Is there any more infernal word in the English language than "reboot"? It used to be what you did to your computer when the screen froze, but more recently it has become Hollywood's preferred means of passing off recycled junk as a shiny new model.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot (don't call it a remake!) of a 10-year-old movie that grossed upward of $800 million worldwide and remains in widespread circulation.
This version features new actors, a more expansive backstory, busier action set pieces and 3-D photography. What's missing is anything resembling a personality -- or a purpose for the film's existence, beyond squeezing a few more dollars from an American moviegoing public that seems too lazy or indifferent to demand something better.
It's hardly an embarrassment -- the scenes flow, the performers are game -- but that doesn't mean The Amazing Spider-Man isn't an insult.
In a jittery, rain-soaked prologue, we meet Peter Parker as a young boy, when his scientist father (Campbell Scott) and mother (Embeth Davidtz) are forced to scurry out of town under mysterious circumstances, leaving him to be raised by his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Flash-forward 10 years, and Peter (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network) is a nerdy photography buff, ignored by the girls at his school and picked on by the jocks.
Garfield is a gifted physical performer, capable of collapsing his shoulders and loosening his limbs, in the manner of a gangly high school senior. But nothing else about the actor, who is 28 and not especially boyish looking, remotely suggests he might be a teenager; and his love interest here is Emma Stone ( Easy A, The Help), a sharp-featured, husky-voiced actress who probably looked like a 40-ish film-noir femme fatale when she was 12. (She's 23 in real life.)
Watching these two grown-ups play children only heightens the artificiality of The Amazing Spider-Man and denies the material its essential subtext: This is supposed to be the story of adolescents throttling headlong into adulthood, not the other way around.
Stone plays Gwen Stacy, a character who some comics fans argue is Parker's original true love. Here she's Peter's brainy classmate, who also happens to be the daughter of a New York City police captain (Denis Leary), and -- while we're piling on coincidences -- also happens to have an internship with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), the ex-partner of Peter's father. (Peter's much better-known love interest, Mary Jane, is nowhere to be seen. At least someone gets out of this with her dignity intact.)
Visiting Connor's office one afternoon, Peter (implausibly) wanders into a top-secret laboratory, where he's (even more implausibly) showered with genetically engineered spiders, one of whom bites him ... and, well you know the rest. But, boy, this movie sure takes its sweet time. More than an hour passes before Uncle Ben is murdered by a robber, and Peter decides to don his Spider-Man outfit and become a vigilante for justice. This is tyranny of comic-book culture run amok: Why tell a tale economically when you can obsess over every detail of it and stretch it out to ungodly lengths?
Directed by Mark Webb, whose (500) Days of Summer may have been insufferable but at least had a point of view, The Amazing Spider-Man is polished and fussed-over and clearly thought out; it's the shell of a good movie with nothing of substance inside. The 2002 Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi, took its moral cue from lead actor Tobey Maguire -- an actor whose gee-whiz earnestness always seems to be masking a sinister streak.
The screenwriters of this version (James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves) just serve up scene after repetitive scene of Spider-Man learning to harness his newfound physical strength. There's a shred of complexity buried here -- Peter feels that had he not been so callow and petty, he might have been able to prevent Uncle Ben's death -- and Garfield tries to flesh it out. But the movie is far more interested in watching Spider-Man swing than deepening his motivations.
The biggest thud, though, comes courtesy of the film's villain. When Connors injects an experimental serum into himself, he inadvertently transforms into a giant green lizard -- a deeply uninspired villain whose greatest power is that he can keep regenerating severed limbs. This leads to an interminable final hour, where Spider-Man fights the lizard, the lizard gets away, and then Spider-Man fights him again (and again, and again).
That the other characters make self-conscious references to Godzilla does nothing to diminish the sheer cheesiness of all this.
As bland and easily digestible as baby food, The Amazing Spider-Man is no doubt going to be a huge hit. Some people will confuse commercial success with quality. But talk about aiming low.
The Amazing Spider-Man ends with a veritable invitation to a sequel, which might be a little better than this one or might be a little worse, but certainly won't upset a billion-dollar apple cart or doing anything remotely original.
When it comes to big-budget Hollywood superhero movies these days, we're trapped in a never-ending spin cycle.
Christopher Kelly is the Star-Telegram film critic, 817-390-7032