Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
Do you remember this?
This was at Comic-Con 2011, shortly after Andrew Garfield was cast as Peter Parker for a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, just four years after Spider-Man 3. Look at him. He’s so earnest, so grateful, to have such an important role. There is fan service, and there is fan service: To watch Garfield there is to see a young actor, gifted with the opportunity of a lifetime, with the whole world in front of him, waiting for him to take it over. Garfield had already made a name for himself with terrific performances in The Social Network, Never Let Me Go, and Boy A. Now he was going to hit the big time. The biggest time.
Ten years later, Garfield was bonked out of the Parker gig after just two movies and replaced by another British actor, younger, and widely considered a much better fit for the part — better, perhaps, than even the original Tobey Maguire. Garfield’s fanboyishness looks a bit silly now, doesn’t it? And yet there is something sincere about it, and thus a little sad. It has been nine years since The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out, and both actor and franchise have ended up in far different places than anyone ever expected. But this sure feels more a fault of the franchise than of the actor.
Why was it a big deal at the time? Once Sam Raimi officially said he was out after making the underwhelming and emo-heavy Spider-Man 3 — let us never forget that Topher Grace played Venom — the scramble for a new Spider-Man began. Complicating matters was the ever-complicated copyright issues with the character, who was a Marvel character owned by Sony: The best way to keep the character going and yours was to make more movies. So Sony decided not to continue the franchise from the first three films, but to start over entirely: To retell the Peter-Parker-becomes-Spider-Man story yet again.
This was questionable decision-making — seriously, we just saw this story — but casting Garfield, who was red hot at the time, along with the even-hotter Emma Stone, was the best thing the news the series could have hoped for. Garfield was a little old for the part but didn’t look it, and he had legitimate Serious Actor chops that led to further excitement. Add in Stone, playing a different character than Kirsten Dunst had played, thus giving the story a different feel, and it felt like something new. But it turned out: It wasn’t. It wasn’t anything new at all.
What was the impact? Everybody loved Garfield and Stone. That should be remembered now, not that we’re at an entirely new incarnation of the Spider-Man character. Even people who weren’t sure about the villain (an oddly boring Rhys Ifans), or the complicated backstory (what’s going on with Campbell Scott as Peter’s dad again?), or just the retelling of the origin story one more time, they all loved Garfield as the web-slinger. The Guardian called Garfield “the definitive Spider-Man” (comparing him to Sean Connery!), and the Los Angeles Times said he had a “James Dean quality.” He was seen as a clear upgrade on Maguire: A tougher, more serious Spider-Man, yet with an earnestness that was true to the character. Whatever you thought about the movie, you loved Garfield and Stone. (Who were a real-life couple at the time.)
The movie was a box office hit, to be clear, winning its July 4 weekend. But it still made less than Spider-Man 2, and it fell faster than you might have expected a big Spider-Man reboot would. Audiences felt, in many ways, like they had just seen this movie, and did not feel as if it justified its existence enough. By the time the inevitable (and contractually obligated) sequel came about, just two years later, with its overly busy plotlines, pretty lousy villain, and overall scattered narrative, it felt like the franchise was, somehow, running out of steam already, in just its second film. The best parts, again, were Garfield and Stone. But, as good as they were, people don’t pay their money to see them. They pay to see Spider-Man beat the bad guys. And this clearly wasn’t working. Eventually, everybody moved on… and Garfield paid the price.
Has it held up? The scenes between Garfield and Stone are charming, sweet, and engaging: They really might be the most human moments in all of the Spider-Man movies, save for maybe the famous subway scene in Spider-Man 2. Who wouldn’t want to watch these two?
Those two would make a great romantic comedy together, but unfortunately for them, they were in a couple of mediocre Spider-Man movies, though no fault of their own. Stone has obviously moved onto other, bigger things — she has become so big that you almost forget she was in these movies — but the specter of Spider-Man continues to loom over Garfield. He has made some interesting movies, and been good in those movies, but they all seem to be responses to the all-American-ness of his Peter Parker: The indulgent film nerd in Under the Silver Lake, the monk in Silence, the bizarre artist in Mainstream, even his upcoming turn as Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. He’s still trying to shake Spider-Man, even after the franchise has moved on. It’s not really fair. But that’s the gig.
The good news is that Garfield may get one last crack at this after all. There are persistent rumors, even despite Garfield himself denying them, that Garfield will appear, along with Maguire, in the next Spider-Man movie alongside Tom Holland. Garfield, in all honesty, may actually be the best actor of the three. One wonders if, if the rumors are true, putting on the Spidey costume one more time will be a bit of an exorcism for him. Because all that earnestness really worked. He wasn’t the worst Spider-Man, far from it. He was just in the worst Spider-Man movies. Maybe, if he’s finally in a good one, he’ll finally be able to move on.