Inside 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' -- And Sony's strategy to supersize its franchise

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Image Credit: Niko Tavernise

This appeared in the April 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

WITH GREAT MARKETING comes great responsibility. In December, Sony released its first trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — the idea, as always, being to spill exactly the right number of secrets and not half a secret more. “I was nervous about it,” says director Marc Webb. “But we wanted to raise the stakes. We want people to appreciate the scope of what’s to come both in this movie and in subsequent films.” So fans saw their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) swinging exuberantly between the gleaming skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. They saw him verbally sparring with his love, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and facing down evil in the sparkling blue form of Electro (Jamie Foxx). Spi-hards also got the briefest glimpse of two other famous foes, Rhino and the Green Goblin. And, in a tease that elevated the trailer from a pretty good ad for a movie to a document that fans studied with Zapruder-like intensity, they saw Vulture’s signature wings encased in glass at Oscorp, and wait, were those the long, telltale mechanical arms of Doc Ock?

Spidey 2, which will hit theaters on May 2, is partly based on the 1973 comic The Amazing Spider-Man #121. That particular issue was branded with the words Turning Point, which is altogether fitting because the movies have reached a turning point of their own. The studio has committed to two more Amazing Spider-Man films for 2016 and 2018, and is prepping two spin-offs focusing on Venom and the Sinister Six. “It’s something we had always planned on doing,” says Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal. “At the tail end of this movie we set up some of the other characters that will probably end up being in the Sinister Six. We’re going forward on all fronts.”

In the good old days, Hollywood executives could afford to think one blockbuster at a time. If their blockbuster spawned a sequel a couple summers later, all the better. These days, studios need at least one megafranchise that is constantly morphing and replicating like an out-of-control lab experiment. “The shift happened in the last three to five years,” says Tuna Amobi, media analyst for Standard & Poor’s Equity Research Services. “A lot of these superhero characters were just being left there to gather dust.” But then Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, unleashed the overlapping, crisscrossing, never-ending story that is The Avengers. As Amobi puts it, “Disney has proved that this can be a gold mine.” Fox has been rallying the merry mutants known as the X-Men. Warner Bros. is readying a Justice League mash-up with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And Sony is supersizing the Spider-verse. How important is playing the megafranchise game? “It means you can live — that’s how important it is,” says Pascal. “Because there are so few sure things.”

What’s radical — and a little dangerous — about Sony’s plan is that it’s making villains the stars of some future movies. “Villains can be very entertaining,” says producer Avi Arad. He points out that Marvel has a rich history of complicated bad guys. “It’s not like somebody’s born and they’re a villain,” he says. “Something happens and it changes their lives. Some people can deal with it — they become the heroes. Some people can’t and hate the world because of what they felt was done to them — they become the villains.” And it does tend to be those guys who have the most fun. You no doubt recall Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger cavorting maniacally as the Joker — and Michelle Pfeiffer prowling around in Catwoman’s shiny black leather. “Great villains are the characters you remember,” says producer Matt Tolmach. “There’s a lot of us in those people.” He laughs. “Hey, it’s hard to identify with people who are good all the time.”

LAST MAY, PRODUCTION of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took over several blocks of lower Manhattan. There were sirens, clouds of smoke, and enough blinding searchlights to trigger even the toughest New Yorkers’ PTSD. But director Webb remained unruffled amid the chaos, and told EW that the cast and crew felt a new confidence after finding their Spider-legs with his 2012 origin-story revamp. That assuredness is on conspicuous display in the footage he shows EW almost a year later on the Sony lot. This time around there’s less existential angst for Peter Parker to grapple with (“You know what it is I love about being Spider-Man? Everything,” he says early in the film), and purists will be happy to discover a looser, jokier Spidey that hews much closer to the original comic.

But the new movie still has its share of dark nights. Audiences will meet Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a lonely, Spidey-worshipping Oscorp worker who has an unfortunate run-in with some electric eels. “There’s this tragic accident and he becomes Electro,” says Foxx, who packs an awful lot of pathos and seething despair into his performance. “But what’s so good about this movie, about all the Spider-Man movies, is that the villain doesn’t always turn out to be pure evil, you know? It comes from being hurt and shunned.”

Meanwhile, Peter Parker is still haunted by the death of his uncle Ben and by the fact that he promised the dying Captain Stacy that he’d stay away from his daughter, Gwen. Even critics who grumbled about the 2012 reboot couldn’t help but be charmed by the easy chemistry between Garfield and Stone. It appears to have grown even brighter in this film. “That relationship is the engine of the movie,” says Webb. “It’s what holds it together.” In one scene — Stone says it’s her favorite — the pair meet in NYC’s Union Square after some time apart and engage in a verbal pas de deux. “You actually felt the energy that night in the freezing cold,” Tolmach remembers. “No one wanted it to stop.” Webb credits his stars’ “complementary acting styles,” but it probably doesn’t hurt that they’re romantically involved off screen. As Garfield says with a smile, “We can’t hide from each other.”

If Garfield and Stone’s rapport has helped drive the franchise, what happens if — as has been widely speculated — Stone’s character does not live to see the closing credits of the new movie? Last June, photos surfaced of the actress in a costume similar to the one her character wears in that pivotal comic from 1973. Why does that matter? Because that story arc also goes by the stark title “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Needless to say, the Internet’s collective head exploded. No one will confirm or deny Gwen’s fate in the movie, and there’s now a faction of the fan base that suspects that all this has been a head fake on Sony’s part — that it won’t actually send Ms. Stacy off to meet her maker. Either way, Stone was bothered by the chatter. “I was really upset,” says the actress, 25. “I feel hyperprotective over the secrecy of what happens to Gwen. I was like, ‘Why did we shoot out on the street?’ I was upset for about a day and then I realized there’s nothing else we can do. There’s stuff out there.”

SINCE THE GWEN STACY photos hit, Sony has actually become less hyper about secrecy. That first Spidey 2 trailer in December revealed what had previously been a state secret: that the Green Goblin and a handful of other villains show up in the new movie and will appear, in some configuration, as the Sinister Six in future films. “I was surprised they showed that,” says Stone. “There will still be plenty of surprises, but they put a lot out there. I guess the mentality is, Let’s understand that we’re in this Internet age: Here’s what’s going to happen in this movie, and now let’s see how it unfolds.”

If the filmmakers have their way, it will unfold grandly. “We wanted people to know this is a bigger movie with more characters and all of them are emitting from Oscorp and all of them are connected to Peter,” says Tolmach. “You have to signal to the audience that there’s more going on. And the Goblin is such a huge character in the Spider-Man universe. How he gets there, what it means for Spider-Man…you don’t know anything. That’s the real surprise.”

Dane DeHaan, who plays the Goblin and his alter ego, Harry Osborn, was previously under orders to tell reporters a whole lot of nothing. This time around he asks EW, “What do you want to know? I just got permission to say a lot more than I’ve been able to say before.” Harry and Peter are childhood friends, of course, and in the new movie they reunite when Harry returns from boarding school. It seems that Harry’s father, Norman (Chris Cooper), is terminally ill and wants to let his son know that he’s inheriting two things: Oscorp and the mysterious green disease that’s killing his old man. “Harry is trying to find a way to save himself and thinks the cure lies with Spider-Man,” says DeHaan, 28. “It’s a complicated story line. But to boil it down: This is the origin story for Harry Osborn becoming Green Goblin.”

Harry and Electro may not have the makings of a love story, but the scenes EW saw suggest they have every bit as much chemistry as Spidey and Gwen. The moment when Harry exhorts the blue menace to team with him and bring down the superhero is mesmerizing. “My first day on set I was so nervous,” says DeHaan. “Here I am on a movie that’s 10 times the budget of anything I’ve ever done and there’s Jamie Foxx and I’m supposed to give this long crazy speech to him.” He laughs. “But then I did it a few times and Jamie starts flipping out! It was the most enthusiastic response I’ve ever gotten from another actor.” Foxx, 46, does indeed sing DeHaan’s praises: “That dude? He brings the pain.”

As early as 2016, the Sinister Six could be bringing even more pain with their own spin-off. Will Spider-Man turn up in the film — or in the Venom movie also in development? Sony’s not saying, but it seems unlikely when you consider that the webslinger is slated to star in sequels in 2016 and 2018. How many times can the dude suit up?

ANDREW GARFIELD HAS already been playing Spidey long enough to know the character inside and out. “Spider-Man shouldn’t be drinking wine — it’s so bougie,” he says one evening while sipping cabernet at L.A.’s Hotel Bel-Air. “Peter Parker wouldn’t even be allowed in here. He’s a scruffy dog.”

The 30-year-old actor has often said how much he loved the superhero as a kid, and how much he relates to him still. “It’s a miracle that I ever make it on stage or in front of a camera,” he says. “I get riddled by self-doubt. But so does Peter Parker. That’s the reason why I adored him. Here’s a kid who feels like me and yet manages to drag himself into that spandex. He makes sure he gives everything he has.”

In between Spidey movies, Garfield likes to disappear into entirely different roles. After wrapping The Amazing Spider-Man, he went to Broadway for Mike Nichols’ production of Death of a Salesman, and was rewarded with a Tony nomination. Later this year, he’ll start work on Martin Scorsese’s Silence, costarring Liam Neeson and Adam Driver, about two Jesuit priests who travel to 17th-century Japan. “I like working with people who are better than me,” Garfield says. “The key is not to be defined by the ups and downs. It’s like what a very wise man, Mike Nichols, said to me about L.A. — why would I want to live in a city where you can tell what your stock is by the way the valet-parking attendant looks at you on a day-to-day basis?”

Garfield is under contract for only one more Spidey movie, but he supports Sony’s plans to expand the universe and spin off the villains. “There’s so much to explore, so more power to them,” he says. (As a comic-book fan, Garfield personally digs Venom, Doc Ock, Vulture, and Kraven.) Webb says he would like to give up the director’s chair after the next film and move into a consulting role: “Three movies is probably it for me.”

How many will be enough for the audience? With so many studios playing the megafranchise game, will moviegoers get tired of spandex? Doug Creutz, media analyst for Cowen and Company, fears they will: “If Marvel’s going to make two or three films a year, and Warner Brothers is going to do at least a film every year, and Sony’s going to do a film every year, and Fox — which has the rights to X-Men and the Fantastic Four — if they’re going to do a [superhero] film every year, can everyone do well in that scenario? I’m not sure they can.”

It’s a fair point. But Spider-Man is one of the most beloved heroes in the mix — and he’s certainly the most relatable, to use a word that never goes out of vogue in Hollywood. A little competition isn’t going to scare him. He’s gotten out of stickier situations.

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