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The Amazing - and Expanding - Universe of Spider-Man 2

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 29, 2014
The Amazing - and Expanding - Universe of <i>Spider-Man 2</i>

"It's easy to feel hopeful on a beautiful day like today, but there will be dark days ahead of us too, and they'll be days where you feel all alone, and that's when hope is needed most. Keep it alive. We have to be greater than what we suffer.”

Those inspiring, challenging words are spoken by Gwen Stacy in a valedictorian speech to her high school graduating class. For as much as they reflect the personal loss she’s had to endure, those sentiments also serve as the core message of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a movie that’s bigger and more ambitious than its predecessor in every respect, not just in style and scope but also in what it’s trying to wrestle with. It’s propelled by a superhero who’s in full-on swagger mode at the height of his powers, and a romantic chemistry that has more electricity than its primary (but not only) villain, Electro.

In a sit-down with the cast, director, and producers following the film's NYC press screening, the anticipation they expressed over what they were about to unleash on the world was palpable. "I had a very specific intention to embrace the spectacle," returning director Marc Webb said, with noticeable glee. "Not to just 'make it bigger,' but that comes from a feeling. That comes from being a kid and reading comic books and, between panels, imagining yourself doing the things that Spider-Man was doing and the fantasy of that."

Producer Matt Tolmach shared Webb’s enthusiasm. “We felt liberated. In the last movie, we felt obligated to tell the origin story. We’re proud of that,” Tolmach emphasized, “but now we’re free to tell a Spider-Man story in whatever way we want to tell it.” Yet in the same breath, everyone involved – to a person – emphasized how much this movie pulls from the comic’s 50-year history. Emma Stone, who returns as Gwen, would even make unconscious references like "Issue 121, obviously," as if its story details are common knowledge (caution: if you want to avoid spoilers, don’t Google it).

That reverence, adds Tolmach, was just as much about honoring the spirit of the comics as well as the history. “A big part of that,” Tolmach explains, “was two things. One, it was going to be fun again. So the tone of it right from the beginning is that Peter Parker loves his job, he’s come into his own (as Spider-Man). And two, we were also very conscious about building up Oscorp (the cross-species genetics lab where Peter contracted his spider powers) and the idea that there’s this place from whence really bad characters come" (more on that and the expanding Spider-Man universe in a bit).

The bad characters in this chapter are Electro, Green Goblin, and Rhino – although Electro remains the film’s primary nemesis as the arc for the other two (portrayed by up-and-comer Dane DeHaan and screen veteran Paul Giamatti) is more about how trust-fund hipster Harry Osborn (throughout the course of the film) and crazed criminal Aleksei Sytsevich (in narrative bookends) become their respective alter egos.

Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx plays the nerdy Oscorp loner Max Dillon (complete with, as Foxx puts it, "the first black man comb-over") who is transformed into the revenge-bent Electro. It was the broader Spider-Man mythos of how different people respond to power that drew Foxx to the franchise. "These guys don't start off as evil, they don't start off as angry. In this,” Foxx says, with a weight of someone who's thought a lot about the disparities of human nature, "you see the tale of three people – Peter Parker, Harry Osborn, and Max Dillon - that all start off in the same place: something’s wrong. And now they've been blessed with incredible powers, but not everybody responds to power in the same way." Tolmach adds that this also speaks to our current, relevant fears about "the over-reachers who misuse science. Peter Parker ends up on the right side of these complicated moral decisions" while the villains "make the wrong decision on how to use that science."

For Andrew Garfield, who returns in the title role, these differences are what give substance to the spectacle, comparing the fallout between lifelong friends Parker and Osborn to Cain and Abel. And Avi Arad, producer of both past and present Spider-Man franchises, felt it was important to have the class structure contrast between the two main villains to show that the temptation toward evil goes deeper than monetary divides. "One is from Park Avenue, one is from Queens," says Arad of Harry and Max, respectively, “so we can't compare the socio-economics any more."

Of course things get very complicated, and not just because Spidey's facing three villains at various stages of evolution. Peter Parker's romance with Gwen Stacy is facing an evolution of its own. Refreshingly, the conflict between Peter and Gwen comes not from their differences but rather their strengths, from the things they love about each other – and it's pulling them in two different directions: Peter as New York's superhero, and Gwen's opportunity (and ambition) to study science abroad at Oxford.

"[Peter's] enjoying being Spider-Man," Webb says, "he's fully embracing that gift. What’s interesting is that now Gwen is starting to realize that she has her own destiny." The bittersweet irony comes in the fact that their faith in and support of each other to reach their full potentials will ultimately require a cost. "That thing that draws them together," Webb says, "is also the thing that's meant to separate them."

"Their relationship," as Stone describes it, "is going through a lot of emotional ups-and-downs. Gwen's very clear-eyed about what she wants out of her life. She’s following her destiny whether it’s Peter’s destiny or not. They’re trying to come to some kind of clarity between the two of them." And, Stone adds, Gwen's impulse is the same as Peter's: to save lives. "She wants to save people the best way that she can, which is with her intelligence. She’s a wonderful student, has a great mind for science, so she's using that gift."

Keenly aware of how the angst-ridden baggage of such a relational crossroads could easily bog a movie down, the filmmakers were intent on emphasizing one constant: Peter and Gwen – regardless of the hard choices they each have to make to pursue their own destinies – simply can't stay away from each other. Conversations that begin with what they need to do end up evolving into playful, banter-filled embraces driven by what they want to do: be together. Angst can’t help but fall away in the presence of True Love. "Through what Peter and Gwen bring out of each other,” Stone says, "you see why they are so drawn to each other, that joyful spark that happens between them. They’re able to find this levity, even if it’s in this tenuous thing that’s happening. They’re a perfect match. With all the hardship, they really get each other. There’s something magical in their connection, no matter what the circumstances are. It’s that indefinable thing that is love."

Given how much the Peter/Gwen dynamic anchors the film, and even the franchise, the producers knew they were taking a risk by pulling them apart – but Tolmach was resolute in their confidence to go down this path, despite reservations. “You have the kind of reservations that are good reservations,” Tolmach said, “when you feel like you’re doing something exciting.” To have that challenge, and the consequences of it, also played into the film’s broader theme of hope – especially as it relates to how the relationship resolves by movie’s end. “It was done in such a way that had dignity and hope,” said Arad, with a clear satisfaction of how the theme resonates. “If you can turn something like that into hope, that’s a victory, because it tells people you can continue. It should make you stronger and have resolve about believing in what you believe.”

But back to those three villains: this is simply the start of something much bigger. Just as Marvel has expanded their Avengers into a multi-franchise universe, the once-singular Spider-Man tentpole is about to see its own mythos expand into multiple properties. “We’ve talked about Sinister Six. We’ve talked about Venom. We're making those movies," Tolmach says, addressing rumors head-on. “We were very conscious of building that universe with this movie, of building Oscorp and bleeding that out into the world and setting it up. We’re very deep in conversations with (Spider-Man screenwriters) Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner and Drew Goddard about where to go next.” And it’s more than just talk; work is already under way. "All of them are working together and separately on different iterations, different movies. There’s going to be a lot of crossover, and," adds Tolmach, anticipating fears by Spider-Man die-hards, "the universes are going to make sense."

Yet for as expansive as that web may get, for Garfield it will always come back to the universal humanity of Peter Parker. "The wonderful thing about Peter is that he goes through all the struggles that we go through. That’s compelling. We’re seeing our own lives, our own difficulties, large and small, played out on-screen, yet all the while we have a responsibility.” It’s a responsibility Garfield lives out not only in the professional sense but, as Stone shared about their location shoots in New York City’s boroughs, he would take time between shots to play basketball with local kids while dressed in full Spider-Man uniform – and she could see how much it meant to them. "People love heroes," Stone says, getting philosophical. "Either they want to be a hero or they feel like they need a hero. We’ve always loved stories about things that are bigger than us, things that are metaphors for these experiences we have as human beings. That’s what these superheroes are."

"One of the things I’m taking away from going deep into playing this character," Garfield says, echoing Stone’s philosophic reflection, "is that, in one sense, we are all Peter in the ordinariness, the imperfection, the failure, and the fumbling through life and the mystery of it all. And we're also all Spider-Man in the sense that we have something to offer. Something wonderful and extraordinary to give. Our only real duty is the need to discover what our Spider powers are – art, business, science, whatever it is – and then you give that gift as freely as you can, while you're struggling with being a regular human being.”

Or as Gwen Stacy so aptly concludes in her graduation speech:

"My wish for you is to become hope. People need that. And even if we fail, what better way is there to live?"

Publication date: April 29, 2014