Jumping aboard the latest instalment of a franchise spawning two and a half billion dollars and featuring a legendary, beloved comic book character would be daunting enough on its own, but setting out to make a film grounded in the real world, one featuring a someone who puts the hero back in superhero? That takes real guts.
None of that fazed filmmaker Marc Webb, the man charged with bringing Spider-Man back to our screens in The Amazing Spider-Man. Aiming to deliver all the super-powered entertainment you could want packed into one hero’s story, the movie completes the journey through Marvel’s comic book universe that filmgoers around the world began this summer with Avengers Assemble. The film boasts a new face behind the mask (Andrew Garfield of sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go) and a tweaked origin story for the webslinger, which finds Peter struggling to investigate why his parents disappeared and coming to grips with his newfound, arachnid-style abilities. For Webb, the appeal wasn’t simply in playing on a much bigger scale; he still wanted to find the beating heart amidst the spectacle. “Peter Parker is the access point. I was always a Spider-Man fan, but I was more a Peter Parker fan. When you see the movie, I don't think anyone will be worried about the emotional heart of it. There is an incredibly innocent and tender quality to Peter Parker. He's not a billionaire, he's not an alien, he's a kid. He has trouble with the people who raise him and talking to girls and it's that relatability which is all through the movie. That's a texture that for me was really intuitive. It's something I love in movies, particularly with that romantic dimension. I'm very familiar with being made nervous by women! The interpersonal relationships that Peter has are so simple and so domestic that it's a very fun dichotomy to play that massive spectacle alongside the very small moments. In a very real way, there's an intimate indie movie at the heart of Spider-Man.”
Part of that was finding a way to represent Parker that hasn’t really been seen before; with a take on the youthful hero that springs from his troubled past. “The first domino in this movie is Peter getting left behind by his parents. I thought to myself, ‘how does that change your view on the world?' And to me it creates a level of distrust. There's a sarcasm that comes from that, and the quippiness, that comes from the chip on his shoulder - he's a little bit mean and snarky. That's an attitude that we can all understand and relate to, but I think it comes from a genuine place. It was fun to explore the humour, because it comes from a real place, it's not just slapped on.
Webb was happy to strike out in a new direction. “I wanted to do things differently. I feel like we've seen the origin of Spider-Man but maybe we haven't seen the origin of Peter Parker. There are certain iconic elements of Spider-Man that I felt obligated to honour. But there are elements where we spent a lot of time designing and engineering sequences within the camera that we shot practically, like him swinging on chains to help create that sensation, that feeling of joy and fun, which is always an important part.”
And make no mistake – the joy and the fun will still be a part of the movie, along with some huge effects sequences grounded in startling reality: the laws of gravity apply, we’re in a world where Spider-Man might fire a web that gives way, or find himself in a situation where he can’t find purchase. The solid cast helps keep things real, with a line-up including Martin Sheen (as Peter’s iconic, tragic Uncle Ben), Sally Field (Aunt May), Denis Leary (as police chief George Stacy, who is hunting down Spider-Man and dislikes Peter dating his daughter) Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Peter’s first love; and Rhys Ifans as Dr Curt Connors who, thanks to a noble scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, ends up turning into slavering beast The Lizard. The scaly threat provides a lot of the action in the film, with eye-popping battles across New York’s famous cityscape. Bringing that to life was a challenge met via various methods. “There is a lot that goes into it,” says Webb.
“When we shot those sequences, we actually shot a human, a large guy named Big John. He was literally a big guy named John, who did a lot of the interactive stuff. Because when you're trying to interact with Andrew as Peter, you need someone grabbing him to do those things. We would replace him with the computer-generated lizard. But then the performance capture was done with Rhys and we'd shoot him in a similar environment and get his facial information to incorporate his performance into the Lizard itself. I was interested in finding something that could relate human emotions, because I wanted to keep Rhys' work in that creature. Then there are the physical components of it - I wanted to make him very powerful and stronger than Spider-Man.”
While a lot of the new movie’s action was crafted physically, Webb hasn’t spared the CG budget, with plenty of huge sequences shot in state-of-the-art on-set 3D. Was there ever a film better suited for 3D? And Webb got advice from a master: “James Cameron was incredibly generous with me early on. He likes to have things play with depth. He wants you to see depth. Like if the screen is a window and everything you see is behind there. That is what is fun about it. The jungles of Avatar are really a great example of that. I liked pushing the 3D a little bit further so it will come out at you. I remember, as a kid, watching The Creature From The Black Lagoon with all those things coming out at you, or House Of Wax. There was something fun about that and seeing an audience with kids reach out for something. There were moments that I wanted to exploit like that, so I designed the movie in 3D. It’s a matter of convergence. We converged the screen level behind Spider-Man so his legs would come out. Then we made him a little bit more in focus so you could feel a tangible sense of him and reduce the motion blur. It feels more tactile. That helps with that notion that it can come out at you. That's the other part of letting that feel that it is coming into your space.” A superhero treat full of action, heart and marvels? Challenge? Accepted!
The Amazing Spider-Man opens in UK cinemas July 3rd