The ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ Movies Saved (And Killed) the Franchise
After a long wait, Spider-Man: No Way Home is finally swinging into theaters. To celebrate, Cracked is doing a deep dive into the pop-culture web that our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has spun for almost six decades. Check the previous installments here:
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Even after Spider-Man 3 unloaded 139 minutes of awkward love triangles, goofy CGI monsters, and disquietingly aggressive jazz dance routines onto the world, Sony planned a fourth entry in Sam Raimi’s series. And for good reason: The movie was massively successful at the box office. At one point, there was even talk of filming Spider-Man 4 and 5 back-to-back. But as Raimi developed his project, rumored to feature the villainous Vulture played by John Malkovich (presumably with a teeny tiny John Cusack inside), Sony executives quietly commissioned another Spidey-based project.
After finishing a draft of Spider-Man 4, Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt was tasked with penning a Spidey reboot. a complete square one franchise overhaul, dead Uncle Ben and all. The two projects were slyly developed concurrently, meaning that when the news hit that Raimi’s fourquel was no more, Sony was able to immediately issue a press release touting that “Peter Parker is going back to high school”—not due to some sort of Billy Madison-esque tomfoolery, but because the Spider-Man continuity was being reset, with a brand-new movie scheduled to hit theatres in the summer of 2012.
After all, Sony couldn’t afford not to make a Spider-Man movie; if the studio wasn’t actively developing the franchise, then the “rights revert back to Disney/Marvel,” seemingly forcing the studio in the Sisyphusian position of having to constantly have a Spider-Man project in the works. While the list of potential directors ranged from The Hunger Games’ Gary Ross to Michael Goddamn Bay, ultimately Sony went with appropriately-named newcomer Marc Webb—thus sparing us from a Spider-Man movie in which a middle-aged Peter Parker has to pilot a fighter jet at sunset.
Adding to the perception that this production was as rushed as an auctioneer on coffee-flavored amphetamines, Webb’s hiring was announced just ten days after we all found out about the movie. Webb was, in many ways, an unconventional choice to helm a superhero movie. He was a music video director whose only feature film credit to that point was the romantic dramedy (500) Days of Summer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, and a crapload of sweater vests.
In retrospect, Sony choosing Webb anticipated Marvel Studios’ current moneyball-like approach of hiring relatively unseasoned (but obviously talented) indie directors yet to make a studio blockbuster. Back in 2010, though, Marvel was still hiring proven action directors. Iron Man’s Jon Favreau had made the Jumanji spinoff Zathura, while The Incredible Hulk’s Louis Leterrier directed Unleashed and Transporter 2.
Meanwhile, Sony executives were sweatily desperate to keep their lucrative webslinger relevant, at one point suggesting that Peter Parker’s interests should include EDM, veganism, and Snapchat which they argued could be “very buzzworthy and cool.” Despite this internal push to turn Peter Parker into an Urban Outfitters mannequin, there were also reports that this reboot would be a “more gritty” Spider-Man movie. Which made sense for a few reasons, not the least of which being that by the time The Amazing Spider-Man was released in 2012, the Spidey brand had been somewhat tainted by the campy, accident-prone Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, in which Spider-Man battles an unnecessarily horny Power Rangers villain calling himself “Green Goblin,” all set to the sounds of Bono and The Edge buying themselves matching speedboats.
But the real inspiration behind the impulse to make the movie as gritty as a degenerate Philadelphian hockey mascot was undoubtedly Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. While Raimi’s Spider-Man was, to some extent, indebted to Tim Burton’s Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man is inarguably beholden to Nolan’s Batman Begins. Both films begin with prologues featuring our heroes as small boys poking around their parents’ property, both feature extended scenes of characters testing out pseudo-realistic gadgets (good-bye organic, vaguely suggestive web-shooters), and the endings of each involve stopping the villain from aerosolizing a deadly chemical using a stolen piece of experimental tech.
Despite their strained efforts to appeal to the young whippersnappers of the world, the studio’s choice for their fresh-faced young Peter Parker was Andrew Garfield, who was neither fresh-faced nor young, pushing 30 when the movie came out—even older than Tobey Maguire was in the original. But despite the Never Been Kissed vibes he gives off, there’s a lot to like about Garfield’s performance. For one thing, he arguably nails the mischievous smart-ass aspect of the character better than anyone before or since.
Impressively, the legendary Martin Sheen, and the equally legendary Sally Field, portray Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Then there’s Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. As evidenced by the studio’s decision to hire Webb, clearly the story’s romantic elements were always meant to be of primary importance—a choice that seemingly paid off to some degree since only Breaking Bad rivals The Amazing Spider-Man for reviews that incessantly mention the word “chemistry.”
But while Garfield and Stone make for a believable couple (probably because they were a real couple) the script oscillates between regrettably familiar story beats and self-defeating revisions. What made the concept of Spider-Man so successful in the first place was that his origin story was completely random. Comic book readers could envision themselves in Peter Parker’s shoes because he was just some awkward teenage nerd who happened to look particularly appetizing to a radioactive arachnid.
The Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, concocts a convoluted mystery involving Peter’s parents. We learn that it was in fact Mr. Parker who designed the genetically altered spider that bites Peter—which only happens because he follows a series of clues conveniently left behind in his dad’s old satchel as like a prop in a discount escape room. In the very first moments of the movie, we see his dad actually working on his spider experiment, illustrating that this version of Peter Parker was fated to become Spider-Man, pre-ordained, thanks to his family connections.
Further insulating Garfield’s Peter from relatability, economic concerns, so vital to the drama of Raimi’s films, are almost completely discarded. We’re repeatedly told that money's tight (May eventually has to go to nursing school to help pay the bills). But while the Parkers’ home in Raimi’s movies is appropriately modest and realistically unfashionable, in Webb’s movie, they live in a Pottery Barn catalog come to life.
If The Amazing Spider-Man was bland but ultimately inoffensive franchise table-setting, then the next movie took a steaming dump on said table.
2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not unlike Spider-Man 3, is crammed full of more villains than a Nestlé board meeting. There’s Jamie Foxx’s Electro (AKA yassified Dr. Manhattan). There's the Rhino, played by an unhinged Paul Giamatti (who presumably turned to crime after being offered a glass of merlot). And, of course, there's Dane Dehaan as The Green Goblin—who, instead of wearing a simple rubber mask, looks like the “before” guy in a moisturizer/methadone commercial.
While the movie itself seemed messier than Pig-Pen’s toilet bowl, somehow it was very nearly even worse. In a deleted ending, following Gwen’s predictable demise, Peter’s dad somehow turns out to be alive and shows up to help him through this trauma (we guess the time he was nearly disemboweled by a mutant lizard man wasn't a big enough deal to merit a visit paternal check-in). And the tragedy of Gwen’s death was very nearly tempered by the introduction of a new love interest, Mary Jane Watson, lest audiences worry that Spider-Man’s horniness died along with his girlfriend.
The first Amazing Spider-Man movie hit theatres just weeks after Marvel’s The Avengers, the success of which proved that building a cinematic universe could lead to Scrooge McDuck-like levels of profitability. So while the first movie modestly aimed at simply launching a new series of Spider-Man films, the sequel not-so-subtly attempted to tee-up multiple interconnected films. Most famously, there was going to be a Sinister Six spinoff helmed by The Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard. There were also plans to make a Venom movie set in the Garfield-verse, and even a solo Aunt May project.
None of these plans came to fruition after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 became the lowest-grossing of the five Spidey films, forcing the studio to hatch a complex, occasionally rocky deal with Marvel Studios that would let the character join the MCU. In many ways, The Amazing Spider-Man became a template for what not to do with the character in this new incarnation. Marvel Studios dispensed with Spidey’s origin altogether, excised most references to Uncle Ben, and the scientifically-enhanced spider, so key to the convoluted familial mystery of Garfield’s story, is mentioned just once and described only as “dead.”
Now with No Way Home hitting theaters, Spider-Man’s future is as uncertain as ever before—well, slightly more certain than when he was owned by the studio behind The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood. Tom Holland’s original contract has ended, and future appearances in the MCU aren’t exactly a given.
So where do we go from here? It’s tough to say. Sony’s need to consistently keep churning out Spider-Man movies is now informing the themes of the movies themselves; both No Way Home and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seemingly find their characters reckoning with what it means to be Spider-Man in a world in which we’ve all been forced to accept multiple Spider-Men. So if the character is now defined by his ubiquity, Garfield’s take should, at the very least, be celebrated as the first other movie Spider-Man.
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Top Image: Sony
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