Thanks to a wonderful comment from swanpride, this piece has been revised and updated to address Peter and Gwen’s crucial talk on the bleachers.
In its desperation to distance itself from Sam Raimi’s classic trilogy, The Amazing Spider-Man radically changes the order and details of Peter Parker’s origin story as much as it can. But, as a result of that restructuring, the actual lesson and message integral to Spider-Man’s origin story gets lost. Peter never learns Uncle Ben’s big lesson (though in this version it’s attributed to Peter’s missing father) and he spends the entirety of the movie without an ethos or proper motivation. Add to that some dodgy scripting and design around Peter himself and what you’re left with is a dull, serviceable film with a horribly broken and unlikable character at its center.
Despite Andrew Garfield’s best efforts, who his a charming and engaging actor, his Peter Parker does come off like a huge jerk for the entirety of the movie. Comic book Peter Parker (and Tobey Maguire’s Peter, for that matter) is supposed to be a social outcast. He’s an outsider. He’s not mysterious and intriguing; he’s a dork. There are a lot of different ways to play that (it’s not limited to Maguire’s 60s/retro style) but it’s essential that at the start of his story Peter Parker is not cool, not liked, and yet totally likable for all of that. That’s necessary so that when he does get his powers and abuse them for money and popularity, we, as the audience, can totally understand and relate to why. It also means that later on there’s a difference between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. They both represents elements of his personality but they exist in discrete places in his life. The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Peter Parker is a super handsome, quiet loner with perfectly coiffed hair who also likes to skateboard and disregard the rules at school. If Peter Parker is a super cool wisecracker than what does that leave for Spider-Man?
Now, I totally see the thought process behind making Peter like this. “He can’t be a complete dork like Maguire was. Make him one of those cool nerds. Kids like skateboarding, right? That’s cool, make him do that. And give him an attitude, he can’t be too nice or respectful. But to make sure he’s still a nerd, just don’t give him any friends and throw in a quick scene with a bully and that’ll be good.” They want this Peter Parker to appeal as much as possible to as many people as possible and studio execs don’t think that somebody who’s genuinely a dork appeals, so they make him as cool as they can while still calling him a loser. Instead of being a dork, this Peter Parker begins the story as a cool, handsome skater who doesn’t care about the rules and authority. So where does that leave him to go when he first gets his powers? Well, he just continues being a jerk, messing with poor Rodrigo Guevara, bullying Flash Thompson (who, by the end of the movie, turns out to be a nicer guy than Peter), being weirdly aggressive towards much weaker and ill-equipped criminals, acting immature and petulant towards Captain Stacy, and much more.
“But,” I hear you say, “it’s okay if Peter is a jerk so long as Uncle Ben dies as a result of Pete’s jerkiness and he learns his lesson and truly becomes Spider-Man.” You’d think so, but that’s not what happens in this movie. For starters, Peter never hears the words, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man’s guiding ethos is never once mentioned. All that the movie gives Peter is one awkward scene where Uncle Ben tries to get the point across without using the words “great,” “power,” or “responsibility,” and even this is attributed to Peter’s father, which lessens Uncle Ben’s importance in Peter’s life (one of the biggest problems in the Amazing movies is totally undercutting Aunt May and Uncle Ben as Peter’s moral center). Anyway, Peter lets a thief escape a robbery (because Pete was angry he couldn’t afford a $2 bottle of chocolate milk) and, in mere seconds, the thief shoots and kills Uncle Ben. On its own merits, it’s a poorly handled sequence that fails to elicit any of the heartbreak and emotion present in the Raimi version, but, in terms of story and Peter’s character, it should be a turning point. But when Peter learns that he’s partly responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, it doesn’t act as signifcant change for his character. Peter should realize the responsibility he now carries with his powers and decide to put them to use against crime so that nobody else has to feel the pain he feels at Uncle Ben’s death. But instead he commits to using his powers for selfish reasons, this time embarking on quest for vengeance for Uncle Ben’s killer (which is exactly the sort of thing Uncle Ben would be opposed to).
Even at this point in the movie, I think the filmmakers could have made Peter’s origin still work. Peter is fighting crime purely for selfish reasons. All he wants is vengeance against Uncle Ben’s killer. At this point in the story, Peter should somehow come to learn the error of his ways. He has to learn the lesson that these powers aren’t to be used for personal gain. His powers, which allow him to do things no other human can do, force upon Peter a responsibility to help others. Peter can have his quest for vengeance (just like he briefly does in Raimi’s Spider-Man) but it needs to end when he realizes that with great power comes great responsibility. The powers aren’t for Peter, they’re for the people of New York City.
So how does The Amazing Spider-Man end Peter’s selfish and vengeful hunt for Uncle Ben’s killer? Peter gets sidetracked with trying to stop The Lizard. Now, some people might say this is where Peter has learned his lesson. Captain Stacy has explained to Peter that Spider-Man isn’t helping the city and that the masked vigilante is obviously just on a personal vendetta. Shortly after that, Peter takes on The Lizard on the bridge and saves some innocent people from tumbling into the river below.
So, lesson learned, right? Pete now realizes that he can’t be Spider-Man just based on a personal vendetta, right? Not exactly. Talking with Gwen, Peter says that he has to continue fighting The Lizard or else more people will get hurt. He calls it his job now to stop The Lizard. Arguably, this is Peter accepting his responsibility, but the way the scene is played and the context surrounding the crucial bits of dialogue regarding The Lizard undercut what should be an important moment in Peter’s transformation. Firstly, this is not a lesson learning scene. This is not where Peter realizes that with great power comes great responsibility and reaffirms his role as Spider-Man. Peter casually says to Gwen that fighting The Lizard is something he has to do. There’s no lesson learned, there’s no realization, there’s only a continuation of what’s come before, and since we never see Peter regret or condemn his vengeful hunt for Uncle Ben’s killer, the movie tells us that the two (the personal vendetta and the new hunt for The Lizard) are the same. Even with this scene, we never see Peter accept his great responsibility. The movie doesn’t distinguish between Pete’s motivation for the personal vendetta and his quest for The Lizard, labelling them morally equivalent, and in doing so it deprives Peter of a moment where he accepts his responsibility and becomes Spider-Man.
This is reinforced by a small snippet of dialogue that comes right before The Lizard dialogue. Pete asks Gwen if she believes what the police say about him and she sides with Peter and says no. This, despite the fact that we know the police and Captain Stacy to be correct and that Spider-Man is a vigilante who’s only operating because he has a personal vendetta. So our two heroes have stated their disagreement with what the police say about Spider-Man’s previous actions (the personal vendetta) and then go on to reassert what he has to do next (take care of The Lizard), once again implying that they’re equivalent. This scene could have been the movie’s saving grace but by aligning the chase for The Lizard with Peter’s personal vendetta and having both characters stand in opposition to the police (who are right about Spider-Man) it undercuts anything the scene could have said about Peter learning his lesson and accepting his responsibility.
The movie then turns around and gives a different motivation for Pete fighting The Lizard. After only encountering The Lizard once, Peter learns that The Lizard is actually Curt Connors and that it was only because of Peter’s help that Connors was able to turn himself into The Lizard. Peter says that because he helped create The Lizard, it’s now his responsibility to stop him. This is exactly, 100% wrong and is the exact opposite of what “great power, great responsibility” is all about.
It might seem like splitting hairs, but hear me out because I think that it’s in this transition from personal vendetta to fighting The Lizard that this movie’s Peter Parker could have learned that with great power comes great responsibility and fully assumed the role of Spider-Man. But he doesn’t, and as a result The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Peter never truly learns what it means to be Spider-Man. He begins the movie as a too-cool-for-school jerk without Uncle Ben’s great lesson and ends the movie as the exact same jerk except that at the end he has a snazzy costume and a cute girlfriend.
So let’s break down the problem with Peter fighting The Lizard solely because he was responsible for creating him.
Based on Spider-Man’s guiding principle, “with great power with great responsibility,” Peter is not responsible for stopping The Lizard because he helped create him. Peter is responsible for stopping The Lizard because he is responsible for helping the people of New York City. Peter feels that he is responsible for stopping any and all crime that he can because he has a power that no one else has. With great power comes great responsibility. He’s the one with the great power and so he’s the one with the responsibility. His responsibility doesn’t exist because he’s personally at fault for Connors turning into The Lizard. Just like his responsibility to find the man that murdered Uncle Ben shouldn’t be motivated by a personal desire for vengeance. Spider-Man’s responsibility and sense of duty is omnipresent, regardless of where the foe, crime, or danger comes from.
Yet The Amazing Spider-Man implies, and Peter flat out says, that his responsibility in stopping The Lizard is derived from his helping in its creation. Not only does this completely destroy the point of “With great power comes great responsibility” but it also implies that Peter isn’t responsible for fighting any wrongdoing besides the ones that he starts. And since, in this movie, Peter never fights crime other than to serve his own ends (finding Uncle Ben’s killer and stopping a creature he helped create) that’s exactly the message the movie ends with.
And that’s not who Peter Parker is. That’s not who Spider-Man is. At its very core, this movie screws up who Peter Parker and Spider-Man are. Fueled by guilt, Peter Parker entrusts himself with the responsibility of helping the people of NYC because of the amazing powers he’s been granted. It’s absolutely essential to his character that he learns that lesson and accepts that responsibility. But nowhere in Amazing Spider-Man does Peter ever accept the responsibility that his powers bring with them.
Peter Parker is the anchor from which everything else in a Spider-Man story hangs off of and The Amazing Spider-Man has an unlikable, broken, arrogant, bullying Peter Parker as its anchor who, worst of all, never learns that with great power comes great responsibility.
Despite the last thousand or so words, I don’t actually hate The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s broken at its center, it’s rather dull and lacking in any sort of unique style or charisma, none of its action scenes stand out as uniquely engaging or interesting, a lot of its dialogue is awkward and stilted, the Spidey suit and The Lizard design are absolutely atrocious, the mystery surrounding Peter’s parents is an obvious gimmick to make people think this movie is doing something different than Raimi’s trilogy though the mystery is uninteresting and the movie mostly forgets about it halfway through, and it’s just generally full of scenes that either totally miss their mark (like Uncle Ben’s death), are embarrassing (like the cranes at the end), or are downright repugnant (Peter’s final, horrible line about promises).
But I totally get why people like it; it’s an easy movie to like. Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Denis Leary are engaging on screen and the whole thing clips along at a decent pace with some action every once in a while to spice up the proceedings. If you sit in front of it, shut your brain off, and assume that its hitting all the necessary beats a Spidey origin should, then it’s not a painful watch. It’s not a good movie, but its a painless experience.
Next on the docket: The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Can the (much more divisive) sequel fix the problems the original created? Can it feature an actual interesting villain? Can it just be more fun than the first? Most of all, can it make Peter Parker likable?