Spidey has swung into film history yet again with the latest movie installment of the iconic Marvel comic-book character, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” The film opened Tuesday and has already racked up more than $75 million, and some project it may double that by Monday.
Fans have turned out for this upstart for three reasons, say movie experts: unexpectedly endearing performances from relative newcomer lead actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone; the nearly quixotic hiring of director Marc Webb with one tiny indie feature to recommend him, “(500) Days of Summer”; and Peter Parker’s permanent hold on the adolescent psyche.
“A lot of people said it was just too soon to remake the Spider-Man movies,” says Paul Dergarabedian, box-office expert for Hollywood.com. But, he says, Hollywood executives clearly took a page from how well fans responded to the Maguire-Dunst romance at the heart of the previous three films and hired a team that would exploit that side of the narrative.
Mr. Garfield truly embodies the character, says Charles Coletta, who teaches a course on comic books at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “His physicality as both the awkward Peter and graceful Spidey captured many of the poses we have seen for decades in the comic-book pages,” he says, adding that he thought Garfield was “a better Spidey than Tobey Maguire.”
Mr. Coletta continues, “Emma Stone also looked as if she had just stepped out of the comics. I thought her chemistry with Garfield was wonderful.” The decision, he notes, to go with Gwen over the more well-known Mary Jane love interest adds new emotional heft to Peter’s list of heartbreaks.
“Longtime comics readers know the tragic fate that awaits Gwen, and it will be interesting to see if the upcoming sequel will address her death,” he says, adding that it was “one of the most important moments in comics history.”
The adults who surround Peter were also well cast, and the traumas that weigh on the teen superhero were more fleshed out, Coletta says. “Martin Sheen and Sally Field were perfect as Uncle Ben and Aunt May,” he says. “It was interesting that they chose to focus on the mystery of Peter's parents, which was ignored in the earlier films.”
Handing the helm to a director with no experience in the action-film world was not as much of a gamble as it may seem, says Mr. Dergarabedian. Hollywood has begun to see the logic of snagging serious directors who understand the power of emotional engagement, no matter the budget (estimated for this film at $220 million) or even the special effects.
“You have a lot of interesting directors crossing over to big-budget films to great effect,” he says, pointing to Christopher Nolan as the perfect surprise success. “He came in and redid the Batman franchise, and before that he had done really interesting but very indie films like ‘Memento’ and ‘Insomnia.’ ”
But at the heart of the film is still the enduring appeal of a teenage boy bedeviled by high school, hormones, and oh yeah, freakish powers bestowed by radioactive spider bites, says Brad Ricca, who teaches popular culture at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and is the author of the upcoming book on superheroes, “Super Boys.”
“What the film does right is identify what made the comic work so well in 1962,” he says via e-mail. It’s not the powers or costume, he says, asking, “Who wants the powers of a spider anyway?” But, he says, the idea that a teenager with superpowers still has the problems of a teenager is compelling.
“A teenager can't identify with Superman or Batman, but they absolutely can with an outcast Peter Parker with his bad hair and spider bites. Peter Parker will never be the cool kid in the know – and that's why we root for him,” notes Mr. Ricca.
Beyond that, he says, what this Spider-Man movie tells us about the entertainment industry is that Hollywood finally is “getting it when it comes to comic books, especially Marvel ones.”
Many early comic-book movies had little respect for the source material, thinking that a bright costume and Peter Pan stunts would be enough, says Ricca. But then, he says, screenwriters who grew up on comics started writing in Hollywood, and they knew that real stories lie at the center of these colorful fantasies.
“Like the English teacher at Midtown says in the movie, the only real plot in literature is ‘Who am I?’ This is why Spider-Man stories can be told, and retold, as long as kids grow up,” he adds.
Noting that not all reviews were glowing, Ricca acknowledges that some audience members will always equate comic books with a lower form of culture, which, “in all fairness, is where they began.” In other words, he says, “there will always be moms who want to throw out comic books.”