Superhero movies: they can thrill you, amuse you and boy can they ever bore the pants off you. How many bring a tear to the eye, though? It might lack the grit of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the wit of Ant-Man, but 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man is a comic-book romp that knows how to push all the right emotional buttons. And it’s all down to star Andrew Garfield, who wears his heart on his sleeve, right next to those web shooters, as Peter Parker.
As he’d previously shown in David Fincher’s The Social Network, Garfield is an actor who always manages to raise a movie’s emotional bar. In the first of director Marc Webb’s two Spider-Man films, the British actor brings a real sense of teenage vulnerability to the familiar boy-gets-bitten-by-mutant-spider story that he makes all that CGI web-slinging far more involving than it has the right to be.
Webb’s aim was to differentiate his reboot of Sam Raimi’s fizzled-out franchise by grounding it in the emotional reality that had characterised his quirky 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer. What might it really be like for an insecure, orphaned teen to develop arachnid-augmented superpowers? Garfield summons his visceral response by getting deep inside his role. “He hypnotises himself and he creates a character that is filled with nuance. It becomes behaviour,” Webb told Vanity Fair.
In the film’s opening moments Garfield establishes Parker as emotionally layered and relatable. His beanpole build makes him seem ungainly and perhaps a little weak but he’s no wimp; he’s awkward around girls but not completely hopeless, polite but a rebel at heart. In short, he’s the kind of struggling school kid almost anyone can identify with.
In modern Hollywood cinema, dominated by rapid close-ups, the eyes are where it’s all going on, and Garfield is a master of the understated glance. In the scene where Parker gets the plot rolling by finding his dead dad’s briefcase, he conveys his conflicting emotions with three brief looks. First, an accusatory stare at Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field): why hadn’t they shown him this before? Second, a cut to his teary eyes expresses his grief for his lost parents. Finally, intermittent wide-eyed flashes portray his excitement: might this briefcase answer his questions about his parents and identity.
Such fleeting, uncalculated gestures – a narrowing of the eyes, an agog mouth – are the building blocks of Garfield’s performance. Inside, Parker is trying to keep his turbulent teenage feelings in check and these subtle surface flickers reflect that struggle. Out of context, that accusatory stare at his beloved aunt and uncle might not mean much, but having just seen him abandoned by his parents as a nipper and his surprise at finding the briefcase, we understand his resentment about being left in the dark. Garfield’s underplaying gives us just enough to fill in the emotional blanks, drawing us in deeper by forcing us to use our imaginations.
Thus by the time Parker is bitten and begins discovering his powers, you’re right there with him, feeling that same sense of release as he swings superhumanly round an abandoned warehouse. Many of the best moments come as his pent-up emotions spill out: the teary argument with Uncle Ben that proceeds his murder; his tongue-tied attempts to simultaneously tell girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) that he a) loves her and b) is Spider-Man.
But Garfield’s skill at keeping the viewer close pays off most when the film hits CGI overdrive. Because we’ve understood every move that’s put him into the Spidey suit, you feel his presence whether the figure swinging across the screen is real or a bunch of pixels. As the action continues, his expressivity and chattiness behind the hood (anticipating Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool) and his tendency to rip the mask off whenever he’s not required to hide his face keeps the dual identities neatly intertwined. What drives Parker drives Spider-Man: he’s the most normal superhero on the block. The miraculous result is that something feels at stake amid the disorienting spectacle of the film’s action sequences.
Nowhere is this clearer than when he’s unmasked before Gwen’s NYPD chief father (Denis Leary). Suddenly, he’s plain old Peter Parker again with only his mixed-up teen emotions to fall back on. Quivering rage gives way to watery-eyed resolve as he pleads with Leary to let him go and save Gwen from The Lizard (Rhys Ifans). In lesser hands, such a prolonged emotional break from the action might not have worked, but under Webb’s direction it provides one of the high points of any Spider-Man film.
The relative failure of 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sadly brought Garfield’s reign to a premature end, but for a brief moment he gave us perhaps the most honest portrayal of Spider-Man yet.
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