This past May, the wildly popular Captain America: Civil War gave fans something they had long been clamoring for - Spider Man. Tom Holland's well-received performance brought everyone's favorite wall crawler into the MCU fold. This move signaled a new chapter for the world-famous, beloved, character. But it also became the final nail in the coffin of Andrew Garfield's tenure as Spider-Man.
The Franchise that Couldn't: Looking Back on the Amazing Spider-Man
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
January 16, 2017
Looking back at it now, it seems that the Amazing Spider-Man franchise was doomed from the start. Even though it had great talent - behind and in front of the camera - it never really took off. Audiences, who could have sworn they saw a Spider-Man origin movie just a few years back, met the reboot with a sort of collective shrug. But perhaps James Cameron, who almost directed a Spider-Man movie in the '90s, captured the general sentiment towards the reboot best when he called it “sloppy seconds.”
The series got off to a decent enough start in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man. Although it suffered a steep decline at the box office and reviews were generally lukewarm, it showed there was still life in the franchise. And audiences seemed to enjoy the movie or at worst found it harmless.
But by the time the sequel came out, the public had turned on the franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with a 52% rating, was the first Spider Man movie to be labeled “rotten” by Rotten Tomatoes. (Spider-Man 3 somehow has a passing grade with its 63% fresh rating.) And it reached a new series low at the box office. It topped out at $202 million domestically, about half of what Sam Raimi's Spider-Man earned in 2002.
These days, fans seem to look back at the whole endeavor with a mixture of confusion and derision. Although at one point there was genuine hope for the series, now it sadly resides in the superhero hall of shame. When it does come up in conversation, it's greeted with the kind of disdain usually reserved for Superman Returns.
At best, it's thought of as a sort of transitional stage for Spider-Man, between the first big-screen adventures directed by Sam Raimi and the arrival to his “rightful” home at Marvel Studios. At worst, people would rather forget it altogether.
While it's fair to say that the series didn't live up to its potential, it doesn't deserve to be completely written off. And with the web-head embarking on a new chapter of his big screen adventures it seems like a good time to look back and say goodbye to The Amazing Spider-Man, a series that never really got the chance to soar. But before diving into things, it's a good idea to look back at what preceded The Amazing Spider-Man and why the franchise had to be rebooted in the first place.
Most people, rightfully, credit X-Men, ¬(2000) directed by Bryan Singer for kick-starting the current comic book craze. X-Men, with a star-making performance from Hugh Jackman, reminded audiences that these characters were worthy of making the jump to the big screen. By being faithful to the source material and avoiding campiness, Singer made a movie that audiences and critics embraced. And perhaps more important, it was a big success at the box office, showing studios that there was a lot of money to be made with comic book adaptations. The movie grossed $157 million domestically and almost $300 million worldwide on a $75 million budget. But if X-Men set things up, Spider-Man, (2002) directed by Sam Raimi, knocked it out of the park.
Although 14 years later it might not completely hold up, at the time Spider-Man was a revelation. The movie captured the spirit and earnestness of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era comic books. It was also bolstered by a generally strong cast. Tobey Maguire was at the center and captured the innocence and everyman quality perfectly. He seemed to be Peter Parker brought to life. (And he was a pretty good Spider-Man, too.)
Both critics and fans gave the movie a passing grade. And where X-Men was a big hit, Spider-Man was an unqualified smash. The movie grossed $403 million domestically and $821 million worldwide. And although the sequel, Spider-Man 2, took a drop at the box office at $373 million domestically/$783 million worldwide, fans and critics loved it. In fact, many still consider it a highlight of the genre. But unfortunately things went sour, very quickly, with the third entry.
Spider-Man 3 was easily the worst reviewed of the three Raimi films, and audiences weren't much kinder. But because the first two movies were so beloved, audience excitement was incredibly high for the third entry. This led to a then record-setting opening weekend of $151 million. Except this time around, fans were disappointed and the movie faded faster than the previous two, topping out at a still very impressive $336 million domestically.
But that number doesn't accurately portray the backlash towards the franchise. There is no doubt that the movie was a big hit. But the fact that it grossed about 45% of its domestic total over the first three days shows that it didn't have the staying power that the previous two entries enjoyed. For comparison's sake, the first movie made about 28% of its total on the opening weekend. (Spider-Man 2 opened on a Wednesday, so it doesn't fit the comparison.) It's hard to overstate just how quickly and harshly public opinion turned on the Spider-Man franchise. After Spider-Man 2, it was practically the gold standard for comic book movies. But just one movie later, the franchise was damaged goods.
There are a lot of reasons Spider-Man 3 failed so dramatically, and a whole other article could be written to fully cover it. But a big problem was the fact that there was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama. Sony, for some reason, didn't have faith in Raimi, even though he directed two great movies for them. And because of this, there seemed to be two competing movies jammed into Spider-Man 3. The movie Raimi wanted to make had to battle the movie Sony wanted to see. And the result was a convoluted, uneven mess that eviscerated all of the goodwill the first two movies earned. But overseas audiences seemed to enjoy it more and helped make it the biggest one on a worldwide basis, with $890 million.
But regardless of how much money Spider-Man 3 made, it was clear that some course correcting needed to be done. A fourth film, scheduled to be released in 2011, was announced but it ultimately fell apart. Sony then went ahead with its reboot plans that would eventually become The Amazing Spider-Man. It was directed by Marc Webb and starred Andrew Garfield in the title role.
This left the studio in the not-so-enviable position of having to win back fans and rebuild excitement towards the franchise. It's very similar to the situation the Batman series was in after its own franchise-ending debacle, Batman and Robin. That movie was even more reviled than Spider-Man 3. It also ground the series to a screeching halt and led to a reboot of its own.
However, there was one very key difference between the Batman and Spider-Man situations that played a very significant role in how the reboots were handled and eventually received by fans. Although fans loathed both Batman and Robin and Spider-Man 3, their box office performances were dramatically different. Batman and Robin grossed $107 million domestically and $238 million worldwide. That sounds like a lot of money until you factor in the costs. The movie cost $125 million to make, and when you add in the money spent on advertisement, it becomes clear that it was, to put I kindly, not a financial success. This turned out to be a blessing for Christopher Nolan, who handled the rebooting of the Batman series. The fact that Batman and Robin failed on just about every level granted Nolan a lot of creative freedom. He was basically allowed to burn the whole thing to the ground and head in his own direction. And as we all know, that worked out very well.
On the other hand, despite being almost universally despised, Spide- Man 3 was still huge at the box office. With almost $900 million worldwide, it was actually the biggest overall earner for the series. This wound up being a double-edged sword. Because it was still a huge financial success, the studio didn't want to stray too far from what Raimi had already done. Although playing it safe might have seemed like the smart choice at the time, it actually hurt them in the long run. Because Marc Webb was essentially working with one hand tied behind his back, he never really got a chance to bring his own vision to the screen.
When advertising The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony had to find a way to lure skeptical audiences to another Spider-Man origin story. Because of this, the early promotional material really played up the “untold story” element of the movie. But that quickly disappeared from the marketing and was never mentioned again. It has been said many times that the movie required a lot of reshoots before hitting the screen. And the fact that a lot of footage appears in commercials that is never seen in the final product seems to support those rumors. And maybe some of the “untold” elements got cut. But whatever the reason, Sony must have realized that the final product could hardly be described as an “untold story.”
Even the biggest supporters have to admit that in terms of the big picture, The Amazing Spider Man hits a lot of the same beats as Raimi's movie. Because of this some people, unfairly, wrote off the movie without seeing it. Audiences jumped to the reductive conclusion that it was just new coat of paint with superficial changes. But while it does cover familiar ground, it was in the quiet, small moments where Marc Webb made his own touch felt.
And the supporting cast was an area that benefitted from extra development. Here, Flash Thompson was elevated past the one-dimensional bully portrayed in the Raimi films. The movie offered a glimpse beneath the surface of Flash Thompson and even hinted at a sense of loss driving his anger.
In a particularly effective scene, it initially seems like Flash is about to bully Pete but the movie makes a more interesting choice that leads to them sharing a moment of understanding. Peter, like the audience, thinks that Flash is about to give him a hard time. But because his uncle has recently died, he's not in the mood for this and fights back, pinning flash against the locker. Flash simply asks, “It feels better, right?” With a single line the movie managed to show not only that Flash was going through something similar but also that he was using his bullying as a coping mechanism. And by the end of the movie, the two of them seem to have not only come to a truce but perhaps even become friends.
Sally Field, however, wasn't too happy with the franchise, but her performance was great, adding emotion and heart to the movie. Her pain over the loss of her husband and concern for Peter are palpable. She also has a wonderful chemistry with Andrew Garfield. And because Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is pretty much only here to get killed, it's hard for him to really make a lasting impact. However, he and Peter do share a few touching moments.
But Gwen Stacy, winningly played by Emma Stone, is easily the highlight of the supporting cast. Some might even argue that she was the highlight of the entire movie. Stone has a very charming personality and she really shines in the role. One of the best things about her character was that she was a more active love interest. She isn't just damsel in distress. In fact she actually plays a pivotal role in defeating the lizard. (Rhys Ifans)
And even people who didn't like the movie seemed to enjoy the Gwen Stacy/Peter Parker romance. The fact that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were dating at the time certainly didn't hurt. The two had such great chemistry that seeing them on screen was a delight. And their relationship seemed more real and better developed than the one in Raimi's movies. In that series, the romance was between Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter. (Tobey Maguire) Unfortunately, it seemed as if they were together simply because they were supposed to be. In fact, their relationship and history were very inconsistent, changing from one movie to another.
But a discussion about The Amazing Spider-Man wouldn't be complete without talking about Andrew Garfield, and he was great both with and without the mask. Some people thought Garfield came off as too much of a hipster and preferred Maguire's take. But there is an argument to make that while very different; both actors' portrayals were very good.
Maguire's Peter seemed to be more influenced by the old fashioned Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era of the character. And Garfield took his cue from the Ultimate Spider-Man era by Brian Michael Bendis/Mark Bagley. Garfield's Peter wasn't so much a geek but more of an outsider.
But for all its strengths, it's hard to argue that it didn't also have some flaws. The specter of Raimi's films looms largely over the entire movie and influences many of its choices. Because the main arc of The Amazing Spider-Man is so indebted to the previous franchise, it desperately tries to stray whenever possible. This led to the parents storyline. And while that certainly was a previously unexplored element, it's never nearly as interesting as they thought or hoped it would be. It even negates a key element of what makes the character so special. He represents the nerdy, outsider and is a stand-in for the reader. But the story here is that Peter doesn't gain powers from being bitten by the spider but it rather triggers something that was already in him. This means he is no longer the everyman and no one could be Spider-Man but him. And although it must have been a very daunting task to replace JK Simmons, who played J. Jonah Jameson in the Raimi films, it was definitely a loss to not have Jameson in the movie.
Even so, the movie was a solid, promising start for a new take on a beloved character. And the very strong performances from the leads, and their wonderful chemistry, helped elevate the movie. They also made it easier to overlook the feeling of familiarity that came from the story arc.
But another comic book movie came out that summer, The Avengers, which was a huge success. It grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide and had a very big impact on the movie industry. Suddenly every studio became obsessed with having their own “shared universe.” Unfortunately, Sony was one of those studios, and it had a huge influence on The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
There's no way to know for sure, but it certainly seems likely that the success of The Avengers caused a big shakeup with the plans for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The movie seems more interested in playing catch up with Marvel studios than progressing the story started in the first film.
Although The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has more than its share of charm, it was ultimately disappointing. Like in the first movie, it's still a pleasure to see Gwen and Peter together and they are still easily the highlight of the film. But unfortunately, the movie is unwisely saddled with a break-up plot line that keeps them apart way longer than they should be. The reason for their relationship problems is that Peter is guilt-ridden over the death of Gwen's father. But not only was this issue kind of resolved in the first movie, but the move seems like the equivalent of sitting out your star players during the big game.
Although the movie was stuffed to the brim, one welcome addition was Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne. DeHaan and Garfield have nice, breezy chemistry, and it's fun to see them reconnect as friends. But because the movie tries to fit in too much, their relationship winds up getting shortchanged. And Harry's turn feels rushed.
But, clearly, the biggest problem of the film is its obsession with building a shared universe. Although Marc Webb is credited as the director, there's a sense that the movie was made by committee. It seems like the movie is clumsily juggling too many plots, in hopes of kick-starting several spin offs and to give Sony more franchises. And because there is so much going on, the movie has to keep things constantly moving along, robbing them of their impact. Even the emotional moments feel hollow. The overstuffed nature of the movie also robs it of the level of intimacy that made the first one so special.
Unfortunately, the franchise never quite got a handle on what it wanted to be. The tone varies so wildly that at times the sequel seemed like another reboot. And it was too busy trying to keep up with trends to ever establish its own identity. But it did give us some wonderful performances and many great moments. But sadly, in this case, the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts.
And even though it's become popular to put down Garfield's performance. At least some of that is people retroactively jumping on the bandwagon after the franchise's demise. But at the time of its release, even critics who disliked the movie praised Garfield. In fact, it was a popular sentiment that his performance was better than the actual movies.
But even critics have to agree that he made the role his own rather than emulate what Maguire had done before him. Maguire's Spider-Man often felt like he was still Peter behind the mask. But Garfield really gave the sense that Peter had dual identities. And his Spider-Man was a lot more energetic and wisecracking. You got the sense that Peter really came alive when he put on the suit.
And Garfield was always game to follow where the movies led him. His performance was confident even when the movies didn't seem to know what they were doing. In fact, the opening chase scene through New York streets, in the sequel, alone should be testament to the greatness of his performance. He infuses that scene with humor, and lighthearted fun that perfectly captures the jubilant energy of the character.
Unfortunately, for the time being it seems that The Amazing Spider-Man franchise will be sadly remembered as a misguided mistake that needed to happen for Spider-Man to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But perhaps, with time, audiences will grow to appreciate its many charms.