Superhero with sticking power
Spider-Man the remake is out now — only 10 years after the original. What’s going on?
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 1 July 2012
You know you’re getting on a bit when policemen start to look young. You know you’re really long in the tooth when the Spider-Man franchise is being relaunched from scratch while the ticket stub for the last film is still in your pocket. Wasn’t it only two minutes ago that Tobey Maguire was swinging from the skyscrapers and slingin’ web against the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and co? In the hands of the director Sam Raimi, Spider-Man became the most lucrative of the Marvel film franchises, the jewel in the crown of Sony Pictures, with box-office takings of $2.5 billion and the DVDs still common currency.
That last outing, though, as the producer Matt Tolmach points out, was five years ago, and it’s been a full 10 since Maguire first pulled on the tights — a lifetime for any superhero audience. “The world we live in has changed, young people have changed, technology has changed, attitudes towards life have changed.” So here we have it, The Amazing Spider-Man, the $230m reboot, in spanking new RealD 3-D, starring our very own Andrew Garfield and directed by the aptly named Marc Webb. “A Peter Parker of this world, post-Mark Zuckerberg,” Tolmach asserts. “Not the nerd knocking on the glass who’s rejected, but this outsider who’s a little bit damaged.”
The Zuckerberg remark has relevance. Garfield made his breakthrough in The Social Network, playing the Facebook cofounder Eduardo Savarin. His earnest Parker is more door-slammer than dweeb, pursuing the science whizz Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who preceded the simpering Mary Jane in the comic books. We are still on a familiar path, though: that of the orphan high-schooler who gets bitten, develops arachnoid superpowers and battles a supervillain. You can’t call it a “remake” — the word is blasphemy in Hollywood, where you “reinvent”, “reimagine”, “retool”, “reinterpret” and rethink your euphemisms.
The problem isn’t redoing it, though, says the producer Avi Arad, until recently the head of Marvel Studios, the comic-book film division, possessor of the nearest thing you’ll ever get to a licence to print money: “The risk is to do it wrong.” With great budget comes great responsibility. It was Marvel Studios that produced (for Disney) Avengers Assemble, the biggest opening in American movie history. Industry predictions suggest thatThe Amazing Spider-Man’s entrance may shade even that.
Spidey is older than you think. In print, he turns 50 this year, having first appeared in Amazing Fantasy in August 1962, created by the pen-and-ink team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. In sync with his cold-war origins, Peter Parker was originally nipped by an atomic arachnid. Over the years, the story has been rehashed in many forms, including the current Broadway musical Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. “We believe that, as in the comics, we can tell these stories for ever and ever,” Arad says. “It’s a worthy enterprise.”
Of all the superheroes, Spider-Man is arguably the most relatable. “He’s working-class, not wealthy, not coming from a legacy,” Arad says. More specifically, he’s the most obvious metaphor for adolescence, all sticky palms, locked in his bedroom.
This loomed large when Raimi sat down with Tolmach, Arad and their fellow producer, the late Laura Ziskin, to plan a fourth film, which should have come out in summer 2011. There was a problem. Maguire was well into his thirties by this point. One rumoured story line would have pitched Parker and MJ into Incredibles territory — married with kids, juggling crime-busting with cosy domesticity. “The film didn’t have a fundamental emotional reason to exist,” Arad snaps. Tolmach agrees: “The essence of Spider-Man is a story about becoming a man. The further you get from that, the more you’re just making up plot. That’s where the light bulb went off for Raimi. It took him, in his infinite elegance, to say, ‘My story’s told.’”
With Raimi out, Webb’s recruitment was, in part, due to his eagerness to explore the question of what happened to Peter’s parents — “The story that nobody talks about,” Tolmach enthuses. With just one film to his name, the quirky romcom (500) Days of Summer, Webb would seem an unusual choice to wrangle such a behemoth. But this policy is in keeping with the vogue for bringing credible dramatic directors to the superhero party — Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh — with the techie stuff presumably left to others. Garfield, too, is a classy import: he’s British, though born in America, and was recently Tony-nominated for playing Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway.
In person, he is suitably mild-mannered, lisping, rake-thin and armed with a pompadour that is part James Dean, part centurion helmet. “Tobey was Spider-Man and always will be Spider-Man,” he insists, fully on message. “But the symbol of the mask is much bigger than any movie, any comic, any animated series. The only responsibility I felt was to make that mask full.”
The delightfully sassy Stone, no slouch herself after hit roles in Easy A and The Help, also comes with a professional’s devotion to the corporate hymn sheet. “I fell in love with the story of Gwen and the idea of falling in love for the first time. I was lucky, because I wasn’t Mary Jane.” Garfield and Stone are now a real-life couple, a marketing dream.
Garfield turns 29 next month, so Sony will face another Maguire situation in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, watch this thing fly. There’s a second film shooting at the end of this year for a 2014 release, with a third one likely to follow two years after that.
If the return of Spider-Man tells us anything, it’s that reports of the superheroes’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. Marvel has both Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 filming. From the DC Comics stable, the new Batman adventure, The Dark Knight Rises, opens this month. Likewise, a new Superman film, Man of Steel, is set for release in 2013. And you can bet there will be as many Avengers outings as Marvel can concoct.
Spider-Man was a notable absentee from the megahit Avengers Assemble, and it is surely not without coincidence that the studio has spun a new Spidey just as that series is up and running. (A sequel is in development.) Tolmach insists they are focusing on the next Spider-Man adventure, nothing else. There may be a more practical reason for all this recycling: when it comes to superheroes, there’s only a limited supply of good ones. As the dear old Green Lantern will begrudgingly acknowledge, unless you are a premier-league cape merchant, or come as part of a squad, you might as well forget it. Take note Ant-Man, currently in preproduction — Spider-Man will have you for breakfast.