Our must-see sense is tingling to an impressive slew of summer movies, starting with an epic superhero reboot that spins a new web

By Chris Nashawaty
August 01, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Andrew Garfield was convinced he hadn’t gotten the part, and he was sure the photo he’d sent didn’t help matters. The actor had just screen-tested to play his boyhood idol, Peter Parker, in Columbia Pictures’ splashy 3-D reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13, out July 3). He knew that there were questions standing between him and the coveted gig: Would he be too old, at 28, to play the world’s most famous teenager? Was he too unknown to be a box office draw? And did he seem to want the job a little too much? The answer to that last one was obvious. All anyone had to do was look at the picture, a family snapshot of Garfield at age 3, a pint-size British kid in a red-and-blue Spider-Man costume standing next to his older brother, Ben, who was dressed as Superman. Garfield emailed the picture to Spider-Man‘s director, Marc Webb, hoping it would be received in the way it was intended: as his way of saying thank you for the opportunity to audition for the potentially career-changing part — and not as some sad, last-ditch pity campaign.

Whatever the case, it worked.

”That photo killed me,” says Webb. ”And with it, Andrew wrote a very moving email about why Spider-Man had such an impact on him. He’d felt bullied as a kid, and Spider-Man allowed him to work out those issues in his imagination. You almost get the sense that playing this part was his destiny.”

As origin stories go, Garfield admits that his is a pretty tidy and feel-good one. ”I honestly still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m playing this character that’s meant so much to me over the years,” he says. But Garfield is only one strand in the intricate web of how The Amazing Spider-Man, one of this summer’s most feverishly anticipated tentpoles, came to be.

When the film was first announced in January 2010, Marvel fans’ Spidey senses started tingling. And not in a good way. To them the movie was a big-budget referendum on how soon is too soon to relaunch a superhero franchise. After all, it has been only five short years since audiences last saw Tobey Maguire slingshotting through the dizzying canyons of Manhattan in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. And while that chapter racked up nearly $900 million across the globe, some fans felt that the wall-crawler had run out of gas — that maybe it was time for the character to be put back into his Mylar sleeve and take a much-needed break on the dusty shelf of the comics shop. Such a hiatus wouldn’t have been unprecedented. Warner Bros. waited eight years before tapping Christopher Nolan to reboot the Caped Crusader with 2005’s Batman Begins. And the Man of Steel slumbered on Krypton for nearly 20 years before 2006’s ill-fated Superman Returns. Relatively speaking, it hadn’t been very long since Raimi and Maguire bowed out of the series, saying they’d reached a creative dead end. ”We all tried to make a fourth installment with Sam and Tobey, but the truth is, we were kind of forcing it. The trilogy had run its course,” says Columbia Pictures president-turned-Spider-Man producer Matt Tolmach. ”But that didn’t mean there weren’t more Spider-Man stories to tell.”

While the Spidey brain trust was wrestling with how to resurrect the studio’s most important franchise, Tolmach had a meeting with Webb, who was riding the success of his indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer. Ostensibly, their get-together was about another project. But out of nowhere — perhaps even out of sheer desperation — Tolmach and producer Avi Arad asked Webb what he thought about Spider-Man. It turned out that Webb, a bona fide comic-book nerd since childhood, had plenty of thoughts about the superhero. Namely, that if the studio was serious about bringing him back, it should go younger and grittier — portraying Peter Parker as an existential outsider grappling with the mystery of what had happened to his parents.

Webb didn’t know it when he walked out of Tolmach’s office, but he was about to spend the next two years of his life putting his off-the-cuff ideas on the screen. Needless to say, he wasn’t a popular choice with fans at first. His only previous film had charm and heart but little in the way of eye-candy F/X. And its $7.5 million budget was a tiny fraction of what Spider-Man‘s would be. ”It’s funny to listen to people say, ‘Come on. Marc Webb? How did you arrive at that?”’ says Tolmach. ”But it wasn’t that different than hiring Sam Raimi. People forget where Sam sat in the world when we made that decision all those years ago.”

Even though Spi-hards felt that Raimi’s trilogy ended on a disappointing note, that didn’t mean that they were ready to see their beloved superhero handed over to a bunch of strangers. As a fan himself, Garfield says he understood the concerns. And he felt enormous pressure to help the film live up to Raimi’s first Spider-Man, which he remembers watching twice in a row on a bootleg copy he bought when he was 18. In a way, he says, he’s almost become too familiar with his new alter ego’s famous refrain, ”With great power comes great responsibility.” The one thing that put his mind at ease, though, was an early endorsement from his predecessor. ”Tobey sent an email to one of the producers saying that he thought I was a good choice,” says Garfield. ”That was moving for me, and generous of him. It allowed me to worry about one less thing.” Adds Webb, ”Look, there are always cynical people, but that’s part of the game. Spider-Man is a perennial character, and ultimately what our movie is about is a kid who grows up looking for his father and finds himself. That’s a Spider-Man story we haven’t seen before. We’re coming at it from a different angle. It’s not a remake of Sam’s movie.”

Webb’s right about that. His Spider-Man is a lot different from Raimi’s trilogy. In addition to being shot in spare-no-expense 3-D, it reaches back to different aspects of the character’s comic-book origins (Spidey was first brought to webslinging life by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962). It centers on Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s first true love in the comics and a rival to Mary Jane Watson, his paramour in the Raimi films. Garfield and Emma Stone had never met before she auditioned to play Gwen. But the actress says she and her costar had immediate chemistry — which quickly sparked into an offscreen romance. ”A lot of our scenes are scripted,” says Stone. ”But there are a lot of moments that aren’t, where we were able to find whatever it was we were looking for playing two kids who were falling in love for the first time.” Somewhat guardedly, Garfield adds, ”Being with Emma was just as fun as swinging through buildings, because it felt like the same amount of exhilaration. I don’t know about chemistry. That’s a scientific word and unquantifiable. As soon as you start to define it, it evaporates.”

Another big change this go-round is Spider-Man’s nemesis — Rhys Ifans’ Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. the Lizard. Introduced in issue No. 6 of the Amazing Spider-Man comic, Connors was a brilliant scientist who lost his arm as an Army surgeon and became obsessed with developing a serum, derived from reptiles, to make his limb regenerate. Naturally, there were disastrous side effects. He turned into a massive pathological Lizard-man — and one of the most famous foes in Spider-Man’s five-decade mythology (see sidebar, page 41). ”So many Spider-Man villains are kind of conscious that they’re villains,” says Ifans, best known for playing Hugh Grant’s slobby roommate in Notting Hill. ”Connors isn’t aware of that at all. He thinks he’s there to save the world, even when he’s a ravenous nine-foot lizard.”

After The Amazing Spider-Man wrapped production a year ago, the cast members weren’t the only ones with something to prove. The studio’s marketing team knew that it had to win back the hearts and minds of skeptical Spidey lovers. Webb basically slept in the editing room, cutting together a sizzle reel to convert the naysayers. In February the studio hosted a global simulcast gathering the franchise’s far-flung fans in 13 cities including New York, Los Angeles, London, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and Seoul to introduce the cast and unspool Webb’s rough-cut teaser. The gamble paid off. No sooner did the faithful don their 3-D glasses than they were wiping drool from their chins. The audience felt like they were whooshing through Manhattan’s vertiginous skyscrapers right along with Spidey.

When the house lights came up on five different continents, Webb could finally exhale. Spidey Nation was at peace again. The movie, once hounded by talk of ”how soon is too soon?” now faced cries of ”can’t come soon enough.” And now, given the billion-dollar success of Marvel’s other summer spectacular, The Avengers, the decision to reboot Spider-Man is looking cannier than ever.

Garfield, for one, wishes that the movie would open already, if for no other reason than to put him out of his misery. Not that he hasn’t been keeping busy. In February, he made his Broadway debut as Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and picked up his first Tony nomination (see sidebar, below).

But even the pressures of going on stage every night didn’t stop him from seeing what Spidey’s Marvel stablemates Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk were up to. When he’s asked if seeing The Avengers made him want to put his Spidey suit back on and join the superhero smackdown, he doesn’t pause for a second. ”Hell, yeah! Absolutely,” he says. ”Are you kidding? That’s all I was thinking!”

Oh, well — maybe in the sequel.

How the Lizard Was Hatched

The Marvel universe is famous for its menagerie of memorable villains. But there’s one whom comic-book aficionados love to hate: Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. the Lizard. The scientist, introduced in issue No. 6 of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963, lost his arm during the war. After returning home, he holed up in his lab trying to come up with a reptile-based formula to regrow his limb. He succeeded, albeit with one small side effect: He transformed into a giant, nefarious Lizard-man. (As an added twist, in the new film, Connors was also a co-worker of Peter’s dead father.) ”I’d like to think that all Spidey’s villains are unique,” says the comic’s cocreator Stan Lee. ”But the thing that grabs me about the Lizard is the fact that although he’s one of our hero’s most dangerous and deadliest enemies, he’s actually a good guy whom Spidey doesn’t want to injure or kill. I was always very proud of that particular angle in regards to the somewhat loathsome Lizard!”

Andrew Garfield’s Broadway Triumph

Most young Hollywood actors would probably try to follow a career-changing role like Spider-Man by pursuing more blockbusters. But Andrew Garfield isn’t your average Hollywood actor. After wrapping The Amazing Spider-Man, Garfield looked east to Broadway, where he signed on as Biff opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. ”There’s a sense of accomplishment every night,” says Garfield, who’ll be with the show until its run ends on June 2. ”And you don’t know if you’re going to get through it, because it hurts to do this play. But ultimately it’s rewarding because you know how profoundly it affects people.” Garfield’s decision has paid off. Not only is the show a hit, it also earned him a much-deserved Tony nomination — and the admiration of someone who knows a bit about winning Tonys. ”Like Phil, Andrew is a theater actor,” says Nichols. ”He’s never satisfied with himself. He knows what’s happened with his movie career, and he’ll fight with every fiber of his being not to let that go to his head.”