Despite it only being ten years since Sam Raimi brought the latest incarnation of Spider-Man to the silver screen with Tobey Maguire in 2002, Sony Pictures have given the world one of the dreaded "re-boots" of the story in The Amazing-Spider Man, intending to re-ignite interest in a franchise which has struggled to maintain popularity since the disappointing Spider-Man 3 in 2007. Sam Raimi is replaced in the director's chair by the aptly-named Marc Webb; Tobey Maguire is replaced by Andrew Garfield; Kirsten Dunst as Mary-Jane Watson is replaced by Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, and the entire supporting cast is changed too. The film is yet another origin story, explaining how the mild-mannered science buff Peter Parker is transformed into the Astonishing Arachnid Boy by way of a helpful spider bite, and sets about cleaning up New York City in the face of a super-villain, the Lizard. The truly amazing thing about The Amazing Spider-Man is that, contrary to all expectations, it's better than Raimi's Spider-Man on almost all levels: story, screenplay, acting, special effects, and even its score, which sees James Horner replacing Danny Elfman (and Christopher Young and all the uncredited ghost writers).
James Horner hasn't scored a traditional super-hero film since The Rocketeer in 1991, and it's wonderful to hear him back in the comic book arena, providing the film with a score which is rich, vibrant, orchestrationally inventive and - wonder of wonders - has more than one powerful and recognizable theme running through its entirety, something that has been sadly missing from most comic book super hero movies since Hans Zimmer got his fingers in the pie following the Batman reboots in 2005. With a few notable exceptions like Alan Silvestri's glorious Captain America score, it's been too long since a composer actually got to the heart of a super-hero story and scored all the emotion, all the energy, all the inherent silliness, and all the sheer bravado with his heart unashamedly on his sleeve. Directors and producers are so afraid of giving an audience any emotional content via their film's scores amid accusations of manipulation, that for a film like this to have a score like this is nothing less than astonishing.
There are two main themes competing for screen time: the stirring main Spider-Man theme, and a piano-based love theme for Peter and Gwen. The main theme is a rising four-note brass motif (no, not that one) which first appears in the "Main Title" in almost muted, faraway form, surrounded by trilling electronics and what may be a subtle nod to the excellent percussive writing of Danny Elfman's own Spider-Man theme, but receives several stirring recapitulations as the score develops. It's a surprisingly adaptable theme, capable of appearing in numerous guises and variations: for example, listen for the tuba performance of the theme in the playful "Playing Basketball", the way it plays in muted brass counterpoint to the glistening string textures in "The Spider Room", and the way it soars during the shimmering, magical "Metamorphosis". As the score reaches its conclusion the main theme really begins to assert itself, and the finale contains several heroic, thunderous performances of the theme, notably towards the end of "Saving New York", in "Oscorp Tower", and in the excellent conclusive piece, "Promises/Spider-Man End Titles".
The love theme usually accompanies Peter and Gwen and their cute-yet-naïve teenage romance, reaching its zenith in the beautiful "Rooftop Kiss" where it is accompanied by a lyrical oboe, but there are also several subtly varied and deconstructed forms heard during exceptionally emotional family-related personal moments for Peter, like in "The Briefcase", "The Equation", and at the end of "Ben's Death". The piano performances in these cues, which are generally performed by Horner himself, are powerful in their gentle, internalized depiction of Peter's angst, and give the score a strong and poignant core. The touching string-and-piano-led final statements of the love theme in "I Can't See You Anymore" have an overarching aura of sadness and regret, and give the piece a sense of pathos that is very effective.
A third motif seems to act as a sort of a marker for the Lizard character, and is an Arabic-inflected vocal styling which some listeners will remember from The Four Feathers. Quite why the Lizard has a Middle-Eastern vocal motif is unclear (and, having seen the film, this doesn't make it any clearer), but the effect is certainly effective, and the motif's appearances in the "Main Title", and in later cues such as "Peter's Suspicions" "Making a Silk Trap" and at the beginning of the rollicking "Lizard at School!" are noteworthy.
The action music, of which there is quite a lot, is masterfully woven together, combining thematic fragments and interesting orchestral textures with a sense of forward motion and energy that is quite compelling. For Horner to be able to through-compose cues such as "Saving New York" and "Oscorp Tower", in what is essentially 11 minutes of solid music, dancing its way through the action sequences, avoiding overwhelming the dialogue, while maintaining a sense of fluid musicality, intelligent thematic progression, and all without resorting to stock-in-trade loops and repeated percussion patterns, is nothing less than astonishing. And this is like the 25th time he's done it in his career, putting a lot of the composers who specialize in writing action scores to shame.
Other action sequences, such as "Becoming Spider-Man", "Rumble in the Subway", "Ben's Death", the dramatic "The Bridge", and the aforementioned "Lizard at School!", are no less impressive. Notably, "Becoming Spider-Man" runs through several variations of the main theme before exploding into the magnificent first full performance of the in all its glory, chorus and all, and even manages a rousing accelerando tribute to The Rocketeer half way through. Later, "Ben's Death" has some wonderfully masculine male voice chanting underneath all the carnage which is as unexpected as it is enjoyable.
Not only that, but some of the little textures and flourishes Horner adds are superb: listen to the boy soprano at the end of the main title in the "Young Peter" sequence which reoccurs later in "The Bridge" and in "Saving New York" - the former being a clever echo of the father/son relationship between Peter and his father, transposed to the father and the little boy Peter saves from death. In addition, there are some almost Leonard Bernstein-style jazzy finger snaps in "Playing Basketball" and "Hunting for Information", innovative metallic glassy textures at the end of "Secrets", gentle guitar strumming, trilling pan flutes and wooden percussion in "The Equation", and a beautiful theme at the end of "The Ganali Device" which virtually never appears again, despite its attractiveness.
Undoubtedly, with Horner being Horner, critics are bound to point their bony fingers in his direction at the stylistic similarities between this score and other scores in his canon, accompanied by histrionic howls of hackery and self-plagiarism. There are similarities, of course. There are instrumental, textural and rhythmic moments which recall everything from The Spitfire Grill and Titanic, to Apollo 13 and Jumanji. The main piano theme is virtually identical to one of the themes from his 1993 drama score Jack the Bear. There are more than a few references to the recurring "genius motif" that has appeared over the course of several Horner scores, going all the way back to Searching for Bobby Fischer but which most will recognize from A Beautiful Mind. Some of the action music rhythms and electronic colors are straight from Avatar. But, seriously, this is James Horner. If you haven't reconciled yourself with the fact that Horner does this, and continue to get angry whenever you recognize a chord progression used in an earlier score, then do yourself a favor and just avoid his music altogether, before you have an aneurysm. Life's too short, and it's for precisely that same reason that I avoided Steve Jablonsky's Battleship.
In what has been a relatively weak year for scores in general, and a relatively weak couple of years for super-hero scores in particular, The Amazing-Spider Man stands as a perfect example of how, in my opinion, films of this type should be scored. Comic book movies, by their very nature, are larger than life, with super-human feats being undertaken by people with special powers. To ground these stories in a relatable world, the music accompanying them needs to speak directly to the emotional content of the film, allowing the audience to experience the extraordinary things the characters experience in a human, recognizable way. The best super hero scores - John Williams' Superman, Danny Elfman's original Batman, Horner's Rocketeer and so on - achieve this, and Horner's Amazing Spider-Man does too. It's heroic, musically literate, instrumentally colorful, emotionally direct, and has a fun and memorable main theme - and when was the last time that happened all in one score?