If everything breaks Sony's way, the release of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 this May 2nd (or April 18th if you live in the UK) will serve as the launching pad for a Marvel Microcosm incorporating numerous Spidey-specific characters. Basically, every character introduced in a Spider-Man comic book is theirs to develop, and they're going to find out just how much of this world audiences would like to explore. Thus far, Sony has announced plans for two more Spider-Man films, as well as spinoffs for The Sinister Six and Venom; if the spinoffs catch on, they'll be the first successful studio films built solely around supervillains.
It's an ambitious, somewhat risky notion, but for now Sony is focused on hyping up THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, the second entry in their youth-oriented webslinger reboot. They've definitely got some work to do. While the first installment raked in a healthy $752 million worldwide, it was the lowest-grossing Spider-Man film to date, suggesting the law of diminishing returns is still in effect for the series despite the top-to-bottom overhaul (each subsequent Spidey sequel has made less than the film before it). Sony needs to improve those numbers if they're going to branch out into supervillain movies, which is why they've been particularly aggressive in marketing this new film. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 can't just be any old sequel; it needs to be an event.
After watching thirty-three minutes of the film at a press event earlier this week, I can at least confirm that director Marc Webb has made a very, very big movie. Coming on strong with a top-notch 3-D/Dolby Atmos presentation, the footage sent a very clear message: "We know what we're doing this time, and, ohbytheway, we're going to make THE AVENGERS look like a TV movie." Whereas Webb's first go-round with the character was an uncertain mixture of practical stunts and unconvincing CG (The Lizard was a huge disappointment from design to execution), this film appears to be an exuberantly confident celebration of everything we love about Spider-Man (and a reminder that Andrew Garfield was perfect casting). The quip-happy hero glimpsed in the previous movie is now on full, swaggering display. Peter Parker is having a blast as he fights crime and protects the innocent, and there's an unabashed love affair between Spidey and the people of New York City.
Webb and his screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner) are also aware that many viewers would like a little more information on the fate of Richard and Mary Parker, so that's where they start the film. After dropping young Peter off with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the Parkers flee on a private jet with the information Oscorp was eager to suppress. How they arranged for this private flight and why Richard waited until they were at cruising altitude to upload this sensitive material isn't made entirely clear, but the ensuing set piece that finds the couple in a midair, life-or-death struggle with an Oscorp thug is expertly staged by Webb.
The film really starts cooking in the next scene, which finds Spidey attempting to apprehend a crazed Alexsei Systevich (Paul Giamatti), who's tearing up the streets of Manhattan in an armored truck carrying capsules of a lethal chemical concoction heisted from Oscorp. Spider-Man toys with the dim-witted Systevich as he's pursued by an endless fleet of cop cars that calls to mind the Chicago finale of John Landis's THE BLUES BROTHERS. This is where it's obvious Webb has stepped up his game from the first film; it's large-scale, expertly-staged practical action enhanced by CG. It's exhilarating stuff. The sequence also gives us our first taste slow-motion Spider Sense wherein Peter is able to anticipate and prevent a multitude of calamities. We've seen this kind of thing before, but the execution is more detailed and seamless than usual.
In the midst of all this madness, Webb manages a deft introduction of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nerdy, put-upon outcast who's made to feel special by Spider-Man after the webslinger saves his life. This economically sets the stage for Dillon's primary gripe after he's transformed into Electro; he wants to feel appreciated and important. This desire is writ large in a later set piece, where Electro finds himself presiding over Times Square via every single big screen. He cannot be denied - until Spider-Man shows up, at which point his image vanishes entirely. Dillon is a confused, scorned man, but he is not a instinctively a villain; it's only when a SWAT sniper takes a shot at him that he turns against Spider-Man. He feels betrayed by the one person who didn't treat him like a complete nobody.
Though I was knocked out by Webb's mastery of craft and tone, I must confess a little concern over the apparently expansive scope of the narrative. In thirty-three minutes, we barely got a taste of the Osborn family's hostility toward Spider-Man. We did see Harry recruiting a captured Electro to his anti-Spidey cause, but, judging from the trailer, there's a lot that needs to happen before Harry turns on Peter. Then there's the matter of Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), with whom Peter is attempting to reconcile a year after the death of her father (contrary to his dying wish). We find out Peter has been keeping close tabs on Gwen; to be precise, he's been checking in on her every day. Fortunately, Garfield plays this stalker-ish revelation with a good deal of charm; it also helps that Gwen isn't exactly creeped out by the idea.
When Webb fielded questions from journalists following the footage, he joked that the movie is sixteen hours long. We all laughed, but I'm still worried that the film might clock in at over two-and-a-half hours. Tentpoles tend to wear out their welcome once they nose over the 130-minute mark. So while it seems clear that Webb is a perfect fit for the material (and is operating at a very high level cinematically), I just hope his movie isn't distended with setup for future films. The long game matters more to the studio than it does to moviegoers, and too often execs and talent seem to forget that.
Here's the transcript from the group Q&A. Some of the questions were unintelligible due to journalists not being provided a microphone, so I've summarized them in a few places.
Q: Can you talk about the classic Spider-Man elements you maybe didn't have a chance to incorporate in the first movie that you wanted to incorporate in this one?
Marc Webb: We're developing The Daily Bugle. Obviously, you're going to to get a hint of Norman Osborn in this film, and The Daily Bugle is a part of it. The big thing I wanted to nail this time was the suit, and I wanted to return to the iconography that we knew from the comic books. The Daily Bugle is an emerging force to be reckoned with. That's one of the fun things about delving into a universe like this. You can take more time with these things. We really did think about this in a longer format. So things like The Daily Bugle and with Norman Osborn's story, we've been very selective with how to tease that out.
Q: I'm curious about Electro's motivations. It seems like he's driven by this overall need to be needed by society. Could you talk about exploring that theme and how it manifests itself.
Webb: To understand Electro, you have to understand Max Dillon. Jamie's been a really great proponent of this. Max Dillon has sort of been ignored by the world, forgotten by the world. He's an outcast, much like the way Peter Parker is an outcast. He chooses to react to that in a little bit of a different way. There's a wonderful pathos that Jamie enabled in the beginning of the film. You haven't seen that part yet, but you really feel for him. But there's also the psychosis; there's something mad about him, and that eventually gets the better of him.
Q: Is there an inciting incident?
Webb: Sure. (Laughter) You've been reading Robert McKee.
Q: On playing up the comedic side of Spider-Man more than they did in the first film.
Webb: One of the iconic parts of the character that we chose to embrace in the first movie, and there's that scene in the parking lot... but there's something fundamental about Spider-Man is his wit and his quips. It's also part of his character. It's how he provokes villains; it's how he puts them on their heels. With Rhino, I think it's really convenient because he's such a dumb villain and can provoke him in that way. We always tried to think about it in the nature of the scene and the nature of the character. We did something that sometimes big comedy movies do, which is you get a roundtable of comedians and just have them spit jokes out. We would try those out with Andrew and see what works. At the beginning of the process, we got some of the best comedians. It's sort of a private thing; I can't tell who's in it, but we got some amazing, really brilliant comedians who are also comic book fans to come in and help us come up with jokes, one-liners and quips that are part of Spider-Man universe.
Q: How involved are you in the next two Spider-Man films, and the development of the Sinister Six movies?
Webb: Myself and my partners at Sony, and Avi [Arad] and Matt [Tolmach], we've been trying to figure out how to develop a larger universe. There are some very exciting things coming around the corner with the Sinister Six and Venom and future Spider-Man movies. I want to be involved in any way I possibly can. We've already had these really wonderful discussions, and there's been some announcements with Alex and Bob and Drew Goddard... a lot of these really brilliant minds that are young and emerging and helping us develop something a little more elaborate and exciting. It's just been a blast. It's sort of a dream come true. We've kind of had fantasies about what we could do, and they're slowly coming to reality. I'm really excited about that.
Q: Why have Peter and Gwen graduate from high school? It seemed like the initial goal with this franchise was to keep them young for as long as possible.
Webb: Listen, our actors are getting a little bit older. To play around with that for too long would get to be absurd. We're trying to find stations in life - important moments for them to emerge from. We did spend the entire first movie in high school, and this isn't that much further in their future. But... there is a thematic resonance with people moving on at graduation that felt really potent for us. [Gwen Stacy's] graduation speech was a way to introduce the themes of the movie in an interesting way that just felt right. It's about a gradual teasing of information, but it felt appropriate to watch that important moment in so many people's lives.
Q: One criticism people had with the first film was that you promised to tell "the untold story", and then we didn't get to spend much time with the parents. It seems like the opening sequence [addresses that]. Was that always the plan going forward?
Webb: Yes. (Laughter) It's a tricky thing. That was a marketing term that was part of what we were trying to establish. Of course it was going to be teased out; we had a plan about how to let that unfold, sort of the long shadow that was cast over Peter Parker's life. We knew how this was going to emerge. We had ideas about the pathways for these characters, but we didn't want to blow everything out in the first movie. Again, it's about creating a more elaborate universe, which is developing more and more interesting and nuanced things that I think the fans are really going to enjoy.
Q: There's a lot going on in the scenes we saw. You're introducing a lot of characters, and it seems like we're going to get a lot of backstory on a lot of people. What's your runtime looking like with all of that going on?
Webb: Sixteen hours. (Laughter) It's going to be over two hours. I actually don't know the exact number, but we're very careful to invest in the characters while keeping the story moving forward. There's no one more acutely aware of that than me. I am at times impatient, but I also really value richness of character, and that requires spending some time and being thoughtful about it. There is a value to understanding the first movie, but it's certainly not imperative to enjoying and experiencing the holistic quality of the second film.
Q: Could you tell us more specifically when the spin-offs were pitched to you?
Webb: Originally it was conceived as a trilogy. We were thinking about three movies. And then we started messing around with this second movie, and there was such an enormous wealth of information with the Sinister Six and with Venom in particular, and we were like, "We can't cram it all into one movie. There's too much richness there." So what we were talking about at the beginning of the second film, we were trying to plan out all the emerging storylines. It just started to make sense to invest in other stories. Venom in particular, and the Sinister Six was something we'd always talked about. That's where it started out: the beginning of the second movie.
Q: You clearly have a plan of where you're going. Knowing that plan, how and why does having Electro as the main villain in this film work with that plan?
Webb: What a great question. Very thoughtful. I think primarily... again, on the first film I had sort of an idea of how these characters were going to evolve, and I just wanted to use Electro. There is purely a cinematic opportunity there that I thought was awesome, that given where we are with visual effects technology, I thought you could do [Electro] in an effective and interesting way - which I didn't think existed until recently. Then when we were trying to crack Electro's story, thematically there was a resonance between Max Dillon's character and Spider-Man. "What is that villain going to bring out in your protagonist? How is he going to make that character more heroic?" That was important. But really it was about this movie. It was about finding a villain that was interesting and powerful, but had a thematic resonance that was related to Spider-Man: that idea of an outcast, which you get a little tease of in this information. But it was really about... villains and heroes often are foils for each other, and there are many layers to that. It had a lot to do with Max Dillon, and Electro is an incredibly visual villain. He needs to be seen. That's at the heart of his character. And that has a relationship to Peter Parker's theme and his journey.
Q: The scale of this film seems really enormous. You've got a BLUES BROTHERS amount of cop cars on the street. I'm wondering if, because you're dealing primarily with Spider-Man's universe, that this is the chunk of the Marvel Universe you get to deal with, do you feel a pressure to go really big?
Webb: There's always a twelve-year-old kid in side of me that just wants more. "Ten cop cars? How about fifteen? No, let's get eighty cop cars and crash them all!" If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you do it. (Laughter) But that also goes into the playfulness of it. It became known on set as "THE BLUES BROTHERS sequence" because of what you're talking about. I wanted to start the movie off in a more playful way given the opening situation with the plane because I wanted to bring it back to the playful part of Spider-Man that also felt big and action-driven. There's opportunities in action for certain kinds of comedy that you just don't get anywhere else, But, yeah, there is a pressure to let it be big and have fun with it. There was a joy that we wanted to embrace, especially at the outset of the film.
Q: There's a point in this film where Gwen and Peter break up. Was that where Mary Jane was supposed to come in?
Webb: No. That was a separate, tiny little tease that we omitted. It was really uneventful.
Q: In expanding Spider-Man's universe, could that include a female Spider-Person?
Webb: A "Spider-Person?" (Laughter) Anything is possible, but that hasn't been on my mind. It's an interesting idea.
Q: We didn't get to see Norman Osborn in these clips. Could you talk about his role in the film, and does Harry play more of the antagonist? And will we find out who The Lizard was talking to in that final sequence of the first film?
Webb: "Yes" to your second question. Norman Osborn is played by Chris Cooper. It has an interesting component, but I don't want... we have to be very careful about what we reveal. We get a lot of flack sometimes for talking about too many things, but we've also got to get people enthused to see the movie, so in keeping with trying to make that cinematic for everybody at home really special, I'm going to withhold that answer from you.
Q: In the Times Square sequence, we see this really intricate slow-motion tracking shot that goes through 3-D space that seems to be showing us a bit of Spider-Man's perspective, and how he sees things as he looks at a situation. Can you explain some of what you're doing with that?
Webb: That's very perceptive. You're exactly right. It's about the audience feeling what Spider-Man feels, which is where the point-of-view shots came from in the first film. It's a philosophy of filmmaking; it's trying to get people as closely aligned to what Peter Parker and Spider-Man experience as possible. And that was a cinematic type of language that I wanted to use in order to induce that feeling. "What's the visual representation of spider-sense?" It happens in a split-second. He's aware of impending physical trauma or violence, and he's able to react to that. That just seemed like the right way to do it. There's a little tease of that in the beginning with the bus, but it's part of a bigger thing, which is I want the audience to feel what Spider-Man feels.
Q: Fans have certain expectations of Gwen Stacy's fate. Have you found ways to subvert those expectations?
Webb: It's crucial. You have to think of the story on its own, irrespective of what people's expectations are. People have such a varying degree of understanding of this universe; some people have never read a Spider-Man comic book in their life, and a lot of people have. First and foremost, you think about the story itself. Along the way, there are teases and hints and acknowledgements that hopefully engender a level of engagement from the super-fans. They're always close to us. I talk to them everyday, and I am aware of that. I want to make the experience rich for them, so there are certain references that we have planted for people like me who are fans and are interested in the universe.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 hits theaters on May 2nd, 2014.