With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, director Marc Webb returns to the rebooted Spider-Man universe he first took over in 2012, adding more iconic characters from the comics and hinting at a grand web of evil that surrounds Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his beloved Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).
Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man received its share of criticism and praise, but one aspect of the film that did not seem to go over very well with many fans was its chief villain, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), who got lost in a hazy soup of motivation and so-so CGI. This time around, fans have their pick of bad guys, as Spidey battles Electro (Jamie Foxx), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) and Rhino (Paul Giamatti) -- with hints of even more to come.
When I managed to grab some time with Webb on the phone from New York City earlier this week, it was his approach to bringing three well-known members of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery -- two of which would need considerable tweaking not to get laughed off the screen -- that I wanted to discuss.
The first question was whether the director had any antagonists in mind even before the movie’s story took shape:
“I wanted Electro. The possibilities of Electro are really interesting because he’s one of the most visual villains that there is. I thought of the possibilities in terms of developing the visual effects and the language of that character. I thought the visual language of that character was pretty intriguing and, you know, when you’re making a movie like this you want to have cinema. You want to have those big cinematic moments. But it was also kind of easy to relate to his storyline, his emotional core which is this guy who wants to be seen ... the visual possibilities of an electronic creature who wants to be seen are kind of amazing.”
From there, Webb launches into his theory on villains in general and how that applies to his three bad guys.
“Villains on the whole are there, in my opinion, to reveal different facets of Spider-Man, different facets of the hero. For example, Aleksei Sytsevich, Rhino, confronts a different part of Spider-Man than Electro and Harry. The Rhino allowed us to explore the sort of bombastic, funny part of Spider-Man that we all love in the comics -- that wisecracking, one-liner guy who’s trying his five minutes of standup with this character. It was a way to sort of embrace this funny, bombastic cartoonish tone at the beginning of the movie.
“Electro and Max Dillon cover a different part of Spider-Man,” Webb continues. “This is an overlooked and often misunderstood part of Spider-Man. The first time he meets Max Dillon, Max Dillon’s like, ‘How do you know my name? I’m a nobody.’ And that stops Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s like, ‘You’re not a nobody. You’re somebody.’ He recognizes himself in Max. He recognizes that outsider, that kid who's been unrecognized, who’s under-confident, who’s insecure, who feels unworthy. And he tries to pick them up. And one of the great things about Spider-Man, one of the things I love about Spider-Man, is he is a character that tries to find the best in people, that inspires people to do better.
“And then, of course, Harry Osborn has a whole other different set of circumstances and interactions with Peter,” Webb says. “He understands who Peter Parker is and his relationship with Peter Parker. He understands Peter Parker’s vulnerabilities. That ultimately is the most terrifying version of a villain, because he’s the closest to Peter. What makes heroes interesting are their vulnerabilities. What makes them relatable and resonant is that they have weaknesses. If Superman has kryptonite, Spider-Man’s kryptonite is love. It’s Gwen Stacy. And that’s what Harry uses to attack him and it’s what makes, I think, the emotional vibrations of that villain and that storyline really provocative and very powerful.”
Creating a character arc and a backstory for each of these enemies is formidable enough, but all three bring their own particular challenges visually as well. Electro’s green-and-yellow duds and lightning-bolt mask, not to mention Sytsevich’s rather rubbery-looking Rhino suit, needed a considerable rethink to make them work in a live-action film.
“With Rhino, there’s a cartoonish component to the characterization, to what Paul is doing, but I also wanted it to be a palpable threat,” explains Webb. “I thought a guy running around in an illustrated padded suit with a horn on his head would just be too ridiculous. You would have lost the emotional possibilities ... so I just did a huge amount of exploration and I thought about the character. I thought about who this guy is. Aleksei’s not a brilliant scientist. He’s a lug. So the Rhino outfit is kind of luggish. Mark Friedberg, our production designer, really thought it should be like Gorbachev-era 1980s Russian technology in Rhino form. And so that’s where that came from. And then Electro, I just leaned more towards the Ultimate Electro. I didn’t know how to justify that green suit ... I’m not that creative!”
With the Green Goblin, I asked Webb if it was a conscious decision to make Harry the Goblin this time in order to differentiate this version of the character from Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn in the original 2002 Spider-Man directed by Sam Raimi. “Yeah, we wanted to explore that,” he replies. “We've seen the Norman stuff, obviously, and I did want to mess around with that mythology a little bit, but there’s also a precedent for that in the comics. But it wasn’t about differentiating ourselves as much as it was finding a deeper, more provocative channel or vessel or storyline for Peter Parker. The fact that it was his best friend, not his best friend’s dad that did it makes the betrayal that much more profound and dramatic."
Lurking behind all three of the individual villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the vast shadow of Oscorp, which has now been established in both films as the source of all malevolence emanating out into the city and directed against Spider-Man. What made it feel right to turn Oscorp into what producer Avi Arad has called a “tower of evil”?
“I like mythology a lot. I like going back and digging up other crazy references,” says Webb. “When I look at Oscorp, I think about it as the Tower of Babel. It’s a story about a group of people that built a tower to reach heaven. God struck it down, but it’s a testament to man’s hubris. So the backstory for us is that Norman Osborn [Chris Cooper] built Oscorp to extend his life. All the military applications and all the revenue that came in were invested in sort of experimental technology to keep him alive longer. Ultimately he’s failed at that, but there is a vanity at the heart of Oscorp that is really dangerous. There’s a hubris and a disrespect for nature which is really dark and sinister. Even though something beautiful came out of it, which is Spider-Man.”
There is a lot more that’s going to come out of Oscorp, if the groundwork laid in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is any indication, with a certain half-dozen villains likely to feature heavily in the third movie. But Webb -- who will end his time in Peter Parker’s universe with 2016’s The Amazing Spider-Man 3 -- is not thinking too deeply about it yet. “We have some ideas,” he says. “There are some emotional obstacles that Peter Parker has to overcome in the future. We have a pretty good idea of what that is. But in terms of the specificity of that and how that actually manifests itself, we’re still working on that.”
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is out in theaters now.