When you put the word 'amazing' in your title, or any other superlative really, you're tempting fate to a certain extent. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius really doesn't have any wiggle room based on its rather hyperbolic name, and while it's not nearly so over-the-top, The Amazing Spiderman finds itself running the same risk. After all, there have already been three Spiderman movies against which to compare this one; it's going to have to be amazing, to pull off that name.
And happily, it is.
You even get used to his basketball-based costume. Promise.
The Amazing Spiderman is a hard reset on the Spiderman movie franchise, completely wiping out Tobey Maguire's run. Instead of Maguire, Amazing gives us Andrew Garfield as 'nerdy' Peter Parker and, eventually, the titular wall-crawler himself. This Spiderman is still a high school student, dealing with bullies, living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben after the disappearance of his parents, and pining over the beautiful blonde Gwen Stacey. Peter's story is set into motion by the discovery of some of his father's old research notes, rescued from the basement before a malfunctioning washing machine floods it. The notes bring him to Oscorp, and eventually to Dr. Curt Connors, who after appearing in two of the original run's films to no real purpose finally gets the turn into the monstrous Lizard. In addition to a supervillain, Spiderman has to deal with Captain Stacey, chief of the NYCPD and, it just so happens, father of Gwen Stacey herself. And of course, along the line, poor Uncle Ben takes a bullet, teaching Peter a very important lesson.
This film is notable for re-imagining so many of the elements of Spiderman's origin, both those from the original comic run and those popularized by the Maguire films. Peter's parents play a larger role in the story, even appearing on screen, and there's certainly a sense that they're going to turn up somewhere down the line in this movie series. Uncle Ben also gets a hugely expanded role, though mostly at the expense of Aunt May, who has perhaps two quick scenes after his death and doesn't really accomplish anything with them. The mechanical webshooters make their first appearance on screen. Flash Thompson is present, of course, first as the swaggering bully and later as the Spiderman fanboy, in a move true to the comic. Norman and Harry Osborn are absent, though Norman is an off-screen force often acknowledged, but never seen. As for Peter's nerdiness, and his love of science, well... I have to say it's a bit of an informed attribute, frankly. Yes, he goes to some kind of 'science high school', and yes, he has a bizarre semi-remote door lock that takes almost as much energy and three times as long as doing it manually, and yes he eventually seems to actually know something about what he's doing. But honestly, the impression one leaves the theatre with is less 'nerdy Peter Parker' and more 'Xtreme skateboarding photographer Peter Parker'. It's not bad, necessarily, but I would've liked to see more done to build his 'nerdy' credentials from the start.
One thing I absolutely will not fault this movie for, though, is Gwen Stacey. After frankly suffering through a rather forgettable MJ, a character who got progressively blander (and blonder) with each outing, Gwen is a treat. Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have believable chemistry with each other, and even manage to pull off the 'awkward teenage crush two-step', the little hands-in-pockets, head-down, fidgeting-feet shuffle people that age tend to engage in whenever they're forced to confront actual emotional intimacy. Garfield and Stone really do sell the romance, far more than Maguire and Dunst ever did, which is delightfully ironic considering Maguire's earnest voiceover assurance that the first movie was 'a story about a girl'. Gwen has far more character than MJ ever managed, and an actual role in the plot beyond 'hot girl'.
So, I've already done it; everyone has. And really, how could you talk about Amazing Spiderman without comparing it to the Maguire trilogy? I'm just going to hit a couple of points, since mostly it's been covered elsewhere, in greater depth. I think Maguire did a better job as nerdy Peter Parker, but Garfield was a far better Spiderman. Dunst was a nonentity compared to Stone. I preferred the organic webshooters, because Peter being able to make the web fluid and not selling it or patenting it for use is silly given how often he's broke, and if he's buying it (as he seems to be doing in this movie) it should be laughably easy to track down who's mail ordering crates of the stuff and use that to track down Spiderman. Dafoe's Norma Osborn was a far more interesting villain than Rhys Ifans Curt Connors, though the fights against the Lizard are infinitely more impressive than those against the Green Goblin. Stan Lee's cameo in Amazing is extremely funny, and probably a bit better than in the original. The schmaltzy 'New Yorkers come to Spiderman's rescue' scene in Amazing is executed better, a more understated and personally grounded expression that pays off far better than New Yorkers chucking junk at the Goblin off the Brooklyn Bridge. And finally, Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Rosemary Harris does a far better job as Aunt May than Sally Fields, though Fields is given almost nothing to work with. On the other hand, for all the paternal charm of Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen absolutely knocks it out of the park as Uncle Ben in Amazing. That man is just fantastic, owning every scene he's in, and easily swinging between making the audience laugh and making them cry. The only dim spot in his performance isn't even his fault; in a bizarre desire not to use the 'with great power comes great responsibility' line, Sheen is saddled instead with the most roundabout paraphrase of that thought you could imagine. He doesn't quite manage to pull it off, but he comes closer than any other actor I can think of would've, and if the worst you can say about a performance is that he got a few clunky lines, well, that's pretty good.
There are, however, two points on which Amazing simply fails compared to the original Spiderman movie. There's no J.K. Chesterton as J. Jonah Jameson. And there's no Bruce Campbell.