The numbers, on their own, are terrifying. The three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies grossed .4bn (£1.5bn) worldwide. The six most recent Avengers films have taken .7bn (£2.4bn). Since 1989, the Batman films have made .6bn (£1.7bn). This is the world of high finance, translated into film-making. The newest of these corporate-funded entities, The Amazing Spider-Man, is shortly to be unleashed on the marketplace. And the responsibility for ensuring it keeps its end up, creatively speaking, is the unassuming – and, it has to be said, slightly bemused-looking – figure of Marc Webb. If he is weighed down by the responsibility, he doesn’t show it.
In truth, Webb must be one of the most extraordinary directorial hires in recent memory: chosen to preside over a 0m budget superhero film, with only one feature under his belt, the manbag-toting, indie romcom 500 Days of Summer. Boasting yards of tortured twentysomething angst, ruminations on urban architecture and British 80s post-punk, and absolutely no explosions, 500 Days of Summer couldn’t be a less obvious audition for the Spider-Man job. How on earth did he swing it?
"You know," says Webb, "it was kind of absurd. There was no process of shilling myself." He says Spider-Man was only mentioned casually in a meeting with the studio: "I was interested, of course, but I didn’t think they were actually looking for someone. Sam Raimi was still doing Spider-Man 4 at the time." Just as casually, Webb was asked if he wanted to direct it. "With 500 Days I spent six months developing a presentation just to get Fox to back the movie. This was very different."
Webb professes to be unaware of the thought processes that handed him the job ("you’d have to ask the studio"), but his appointment is the latest and arguably most radical in the superhero movies’ attempt to get away from mere surface flash; he is the anti-Zack Snyder. Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Ang Lee (Hulk) and, most notably, Christopher Nolan are previous beneficiaries of the policy. 500 Days of Summer, with its eye for emotional nuance and delicate structural layering, presumably offered the producers an easily digestible form of realism that they could see being grafted on to comic-book heroics.
Webb uses the word "grounded" a lot when he talks about how he went about moving Spider-Man away from the candy-coloured, two-dimensional style perfected by Raimi. As in: "I wanted the script to be more grounded", and "The action has to be grounded and true." It’s easy to see what he’s getting at. The golden age of the comic-book movie, from Tim Burton’s Batman to Raimi’s Spider-Man, has essentially tried to replicate on film the heightened experience of reading a comic book: heroically conceived, fetishistically designed, and furiously melodramatic. The advent of CGI, however, has changed the game. "We’re coming out of the baroque era," says Webb, and "vision" and "spectacle" are no longer enough: we need some heart, otherwise it’s just a bunch of exploding cars and talking lizards.
So how do you go about injecting realism into a superhero movie? Webb says, first of all, he gave the central character a thorough psychological overhaul, including adding a scene with Peter Parker’s absent parents – something of a narrative coup. "I think about the protagonist, and what his life is like. Here’s this kid, six or seven years old, who is left behind by his parents. That has huge emotional consequences, that had never come up in the previous movies. That was where the emotional colour came from, and where the narrative started."
Webb has reinvented Parker as a shambling, mumbling skateboarder; a loner, sure, but a long way from Tobey Maguire’s grinning mute. The girl-nextdoor figure of Mary Jane Watson was ditched as Parker’s love interest for similar reasons ("she’s a symbol, basically") and he says he thought hard about the central dynamic of Parker’s relationship with the sassier figure of Gwen Stacy ("What would actually happen in this situation? If I’m a kid, 17 years old, and I get superpowers. I can’t tell anyone, but there’s a girl I like …"). For all that, Webb says, "the most important part of it is casting". He was impressed with the 28-year-old British actor Andrew Garfield after seeing him in Boy A and Red Riding. "He’s always about finding the reality in a scene; he’s not just going to sit there and recite lines."
Marc Webb as the Mike Leigh of superhero films? Perhaps that’s overstating it: Webb, after all, is a veteran of the music promo circuit, and has spent more than a decade making commercials. Nor did Leigh ever have to deal with web-slinging action sequences in 3D. Webb says his commitment to realism was important here too. "I sat on a corner in New York and thought, if I had webs, how would I fly through the city?" He is also refreshingly enthusiastic and articulate about 3D: "For Spider-Man, it’s an organic part of the film language; it is a storytelling device, mirroring the character. It’s mild and modest at the beginning of the film, and then we increase the depth and the scope as the film universe expands." He even confesses to looting unlikely sources for inspiration: one shot, for example, was pinched from Wim Wenders’ 3D dance film Pina.
If Webb can walk the walk, he can also talk the talk; spending years in meetings with Marvel studio executives has undoubtedly had its effect. He refers to "the comic-book canon", and has spoken rather grandly of the "iconic elements of the Spider-Man mythology I wanted to honour and protect". This is the kind of chat that goes down well at Comic Con and other hardcore-nerd gathering places. But he doesn’t waver in his defence of the comic-book world: "You know, there’s been a lot of sophistication to comics for many years, and now people in the mainstream are beginning to recognise a complexity and dimension they haven’t before.
"Spider-Man has an x-factor I can’t fully explain," he says. "It has so much that appeals: romance, gravity, action, humour and wish fulfilment. That’s why studios invest. As movies, they’re reliable commercially, so now they can be a little more daring; you can try a few new things. They’re suddenly critically credible too. I didn’t have to think of it as a four-quadrant movie where you have to tick all the boxes."
On a personal level, though, you have to wonder: isn’t this something of a diversion for a film-maker who has put such value on elaborately intellectualised films, The Graduate foremost among them? Webb once wrote an article for the Guardian saying The Graduate was "permanently fused to my brainstem". If 500 Days of Summer was a genuine stab at a latter-day Mike Nichols, will doing a Spider-Man film mean – dare we say it these days – selling out?
"You know, you can do both. It’s just about finding good drama. There’s something really exciting, as a film-maker, about doing something on a Spider-Man scale. It hopefully enables you to make more of those Graduate-type movies down the road – but that’s not why I did it. It wasn’t a strategic decision: you can’t spend two years of your life making a movie thinking about how it’s going to affect your career.
"It’s unbelievably rare to find a film of that quality, anyhow. Mike Nichols has made a lot of movies. The Graduate was, what, his second – how many of them are as good? Nowadays there’s a shitty culture of preciousness: people should be allowed to make more films, in a climate that allows risk-taking, and be allowed to fail."
Just not this one, maybe.
The Amazing Spider-Man opens in the UK on 3 July.
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