The movie re-tells Spider-Man's origin story, but with a few details re-worked to keep things fresh. Additionally, a mystery involving Peter Parker's parents (say that five times fast) lies at the foundation of this new movie franchise. The movie pulls a number of concepts from Marvel's "Ultimate" version of Spider-Man. (The Marvel "Ultimate" universe is an alternate version of their main universe that has been in publication for over 10 years.) Gwen Stacy is Peter's love interest, with no signs of Mary Jane anywhere. And instead of J. Jonah Jameson barking at Peter, Gwen's father, a police Captain, serves as an antagonist for both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Peter is also a science wiz and uses mechanical web-shooters that he designed himself, rather than shooting organic webbing from out of his body.
There is still plenty of room for, and even foreshadowing of, the Daily Bugle, Norman Osborne and other characters and ideas that movie fans would recognize, but the producers seem to be holding those things on the back burner for now. The changes and alternate ideas all still work, and are just as faithful to Spider-Man's comic book roots as the original trilogy. This film simply emphasizes different portions of Spider-Man lore.
The story is also much more grounded in emotional drama than any of the previous films. And in general, the performances are stronger, and taken more seriously. It's not that the movie is emotionally "dark", even though it is often more dark visually. But it does give time and effort to presenting characters worth caring about. As a result I found myself welling up with tears more than once. The film offers far more quality drama than we have a right to expect from this film genre, and hopefully it will raise the bar in this area for future superhero movies.
The downside of grounding the movie so well is ending up with a literally "grounded" Spider-Man movie. Although the CGI Spider-Man looks better than ever, the acrobatic action never really opens up and cuts loose when compared to any of the previous films. Make no mistake, there is some great action in this movie. But after three movies of crazy, impossibly wild Spider-Man action, this Spider-Man doesn't seem to jump as high or dodge as skillfully as the Spider-Man we're used to at the movies.
We also don't see Spider-Man in full costume until nearly an hour into this two hour and fifteen minute flick. And even in the second half there are multiple "Spider-Man scenes" in which Peter is not in costume. So be prepared to see the suit less than you're used to, and know that the action will also not be as big as it has been previously.
In terms of worthwhile spiritual or moral themes, you of course have the classic "responsibility" theme. Uncle Ben tells Peter that his father believed everyone has a moral responsibility to help others if they are able to. And we see Peter switch from an attitude seeking revenge to one seeking to help those in need. It's more subtle than it could or maybe should have been, but the theme is there.
Another moment that blipped on my philosophical radar was when Aunt May, in an effort to encourage Peter to go after a girl he doesn't think he's "good for", tells Peter that "if there is one thing you are, it's good." While relatively speaking this may be true, Peter also selfishly ignores responsibility several times, takes his anger out on others, and rolls his eyes at his authorities at school. If I had to pick someone in the Marvel universe to call "good", I'd go with Captain America. This Spider-Man, though well-meaning, is a bit self-absorbed.
Now before I get hate mail for sounding like a judgmental prude, my point isn't that Peter Parker isn't a "good" person. My point is that there really are no "good" people, and I think it's kind of odd and presumptuous that we so often tell each other and ourselves that we are "good" or even "basically good". None of us really have the objective perspective from which to make that determination. Technically speaking, we ought to leave that kind of labeling for God to do.
Of course all of this is likely over-analysis, given that the spiritual and moral themes of the movie never really stand out more than the characters themselves. This is not a movie trying to say anything. It's a movie about characters that aims to make us care about them.
If this had been the first Spider-Man movie I'd ever seen, I'd be blown away. (The effects are leaps and bounds above those first CGI shots of the original Spider-Man movie.) But all entertainment art is graded based on what we've experienced before. And while this movie would have been an easy 10 a decade ago, I've come to expect a larger visual experience when it comes to Spider-Man. Maybe my opinion of it will improve over time as those expectations fade. (That was certainly the case for me with Batman Begins.) At the very least I think it is a great movie to start a new franchise with, and viewers will be grateful so much time was spent on character development in this movie when they are watching its sequel. But for now I'd have to say a better title for this flick would be "The Very Good Spider-Man". It falls a bit short of "Amazing".
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence