By Steve Dollar
New York — Now that comic-book blockbusters have become Hollywood’s major product, the push to deliver more goose eggs at the box office can threaten to overshadow the movie. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” arrives on screens Friday with a mission greater than saving New York City from the twin perils of Electro and the Green Goblin — the villains played, respectively, by Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan. Reports have asserted that Sony, the studio that owns the franchise, had set a worldwide target gross of $1 billion.
Discussion of that giant number points to the kind of pressure faced by productions such as the sequel with the $200 million budget, which has to excite audiences from Shanghai to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the same intensity, while also keeping a hard-core online fan base satisfied — or held at bay, at least.
“We’re acutely aware that ‘Spider-Man’ is the jewel in the crown in this universe and certainly at Sony,” said producer Matthew Tolmach, relaxing on a couch in a Soho hotel room during promotional rounds last weekend. “In the spirit of ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ we certainly want this movie to do incredibly well around the world.”
The new film, which again stars Andrew Garfield as the gravity-defying webslinger and his earthbound alter-ego Peter Parker, and Emma Stone as his science-wiz sweetheart Gwen Stacy, already has international appeal. It’s building off the example of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, released between 2002 and 2007, as well as generations raised on the Marvel comic. While producers said they could entertain the possibility of introducing, for example, a Chinese love interest into the series, the strength of the concept has always been more fundamental.
“Spider-Man was selected by the planet as something people liked,” said director Marc Webb, previously best-known for the romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer.” “There is something innate that is predisposed to be liked by people wherever they are. That suit covers his skin. He’s not black or white or Asian. You can’t tell who he is. Kids have an easy time investing their imagination in that character.”
And those kids use the Internet. “At first, I went on a couple of comic book forums to see what the reaction was to my being cast and quickly realized that wasn’t a good idea,” said Stone, who established her career in slyly feminist comedies such as “The House Bunny” and “Easy A.” “The only thing I could do was play Gwen my way.”
While the franchises have taken an occasional tip from the bloggers and fans posting on social media, once notably modifying Spider-Man’s costume, the producers and cast try to keep a respectful distance. “You never want to work on a movie where people don’t care,” Tolmach said. “So the day no one’s blogging and no one’s talking you have a problem.” On the other hand, if he took all the advice offered, “you’d end up with 65 different endings for your movie. You have to do what you believe is right.”
In the case of “Spider-Man 2,” that means giving audiences a kind of bipolar experience, not unlike what Peter Parker goes through in his transformation into the superhero. Iconic chunks of New York City are blown apart as Spider-Man confronts arch-nemeses, while the mortal Peter struggles in his on-again, off-again romance with Gwen, whom he has sworn to stay away from for fear he’ll introduce her to peril. One part of the story is a hyperbolic, CGI hurricane of flying objects. The other is an old-fashioned matinee love story that would play as keenly in 1940.
“It’s something that’s really fun, having these dramatic, bombastic, colorful illustrated characters you get in comic books, while still trying to move onto an emotional context and find something real inside of them,” said Webb, who offered David Lean as a role model for a filmmaker whose dynamic range could sweep from the intimacy of “Brief Encounter” to the CinemaScope grandeur of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Both lead actors credit Webb with helping them to keep it real.
“It was all sort of organic and felt very natural,” Stone said of the romantic arc, which parallels her relationship with Garfield, with whom she is involved with off-screen. The pair refined their scenes through improvisation during rehearsals. “Marc was protective of it. We wanted to make sure that dynamic felt really, really authentic.”
Garfield, who launched his career as a prize-winning British stage actor and appeared in numerous art house films before his popular breakthrough in “The Social Network,” had dreamed of being Spider-Man since he was 3. So he had no issues with the flashy aspects of the production. A childhood gymnast, Garfield even did some of his own stunts. Yet, he still had to focus on the small details. “I made sure that I didn’t feel like I was in a big movie,” he said. “As soon as you think you’re in a big movie, that does something to the psyche and it makes you behave in a different way.”
As Harry Osborn, son of corrupt industrialist Norman Osborn and Peter Parker’s long-lost best friend, DeHaan gets to portray both a billionaire playboy and the latest incarnation of the Green Goblin. “It’s the biggest arc I’ll ever have in a movie, going from a fairly nice, normal guy who has problems into a monster,” the actor said. “What’s fun is having that throughline and having it all make sense . . . crafting the performance so it’s a steady roll.”
The most extreme performance belongs to Foxx, who came to the production between the critical acclaim of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and his turn as Benjamin Stacks in the forthcoming Jay-Z-produced version of “Annie.” He begins the movie as electrical engineer Max Dillon, a Walter Mitty-ish character that he describes as “the first African American man with a comb over,” who falls into a vat of electric eels and becomes Electro, a glowing ball of rage that feeds off the city’s power grid.
“Without complicating it too much, you’re just doing it,” Foxx said. He credits his sotto voce menace to a close study of Clint Eastwood, as well as Alec Baldwin’s vocal delivery on behalf of Capital One. “I call him the Great Whisperer.” The nerdy hairstyle harks back to the actor’s days on the TV comedy series “In Living Color,” whose sketches proved to be solid training for “Spider-Man” villainy.
As for all the wires and green screens, there are greater challenges. “That’s when you fall back on how you used to look in the mirror and work your stuff out,” he said. “We’ve all done that. Sometimes it’s almost easier, because sometimes you can work with an actor or actress that can intimidate you. You’re working with Samuel L. Jackson, he’ll get up in your a–.”