt Conners, a.k.a. the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), who was once a friend of Peter's father.
The focused script (the writers include Zodiac's James Vanderbilt, Harry Potter writer Steve Kloves and Alvin Sargent, who worked with Sam Raimi), written with the Star Wars mythological template in mind, takes pains to show that Parker's transformation was brought about as much by his personal identity quest as by a random spider bite. Years ago, his father and mother mysteriously disappeared in the night when he was a toddler, leaving him in the care of his aunt and uncle (Sally Fields and Martin Sheen). It's when he goes looking for information about his father that he ends up at the Oscorp laboratory, where he gets his fateful bite.
Peter never even makes it to college here, though his specialized science high school seems populated by students who look as though they've been held back for a decade. The red-haired Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst in the earlier film) is nowhere to be found, replaced by the perky Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), a fellow science whiz and daughter of brusque police chief (Denis Leary). Nor is Peter really ever much of a kid. His new-found powers provide some brief scenes of physical comedy, but little elation for this brooding teenager. When he embarrasses a school bully, he revels in it a bit too much. After his Uncle Ben is killed by a carjacker, Peter now has a legitimate channel for long-repressed rage.
The choice of the relatively inexperienced director Marc Webb (still in his thirties) offers pluses and minuses: He seems less saturated in comic-book culture than Raimi, and a far less fluid visual stylist. But there's an obvious pay-off in the film's emphasis on a smart romance. Both in his gangly appearance and stammering style, Garfield is reminiscent of a young Tony Perkins, shy but not entirely innocent. Here, Stone's character is not just a dream girl but a catalyst for his awakening human potential. While he stumbles and stutters in her presence, her gaze is almost maternal and encouraging, and it's his pent-up intensity more than his heroism that appeals to her.
The movie's action-heavy second half is more of a mixed bag, with relatively clean action, polished but conventional visual effects and a typically over-emphatic score by James Horner. The supporting cast is adequate, with Ifans, as the scientist who turns into a giant destructive lizard, thankfully underplaying the villainy. When he transforms into a big green lizard, like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and Godzilla, he grows tiresome, particularly because he won't shut up.
One key action sequence, in which Spider-Man rescues a toddler, encapsulates the film's lesson-conscious thrills. The boy is in a burning car which is hanging by a (spider) thread from a bridge when Spider-Man persuades the child to put on his mask to find the courage to climb to safety. While the sequence is there for the raised heartbeats, it's really about Parker's new ability to see himself in others rather than his derring-do.
Editor's Note: Marc Webb is the director of the The Amazing Spider-Man and he is in his thirties. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.