When Sony Pictures decided to scrap a planned fourth entry in director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film series and start again from scratch, lots of big-name directors were considered for the job.
But the one who finally landed the gig surprised everyone: Marc Webb, a veteran maker of music videos with only one feature film to his credit (the indie romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer) was handed the keys to one of the biggest and most profitable franchises in the studio’s stable.
How did Webb, a guy with little to no experience doing large-scale action — along with the cumbersome and complicated technology of 3D cameras — get the job? He presented a perspective on the web-slinger different from everyone else’s: He concentrated on the man, not the suit.
“I had a different inflection on the character that I wanted to explore,” Webb says. “I didn’t want to do a sequel. I felt that just like with comics, where you have different writers and illustrators constantly coming in to do a run on the books, I could come in and do my own thing while still honoring the iconic elements of the character.”
With The Amazing Spider-Man, which opens Tuesday, Webb takes the story of Peter Parker back to its starting point, presenting a version of Peter Parker that differs greatly from the endearingly nerdy wallflower Tobey Maguire had portrayed in the previous trilogy.
“My goal was simply to make it as much about Peter Parker as Spider-Man,” Webb says. “To me, the most important event in his life is not the spider bite: It was being abandoned by his parents when he was 6 years old. Everything else in the movie comes from that, because that is the kind of traumatic event that you would spend your entire life dealing with. As Peter grows up, he’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’s distrustful of the universe. He’s an outsider, but an outsider by choice.”
Avi Arad, who produced the Raimi trilogy and has overseen several other Marvel Comics movie adaptations, says the hiring of Webb was essential in order to provide a fresh take on a character — and a story — already embedded in popular culture.
“Peter Parker is my favorite of all the Marvel superheroes: If Stan Lee is his father, then I feel like I’m Spider-Man’s grandfather,” he says. “I felt very protective of him, and that’s why I trusted Marc. We wanted to focus on the intimacy of the story, explain who this boy is and why he is the way he is. (500) Days of Summer was not your typical soap-opera love story. It was a really unusual look at relationships, and it had an incredibly brave ending. The love story we are beginning in this film is one of the most important in comic-book history, and we needed a director who could tell it in a pragmatic and realistic direction.”
Instead of Mary Jane Watson, the character played by Kirsten Dunst in the previous trilogy, the romantic interest in The Amazing Spider-Man is Gwen Stacy, a blond, razor-sharp and vivacious girl who was Peter’s true first love in the comics. Emma Stone ( The Help, Easy A) admits she had never heard of the character until she went in to audition for the role.
“I had to go back and read her story, and I realized this is one of the most epic, tragic, incredible, beautiful stories I can ever imagine,” she says, specifying she’s referring to the seminal issues 121 and 122 of The Amazing Spider-Man comics published in 1973. “The upheaval it caused with the Spider-Man audience at the time was so great, they were canceling their subscriptions and burning the comic books! I fell in love with that element of the story, because it was so tragic. I told them ‘If you guys are going to be true to this, then you’re making something really special and bold and daring, and I want in.’ ”
All of this may make The Amazing Spider-Man sound like some lovey-dovey romance, which it is most certainly not. The film, which begs to be seen on an IMAX screen for maximum enjoyment, is replete with some of the most satisfying action set pieces of any movie this summer thus far, beginning with a wonderful scene set inside a subway car in which Peter, having just been bitten by a radioactive spider, discovers his newfound powers.
“We spent several days at the beginning of production rehearsing that scene with the stunt team,” Webb says. “I liked the idea of doing it in a very contained space, and I liked the idea of making it humorous. I’m a big fan of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin: They had a physical dimension to their comedy you don’t see very often, and I wanted to capture that in the scene.”
Of course, nothing in The Amazing Spider-Man would have worked — not the romance nor the action nor the humor — without an actor in the lead role capable of playing all those various notes. Webb says he hadn’t yet seen The Social Network — the movie for which Andrew Garfield is best known in the United States — when he cast the actor as Peter Parker.
“I had only seen him in Boy A and the Red Riding trilogy,” Webb says. “Those are two incredibly different parts with great emotional depth. I thought he was a really interesting actor who wouldn’t come with a lot of baggage, because he wasn’t famous here. He had a lot of similarities to the Peter Parker from the Mark Bagley Ultimate Spider-Man books, which were the main inspiration on this movie. But there was also something about Andrew’s spirit. In his audition, he didn’t seem to be acting, just behaving. He could handle the physical demands of the role — he wanted to do a lot of his own stunts. And then when you see him together with Emma, you know he’s the one.”
Garfield, who was born in Los Angeles but raised in England, professes to be a lifelong Spider-Man fan who felt a great responsibility to do right by the character.
“I wanted to be as true to what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created — to preserve the essence of the character in terms of his heart and what he struggles with,” says Garfield, who speaks with a pronounced British accent that sounds nothing like Peter Parker — another testament to his performance. “I was also excited by the physicality of the character — the adolescent rebel who wants to break free of the binds and express his frustration of being an orphan, kicking and screaming until someone listens. I still can’t believe I am playing this character. It will probably really never make sense to me.”
Although 3D has become a bad word among the many moviegoers who consider it a nuisance, Webb said he actively embraced the technology as a way to bring the viewer closer to how Spider-Man feels as he swings from skyscrapers high atop New York City. In one brief shot, he shoots his webbing directly into the viewer’s face — a moment of great wish-fulfillment for anyone who has ever read the comics.
“The entire movie was built around the idea of 3D,” the director says. “We thought of it as a storytelling tool. We use it very conservatively in the first part of the movie. And then as the world expands around Peter and the action begins, the 3D picks up. I wanted to give you a sense of the velocity and vertigo he feels. When we were designing the big action scenes, I was very conscious that they would be projected in 3D. It’s a cinematic language that is still developing, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t just feel tacked on.”
Unlike sure bets such as The Avengers, which had the benefit of years of anticipation and has grossed nearly $1.5 billion world wide, there is no guarantee The Amazing Spider-Man will be an instant hit. The prevalent attitude among online comic-book fans is that the reboot is arriving too soon after Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which was released in the summer of 2007. Some early reviews have complained the movie is redundant, even though the Gwen Stacy storyline has never been told on film before.
Garfield is cautious when you bring up the subject of a sequel and what direction the story will take.
“We don’t really know what kind of beast this is yet,” he says. “I don’t know what the future holds; I don’t know what’s to come. Right now, I’m just trying to have fun and enjoy this crazy experience.”
But Arad is much more hopeful and forthcoming.
“Andrew is signed for two more movies, and Emma is signed for one more,” he says. “ The Night Gwen Stacy Died is my favorite comic-book story of all time, and I think we’ve started to tell that story well with this movie. The best is yet to come.”