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A Nerd Is Not A Geek: Two Spins On Spider-Man

The biggest challenge The Amazing Spider-Man faces might be surprisingly existential for a summer blockbuster: Why should it be?

In a world that already has the 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-Man and its two sequels (the first well-received in 2004, the second widely panned in 2007), why do we need to start over in 2012 with director Marc Webb (500 Days Of Summer) creating a new Peter Parker? Why do we need to watch another biting incident? (I speak creatively, of course. Why the movie is actually being made is a different story.)

After all, the fellas are roughly contemporaries, even if 2012 Peter does research his nemesis on Bing. The tones of the films are different — surprisingly, Webb, whose most famous effort is a self-consciously adorable comedy starring Zooey Deschanel's bangs, brings less slapstick to the proceedings than Raimi, who previously directed stuff like The Evil Dead.

But the most interesting difference between the films is Peter Parker himself. Tobey Maguire's Peter was a classic nerd archetype: big glasses, tripping over his feet, victimized by bullies — the kind of guy you can easily imagine saying "golly" a lot. He first loves his spider-powers because he can stare at his muscles in the mirror and stop wearing his glasses; he loves them because he can throw off the markers of small size and corrective lenses that mark him.

Andrew Garfield is not playing a nerd; he is playing the modern notion of the geek, which is very different. What's the difference?

Garfield's Peter is more oddball than outcast. He's not actively rejected as much as he's just not part of very much of what goes on at school. He seems to be largely left alone by the bullies until he takes up for the kid — the nerd — they're picking on. He's not a weakling and not particularly perceived to be one the way Maguire's Peter is when he can't catch the bus to school. The nerd archetype gets sand kicked in his face; the modern geek probably isn't at the beach in the first place — he's less a victim and more an isolationist.

Geeks are also a little less romantically inept than nerds. Signaling a nerd traditionally involves demonstrating that a guy has no luck with girls at all. Maguire plays Peter as moony-eyed, starting with the voiceover in the first movie that proclaims that the entire story is about Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and how much he loves her.

Webb's Peter, on the other hand, has terrific chemistry with schoolmate Gwen Stacy (the wonderful, indispensable-in-everything Emma Stone) even before he undergoes his arachnoid transformation. They already like each other; they already make each other laugh. It's not as aw-shucksy as Maguire and Dunst as Peter and MJ; Peter and Gwen are a bit more about spark and a bit less about gazing. Garfield and Stone have maybe the best on-screen chemistry I've seen in a year, to be honest; they constantly look on the verge of beaming uncontrollably, and that's really the effect you want here. In Raimi's film, MJ is into Spider-Man when she doesn't know he's Peter; in Webb's, the flirtation is with Peter from the beginning and the question has to do with her finding out he's Spider-Man. It might seem like a small point, but getting rid of the convention (used perhaps most famously with Lois Lane) of having the girl interested in a suited superhero while the guy in the suit pines after her makes her substantially more conscious as a character, which is a huge help. It gives the love story a lot more heft when the whole thing isn't so bogged down in mistaken identity misdirection.

Geeks also get a little more individuality than traditional movie nerds. Here, instead of the swoony voiceover about the girl next door, Peter is introduced in a prologue that explains how he came to be separated from his parents and living with Aunt May and Uncle Ben in the first place. Now, obviously, opinions differ — deeply — on how much of a good idea it is to delve very deeply into the story of Peter's missing parents. (Many people got the impression from the trailers that a whole movie was going to be about the parents; it's not, at least directly.) But whether you're particularly interested in that angle or not, it gives a little bit more depth to Peter's somewhat standoffish personality around people he doesn't know well. It makes him a loner as much by choice as by happenstance; he started out as a bruised kid long before the bullies got to him.

The other reason to include a little bit about what happens with Peter's parents is that it substantially increases the stakes in the pivotal argument he has with Uncle Ben — the fight that's really a quick exchange of snotty, petulant words followed by a heartwarming avuncular speech when it happens between Tobey Maguire and Cliff Robertson. When it happens between Garfield and Martin Sheen, it's a much more meaningful rift, and that's important to giving what happens later some heft.

I liked Maguire's performance in the original films a lot, but it felt like an expert execution of a character I had seen a lot of times before. Garfield's energy in this movie is much twitchier and weirder. There's a true awkwardness that's not studied, but feels like it's in every cell of his body. Garfield and Stone play a scene together on a roof where he says almost nothing but stammers with such precision that you can tell at every moment what it is he's almost saying. Geek culture allows a lot of variation, and rather than wonderfully embodying a classic type, Garfield gets to play more of an individual guy.

None of this is to say The Amazing Spider-Man is better than the Raimi films; there are lots of elements, after all, other than Peter and MJ and Gwen, and while I like Rhys Ifans as the Lizard, I'm not sure his rampages were as interesting as Willem Dafoe's. But I do like this Peter better, and I do like Gwen massively more than I liked MJ, who I always thought was kind of a watery wimp.

Both series will have their partisans, but Webb's film is less a retread than it might seem at first glance. Had it come first, in fact, you might find the Raimi version of Peter a little too conventionally nerdy for your liking.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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