Sometimes, remakes are good

I’m not sure why people are so fixated on whether The Amazing Spider-Man needed to be made. Alyssa Rosenberg, for instance, begins a terrifically insightful review by declaring, “The only people The Amazing Spider-Man is remotely necessary to is Columbia Pictures, which decided to reboot the franchise shortly after Tobey Maguire finished up his run in the webslinger’s unitard in order to hold on to its rights to the character.”

Which is fair enough, and the fact that we got a broadly similar version of this movie just ten years ago is obviously something of a curiosity. But making some intrinsic judgment about a movie’s necessity feels a little strange, especially when you’re not taking its actual quality into account.

This matters because The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t just good; it’s practically a case study in how a reboot can improve on the original. Which actually seems like a great reason to exist, and a lesson more movies could stand to learn.

It’s hard to miss the parallels between this new movie and Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man. Both films are origin stories with similar villains, practically the same emotional arc and a lot of the same plot points. The film was clearly trying to refine the Spider-Man story, and not reinvent it.

Thing is, it worked. This version does all the things a good reboot is supposed to do, by taking the same basic story and the old, familiar themes and giving them a depth that the original couldn’t quite reach.

In some ways, the movie covers a lot more ground than any one of its predecessors. When a crane operator whose child Peter saved returns and enlists his friends to help a wounded Spider-Man reach Oscorp, it’s deeply reminiscent of the train sequence in Spider-Man 2 without actually duplicating the events. When Peter tries to pull away from Gwen Stacy for her own protection, she quickly figures out what’s going on, because she’s known his secret identity for half the movie already.

At the same time, the movie stretches out parts of the story that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man couldn’t get through fast enough. When Amazing ends, Peter Parker is still in high school and Uncle Ben’s killer is still at large. That change allowed the movie to play with themes, like his evolving relationship with school bully Flash or the line between vigilante justice and simple revenge, that the last trilogy didn’t have time for.

Symbolically, the most important change is the way the film replaced Harry Osborn, whose main role in Raimi’s Spider-Man was to fill up screen time with hackneyed soap opera plots, with Captain Stacy, who takes over Uncle Ben’s role as the authority figure who challenges Peter to consider the effects of his actions. Taken together, Amazing‘s characters are less cartoonish and more fully realized, while its story handles the classic Spider-Man themes more deftly than its predecessors could manage.

What’s more, the differences between Amazing and the original Spider-Man are the sort that should matter a lot more in the sequel. Gwen Stacy is a much more active character, and the fact that she already knows that Peter is Spider-Man should mean we’ll be spared most of the ridiculous emotional boomeranging that made me dislike Spider-Man 2. Meanwhile, the mystery of Peter Parker’s parents never got resolved, and Norman Osborn spent the entire movie offscreen, suggesting that the next movie won’t need to grasp at quite so many straws to come up with a new plot.

Raimi’s Spider-Man was released in 2002 when Marvel’s superhero-movie juggernaut was still just getting warmed up. Amazing, by contrast, has had dozens of superhero movies and three Spider-Man pictures to draw from, and it’s learned its lessons well. If a few more writers and directors can look at this movie and figure out how they did it, the film could do some real good work. Even necessary work, I’d say.

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