Requiem for a franchise that wasn't
The second Spider-Man movie franchise died a quiet death on Tuesday night. News broke that Sony will partner with Disney in an unusual, rival-schools-united-by-fate arrangement that will bring the web-swinging superhero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That will be followed by a standalone Spider-Man movie in 2017, and then probably by at least one Marvel-movie guest appearance that will last just long enough for Spidey to ask what an Infinity Stone is.
Long live Spider-Man; Spider-Man is dead! For this news almost certainly sounds the Sad Funeral Trombone for The Amazing Spider-Man, a preboot saga that Sony had once envisioned as a megafranchise to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Amazing Spider-Man was supposed to produce spinoffs, sequels; there was a time when Sony boldly announced Amazing Spider-Man 3 and 4 before 2 had even arrived in theaters. But last year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperformed significantly at the box office, proving decisively that people maybe only needed two movies where Spider-Man fights some kind of Green-ish Goblin-type.
There are already some reports that Amazing star Andrew Garfield is definitely out as Spider-Man. Sony did not immediately respond to EW’s request for comment, but even if Garfield does keep the job, it’s a fair bet that Spider-Man’s future will pretty much ignore the tone and plot of the Amazing sub-franchise. Best-case-scenario, Sony and Marvel decides to just skip a decade of Peter Parker’s life and let the 31-year-old Garfield act his age. Most likely scenario, Marvel Studios pays about as much attention to The Amazing Spider-Man as it does to any movie with the word “Hulk” in the title.
This would be the time to mourn The Amazing Spider-Man, if there was anything in particular to mourn about. But future historians will mainly remember Sony’s prequel duet as a rare example of almost everything that could go wrong with Hollywood in the franchise era. Amazing Spider-Man was a trope factory for hand-me-down concepts.
The first film was an awkward attempt to simultaneously transform the Spider-Man franchise into both The Dark Knight and Twilight. Here was an explicitly darker-realer-grittier Spidey than the Raimi films—Peter Parker wears a hoodie, bro!—but that realness was already approaching sub-Poochie market-tested Xtremity. There is a scene where Peter Parker demonstrates his new powers by doing rad skateboard tricks; the scene is set to Coldplay. Spider-Man, Skateboard, Coldplay; Spider-Man, Skateboard, Coldplay: Repeat it 10 times and it still won’t quite make sense.
But The Amazing Spider-Man also bears a strong resemblance to the bumper crop of YA-inflected romances that followed in Twilight‘s wake. The idea to send Peter Parker back to high school wasn’t bad; there’s plenty of material in the comics, and the notion of an everyteen loser superhero feels just as unusual now as it ever did. Superheroes onscreen now are trending biceppy (Hugh Jackman, Henry Cavill, Chris Hemsworth) and uber-rich (Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark.) Why not bring back lovable, puny, relatable Parker?
Except The Amazing Spider-Man opted to include some of the less well-conceived later additions to the canon—Spider-Man’s parents were spies or whatever!—and in the process transformed lovable, puny, relatable Peter Parker into a sneering James Dean-chosen one. A young boy, left on his aunt and uncle’s doorstep, hunting down a mysterious Great Evil who killed his parents mysteriously: Some of this comes from the comics, but it still felt like J.K. Rowling deserved a co-writing credit.
There were good parts in both Amazing movies, but even those good parts feel weirdly emblematic of the failings of contemporary blockbuster franchising. The films caught Emma Stone at the specific moment that she became Emma Stone: Filming on Amazing 1 began just a few months after Stone’s star turn in Easy A, feels in hindsight like a gift from an alternate universe where teen films trended goofy instead of moody. The year before Amazing‘s release saw Stone in fine form, in The Help and Crazy, Stupid Love; in the months since Amazing 2 hit theaters, Stone earned her first Oscar nomination, for Birdman. So her work in the Amazing franchise feels like a particular black hole on a sparkling resumé: An excellent actress struggling against all odds to triumph over material that was always going to turn her into a damsel in distress. Her chemistry with co-star Andrew Garfield was palpable—they’re dating, have you heard?—but you watch the movies now and wonder if a bold bit of casting could’ve just given us the superhero movie we all really wanted. Emma Stone as Patricia Parker, maybe? With Andrew Garfield as handsome emo-BF Glen Stacy, her dude in distress? It could’ve been bad; it couldn’t have been worse than what we got.
In director Marc Webb’s defense, the films looked pretty—especially Amazing 2, which was shot on 35 mm film in some actual New York locations. The locations look great in Amazing 2: Your eyes turn to them, desperate to get away from whatever is happening in the actual movie. The Amazing sequel tried to pack a lot in: Electro, the Green Goblin, the Rhino made appearances; there were ending teases for Doctor Octopus and the Vulture; Felicity Jones played a character who was maybe kinda sorta the Black Cat, which if you’re counting makes two future female Oscar nominees just utterly wasted. Jesus Christ, BJ Novak had a cameo as Alistair Smythe, a B-minus level villain who built anti-Spidey robots!
Amazing 2 ended with a tease for future films: A mystery man walking through a laboratory filled with evil supervillain hardware. Remarkably, insanely, this was almost precisely where Amazing Spider-Man 1 had ended. The intrinsic message of both movies seemed to be: “Stick with us! We’re almost about to start getting to the good stuff!” In that sense, the Amazings could be Patient Zero for encroaching Origin Fatigue: The sense that people might finally be getting fed up with the story before the story. How many more times do we have to see Uncle Ben get killed? How many more times do we need to watch Peter hanging out with his best pal Harry Osborn, blissfully unaware that anybody named Osborn will probably go Green sooner or later?
It will be interesting to see the Marvel Studios-inflected version of Spider-Man. And it will be interesting to see where Garfield goes from here. Tobey Maguire has barely acted since his Spider-Man movies, but that’s at least partially because he made more in ten minutes of Spider-Man 3 screentime than Garfield made in two Spider-Man movies. (Garfield’s next three movies are directed by arthouse favorite Ramin Bahrani, genuine legend Martin Scorsese, and genuine crazy Mel Gibson—so at least he’s making interesting choices.)
And it will always be interesting to wonder just what, in the end, the Amazing Spider-Man movies amounted to. “The Untold Story Begins” promised the posters for The Amazing Spider-Man. “His Greatest Battle Begins” promised the posters for Amazing 2. The irony is that it feels like the Amazing movies never began at all: They were endless teases, promising something really big on the next horizon. They weren’t good, but they were ours, a snapshot of a movie era borne forward ceaselessly into the next sequel.
Thoughts? Counterarguments? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in a future edition of the Geekly Mailbag.