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Web master: 'The Amazing Spider-Man'

The highly anticipated starring Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield film will be swinging into Comic-Con this summer. But before it does, we’ve got exclusive on-the-set scoop. Will this latest marvel reboot have legs?

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Spider-Man has famously taught us that with great power comes great responsibility. But apparently there are a few other, less talked-about things that come with great power. Like, for example, a willingness to fall 80 feet and break one’s neck.

On a chilly May evening in Harlem, a mystery man in a skintight red-and-blue spandex suit nervously paces in the dark shadows of a towering overpass. He’s deep in his own world, alone. An elaborate system of rigs and wires is suspended from the underbelly of a trestle eight stories high. Soon he’ll be up there. And with the help of some million-dollar movie magic, he’ll discover for the first time what it’s like to slingshot through the night sky on sugar-spun webs of thread. Before he does, though, there’s a more mundane concern: Spider-Man has an itch. So the masked man reaches up and peels back his bug-eyed hoodie, revealing…the guy from The Social Network.

It’s been four not-so-long years since Spidey and his science-whiz alter ego, Peter Parker, last defied gravity on screen. But since then, almost everything about the Marvel superhero has been scrapped and built back up from the studs. When we left off, actor Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi were shattering box office records with the same radioactive powers they used to trounce Doc Ock and the Green Goblin. But back then, even the most die-hard diehard had to admit that when the end credits rolled in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, the signs of franchise fatigue were abundantly clear. That third chapter had too many villains, about three times too many story lines, and a silly black suit of goo that seemed to be a metaphor for how weighed down in broody, dark-side funkiness the series had become. Commercially, Spider-Man was still swinging; creatively, it seemed on empty.

Sony Pictures’ Spidey senses were tingling. Maybe it was time to start fresh. And after Maguire and Raimi bowed out, the studio made the decision to go back to the comic books and spin a new story with a new director (Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer), a new Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield), and a new direction described as ”more contemporary,” ”more gritty,” and ”more character-driven.” The implication being ”less like Spider-Man 3.”

While all of this reboot talk may sound like inevitable marketing hype — an attempt to keep yawning fanboys interested — one thing that’s obvious visiting the set of the optimistically titled The Amazing Spider-Man is that things are definitely different. For the superhero’s latest incarnation, Peter Parker isn’t just a do-gooder, he’s an existential outsider. Mary Jane Watson is out. Peter’s first love, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), is in. And Raimi’s sugar-shock, eye-candy computer F/X are being scaled back a bit in favor of more practical stunts, which are being filmed in 3-D. All of which brings us to tonight’s main attraction — the chance to watch the new guy in the Spidey suit risk his freshly minted career and his neck.

It’s the last week of the big-budget film’s 94-day shoot. Up to this point, no journalist has been allowed within a web shot of the top secret set. Despite this, or more likely because of it, the cast and crew are loose-lipped, revealing things they probably shouldn’t, like the identity of the film’s villain. Which is why we can exclusively confirm that Rhys Ifans will be playing Dr. Curt Connors, who, in an experiment gone wrong, transforms into one of Spidey’s most formidable comic-book foes, the Lizard.

As the crew busily prepares for tonight’s soaring, death-defying money shot, all eyes are on Garfield as he stares up at the mazes of scaffolding overhead. The stunt crew huddles with him to discuss his safety. After, as he gathers his nerves, Garfield sheepishly waves to a middle-aged couple standing 20 feet away. They are Mr. and Mrs. Garfield, and they look both proud and slightly nauseous. After all, part of them has to be thinking: Our son’s life will never be the same after this.

Two months later, The Amazing Spider-Man has wrapped. For the better part of the next year the film will be digitally tarted up by guys drinking Mountain Dew in front of computers. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield (yes, he survived!) is slouched on a sofa on the Sony lot in Los Angeles forming his first answers to the barrage of questions he’ll be answering during that time.

He’s soft-spoken, earnest, and surprisingly boyish for 27. You get the sense that he probably spent most of his childhood lying on the floor poring over graphic novels. And you’d be right. His prize possession is a copy of Spider-Man issue 6 signed by Stan Lee. ”I also have an original figurine of Penguin from the ’60s,” he says with a slight British accent. When asked what it must have been like for his parents to watch him risk his life on set, Garfield says, ”It was really moving, because they know how much this character has meant to me since I was a kid.”

It’s true. While anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Spider-Man knows that his origin story revolves around a spider bite that turns geeky high schooler Peter Parker into a webslinging superhero, few would guess how similar Garfield’s own origin story is. It goes like this: Young boy grows up in the south of England in a middle-class family; he is small for his age and not the most popular, feels like an outsider, and escapes into a world of his own imagination where he feels invincible. ”I always felt stronger inside than I looked on the outside, which got me into trouble,” he says. ”I related to Peter Parker so much because I felt like someone else inside. I loved the comic books and the animated TV series, and I even dressed up as Spider-Man as a kid. My brother was Superman.”

The actor was 18 when Raimi and Maguire’s first Spidey flick hit theaters. ”That rekindled everything,” Garfield says. ”I bought a pirated copy on Portobello Road and watched it over and over with my buddy Terry. The action sequences were so expansive and breathtaking, with Tobey swinging through the air. It just floored me!”

It goes without saying that Garfield is several degrees less famous than Maguire was when he was cast in 2002’s Spider-Man. And his director, Webb, admits that he didn’t immediately see the relatively unknown Brit in the part. ”We auditioned hundreds of actors, and then we screen-tested four or five,” Webb says. ”Andrew was probably the least-known person. But I kept going back and watching him, thinking, ‘What is this guy doing?”’

Now that he’s turned his boyhood dream into grown-up reality, Garfield’s trying to be careful not to let it go to his head. He makes a point of saying that the role is only his temporarily (although he’s already signed on for a sequel), and he’s almost sheepishly deferential to his predecessor in the Spidey suit. ”Tobey did an amazing job,” he says. ”This isn’t a replacement. I want to be clear about that. It’s another chapter.”

Webb was in many ways an equally odd choice to be handed the reins of the billion-dollar franchise. Before being tapped for the reboot, the 36-year-old had directed only one film — the quirky 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer — a movie that cost roughly one-twentieth of what The Amazing Spider-Man is budgeted for. Still, the studio was convinced that Webb’s handle on character and emotion would trump his inexperience with pricey, three-ring summer shock and awe.

”Sam was brilliant at creating the comic-book-panel colors and giving us the traditional Peter Parker,” says producer and former Marvel honcho Avi Arad. ”What Marc brings to the movie is a more realistic, more contemporary feel. You look at (500) Days and you see that Marc is a softy. He’s very concerned with emotion.” That’s good news for Emma Stone, the actress trying to make fanboys forget about Kirsten Dunst and her affinity for upside-down smooches in the rain. ”When I’m watching movies like this, if I don’t find something I can relate to story-wise and character-wise, it’s just a bunch of noise,” she says. ”You feel like a 4-year-old watching fireworks. With Marc, you just know that the film will be grounded in reality.”

However, Webb still knows his way around a comics store. His geek bona fides are solid. Webb grew up three blocks away from Capital City Comics in Madison, Wis. ”Spider-Man wasn’t my main comic,” he reveals reluctantly. ”I was a big fan of Groo the Wanderer and G.I. Joe. But what I liked about Spider-Man was that his soul is the soul of a teenager. The DNA of Spider-Man is totally relatable. He’s different from Superman. He’s not from another planet, he’s not a billionaire, he’s just a kid. Ultimately what this movie is about is a kid who grows up looking for his father and finds himself. And that’s a Spider-Man story we haven’t seen before.”

Another thing we haven’t seen before is a Spider-Man film in 3-D. Webb admits to being skeptical of the expensive technology but says this film’s made him a convert. ”It’s not the right tool for every movie, but I wanted the audience to feel what it’s like to be Spider-Man. You’re going to see the world through his eyes. I thought, ‘If I’m going to shoot this movie in 3-D, I can’t chicken out. I’m just going to go balls to the wall.”’

Comic-Con’s legendary Hall H is the red-hot molten core of the fanboy universe. It’s also a place where blockbusters can be made…and unmade. Platoons of Hollywood marketers show up in San Diego every year at the convention with the goal of drumming up buzz for their big-ticket movies. But occasionally they slink off battered and bruised if, to quote Star Wars, fans decide these ”aren’t the droids” they’re looking for.

The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t come out for another 12 months — July 3, 2012, to be exact. But it’s arguably the most anticipated film at this year’s event. Bloggers have been rabidly weighing in on the heresy of replacing Sam Raimi, and whether the movie’s 3-D will be more Avatar or, gulp, Clash of the Titans. Then there’s the question of whether this Spidey rebooting is too much, too soon. After all, Christopher Nolan waited eight years before reintroducing Batman. Superman was retired from the big screen for 19 years between Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh. The last time anyone attempted to re-kick-start things this quickly was with 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. And how’d that work out?

Team Spidey knows that the first true test of public opinion will take place at Comic-Con. ”The thing about Comic-Con is there’s a brutal honesty about it,” says producer Matt Tolmach. ”If you don’t bring your best, and you let them down, they’ll let you know.” As the director of one of the biggest, riskiest, most buzzed-about superhero films in recent years, Webb has no idea whether to expect the best at the convention or the worst. ”I’m not scared,” he says, beginning to laugh. ”I mean, I think I should be safe physically at least, don’t you?”

Spidey’s Old School Shooters
No one loves to debate arcane minutiae more than comic-book geeks. And with The Amazing Spider-Man, they’ll have plenty to argue about. One of the hottest topics is likely to be the mechanical web-shooters on Spidey’s wrists — a bit of high-tech gizmology that brainiac Peter Parker first cooked up in the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics but that was AWOL from Sam Raimi’s trilogy (Tobey Maguire’s silly string sprayed organically from his wrists). ”We made a very conscious decision to go back to the mechanical web-shooters,” says director Marc Webb, ”and I think the fans will appreciate it.” That, of course, depends on what he means by ”fans.” Longtime comic readers will dig the nostalgic nod, but newbies weaned on Raimi’s films might be wondering what those contraptions on Spidey’s wrists are. Let the debate begin!