NEW YORK—The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which opens in theaters today, is in some ways like any other superhero movie, but has an especially winsome cast and solid directing (see our review in the May 17 issue of WORLD). This week, I sat down with director Marc Webb;producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad (formerly a top executive at Marvel Comics); and actors Andrew Garfield, who plays Spider-Man, and Emma Stone, who plays Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend. They shared their thoughts on why audiences love superheroes, how to tell good stories, and physical comedy, which is a big part of this decidedly light-hearted film. The Amazing Spider-Man is the tonal opposite of the dark and heavy Christopher Nolan-directed Batman series.
Part of the lightness comes from Webb, who is known chiefly for the independent, small-budget romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer. Tolmach explained why he hired Webb.
“The truth about any Spider-Man movie … it’s the love of the character,” he said. “It’s the ability to tell an intimate love story, a character story about a boy who’s struggling to understand what it means to confront the world, and to have to struggle with getting a job and having responsibility and doing the right thing. That’s the heart of the Spider-Man story. So the mistake you would make is if you hired somebody who was like, Mr. Visual Effects. It’s not that that isn’t a huge part of what these movies are, but you can help a director with all of that craft. What you can’t invent with a director is this—” Tolmach patted his heart.
“They need to tell a small story,” Arad agreed. “Everything else, you have effects supervisors, you have Sony Animation, you have CG story artists.”
I asked Stone why she thought audiences keep going to movies about superheroes.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” she said. “There’s a combination of factors: Seeing something big and so visually exciting is fun. And it usually comes out in the summer, and it’s hot and you want to go into a theater and have a removed experience, feel like you’re escaping. I think people love heroes, they want to be a hero or they feel like they need a hero, depending on what kind of day you’re going through. Mythology is a big part of it too—we’ve always loved stories about things that are bigger than us, that are metaphors for these experiences that we have as human beings. That’s sort of what these super heroes are, they’re all like a Greek god.”
Garfield echoed the metaphor, although he thinks Spider-Man is decidedly more human than divine.
“We are all Peter, evidently, in terms of the ordinary struggles we have to go through and the imperfection and the failure and the stumbling and fumbling through life and the mystery of it all,” he said. “And we are all Spider-Man in the sense that we have something to offer, we have something wonderful and extraordinary to give … and then you give that gift as freely as you can while you’re struggling with being a regular human being.”
The movie does have some existential angst, but a lot more humor. In one scene, Peter Parker distracts Oscorp’s security goons while Gwen Stacy escapes onto an elevator—it’s pure, old-school, physical comedy. Garfield said they went through the script with a physical comedian to see where they could do gags.
“There is a forgotten art form in physical comedy,” Webb added. “People think it’s just falling off a ladder or walking into a wall, but there’s a much more sophisticated language and history. There were very specific Buster Keaton gags and references—where he grabs the truck—which took us weeks to figure out how that was done, and it’s so effortless in [Keaton’s] movie.” Webb is referring to one scene in which Spider-Man strolls into a street, grabs a handle on a passing truck, and is yanked out of the scene. (Watch the Keaton gag here.)
“Andy Armstrong, our stunt coordinator, is a huge Buster Keaton fanatic,” Webb continued. “It was failure after failure after failure, which reminds you of the sophistication of that art form, and how Vaudeville trained these people into something very specific. A different kind of pleasure happens when you watch that—it’s beyond humor, because it’s a certain physical virtuosity that is really quite rare.”
“Go back and watch Charlie Chaplin’s globe dance from The Great Dictator and you’ll weep and you’ll be agape,” Garfield said. “It’s just like, how on earth are you so genius? It’s a real lost art right now.”
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is rated PG-13 for violence and general scariness.