— Albus Dumbledore
The above quote demonstrates one of the things that has always made me uncomfortable about superheroes in general. Reveling in the adventures of a hero capable of superhuman feats also allows the reader/viewer to by extension, revel in his or her own weakness, and by extension soon alienates that person from the better angels of his/her nature by separating the possibility of the heroic from the human.
Perhaps the reason the Spider-Man character has managed to become Marvel's mascot and flagship character is because in all his incarnations he stayed the most human and identifiable for readers everywhere despite his powers. One does not revel in Spider-Man's adventures simply due to his abilities but due to the tough choices that he is making as Peter Parker, the alienated, nerdy nobody from Queens, NY. With that in mind, Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man is the film that the enduring character truly deserves.
Webb, having previously filmed the delightfully subversive romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer, is a wise choice for this film given his love of character-driven storytelling. We all know the basic gist. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an alienated, lonely science and technology whiz of a teenager from New York, an orphan raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), who is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and gains superhuman agility, strength and adhesiveness to vertical surfaces. The death of Uncle Ben at the hands of a mugger that Parker was directly responsible for not stopping triggers off his desire to assume the Spider-Man persona and fight crime.
In Webb's film, working from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, it's in the details that the magic is spun. Webb and his writers wisely make the film as much or more so about Peter Parker than it is about Spider-Man. Peter Parker is shown to be a bit of a scientist-detective in his own right, a teen with above-average deductive powers, a nose for trouble, and a whiz with gadgets and electronics, who is himself taken with the quest of discovering the truth behind his parents' untimely death. On its own, this could have formed a compelling movie even if Parker did not turn into Spider-Man.
So well-written is Parker's character build-up that when Parker springs into action in full Spider-Man costume more than an hour into the film, the audience is fully convinced that Peter Parker is a heroic figure not because of the powers he has acquired but of the choices he has made. Parker retains his goofy optimism, immaturity and awkwardness throughout the film as he romances Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and tries to stop the plans of mad scientist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a good man transformed into a giant humanoid lizard as the result of a freak experiment he performed on himself.
Stretching the theme that choices and not abilities define heroism to its logical conclusion, The Amazing Spider-Man is not just a character piece of Peter Parker's development into Spider-Man but also a celebration of everyday heroism. The film wisely chooses not to have Spider-Man an object to be feared, supplicated, or worshipped by the citizens of New York but rather as a character whose acts of kindness citizens are grateful towards and who inadvertently inspires the common man to the better angels of his nature.
It is this quality that renders The Amazing Spider-Man not only that rare superhero film that truly stands out as a feat of character-driven storytelling, but in its affirmation that all of us are capable of heroic feats large and small, it restores the heroic to the human. You couldn't find a superhero movie to make you feel better about yourself all year, one that truly captures the magic of Marvel's flagship character.