The reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man are in, with the consensus that Marc Webb has produced little more than an upgrade of the Sam Raimi trilogy. With the exception of the girl and the villain, everything down to the font used for the title seems the same. Yet there's something oddly different about Andrew Garfield's web-slinger. For one, he rides a skateboard. For another, he only starts wearing glasses when he finds a retro pair of his father's—what a hipster. Suddenly, Parker is no longer a nerd.
Tobey Maguire spent his first scene as Parker stammering factoids about spiders and scientific equipment, finishing with, "Who wouldn't want to know that?" Garfield slouches through school, shows up late to class and doodles idly at the back of the room. He is still a top student—at least, so we're told—but we never see his brains in action. Where Maguire is startled when anyone bothers to talk to him, Garfield is charismatic and self-possessed. He plays hard-to-get with Emma Stone's besotted Gwen Stacy, so much so that she literally has to chase him down, hand him her address on a scrap of paper and insist that they go on a date. He charms his father's long-lost best friend, and has the courage to get into a fight with Denis Leary when they've literally just met in the man's own home. He even taunts Flash Johnson in defense of a bona fide nerd. Sure, he gets pummeled, but it's clear that he's high enough on the social food chain to normally avoid such humiliation.
Then there's the skateboard. For my generation, skateboarding is a symbol of rebellion, of contempt for authority and respectability. No self-respecting nerd-boy gets near a skateboard, much less carries them around school or hangs them on his bedroom wall, as Garfield does. And his teen angst is boiling over, yet suppressed. Just contrast how the two Spider-Men handled the death of their Uncle Ben: Maguire sat on his bed and cried fat tears to his elderly aunt, but Garfield acts out and gets so violent and aloof, his aunt has to yell at him to "Take off the damn hood!"
The new Parker is a bad-ass in a world that's been scrubbed clean. Mary Jane, child of an abusive home and filmy low-cut t-shirts, has been replaced with the affluent Gwen Stacy, daughter of the police chief and a cheery blonde partial to sweater-sets and knee socks. Parker's own home has been upgraded from a row house to a brownstone, and his education upgraded from crummy local high school to a science magnet. Plus, Garfield is no public enemy—the only grump who doesn't get what Spider-Man is trying to do is Gwen's cantankerous father. And any mention of life after high school is scrubbed clean, so that the evils of New York and adult life are confined to the trials of the masked hero.
By themselves, these tweaks are hardly noticeable. As a package, they only change the temperature of the film a degree or two. So why would the studio institute such widespread, yet subtle changes?
Part of Spider-Man's appeal is the transformation of powerless to powerful. (What mousy underdog wouldn't enjoy turning the tables on their oppressors?) But a less-virtuous Peter Parker has the potential to appeal to more audiences—he can be admired by the in-crowd while still being idolized by the outsiders. Parents can associate him with their own troubled teens, while those teens can identify with his frustration. More importantly, the shift is not significant enough to upset the purists, who are the real base audience for such a movie.
The second part of the shift is due to the cultures that produced each film. Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man came out in 2002, the product of a city in mourning. Like New York, Peter Parker was blindsided by trauma and his changing self-image. The public wanted not only to see their own gritty reality portrayed onscreen, but to see it ascend triumphant. In other words, his life sucked because we were feeling sucky.
The current film reflects our tentative stability. The new Parker's reality has improved, but while he's no longer a social pariah, he's still a loner. His offhand charm is a mask that covers a frustrated, damaged heart. A decade after 9/11, this is the character America wants: a boy who is happy only in the moment, who refuses to look into his future, and avoids probing his carefully concealed wounds.
It's fun to watch the new, improved Peter Parker. But it's depressing to think of the man he'll become.