Spider-Man redux: Marc Webb spins new image for comics icon in Sony reboot

With cameras mounted on a boat, a helicopter and the Williamsburg Bridge, The Amazing Spider-Man shot for weeks on location near New York City’s East River. But that only covered part of the movie’s pivotal action sequence. “We couldn’t throw the cars off the bridge that we needed to. Though, trust me, I tried,” director Marc Webb deadpans. “They weren’t really too enthusiastic about that, the citizens of New York and Brooklyn.”

So a 150-foot piece of the bridge was built over a tank on the Universal lot in Los Angeles. Back in New York, some of the tighter shots and close-ups were done on a soundstage. And that’s before CG effects were added to the sequence, which tops out at just two-and-a-half minutes.

“It takes so long to put all the moving pieces together,” Webb says of the big-budget superhero picture. “The scope is so much bigger.” Webb’s first feature film, the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, needed just a fraction of the time and money.

After a Spider-Man 4 starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi was scrapped by Sony back in 2010, the decision was made to start fresh with a new Peter Parker on a novel journey. “They approached me,” Webb says about landing the job. He had been looking at a few scripts that involved father-son themes, “and this seemed like a way to achieve that on a bigger scale.”

Like many underage literary heroes, Peter Parker is an orphan, whose aunt and uncle (played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen) took him in. The new film delves into what happened to his parents, something that the original comics touch on only briefly. “It’s a mystery that we don’t answer all the way in the movie. But it’s a starting gun that sets off this character in a way that we haven’t understood or seen before. Those elements combine to form a very new world.”

A look at the trailer shows Parker’s Spider-Man alter ego on a skyscraper, in a sewer, and on a bridge—typical sites for superhero face-offs. Long overshadowed by the more photogenic Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge only rarely makes appearances in Hollywood movies. This Spider-Man movie may renew it as an icon of the city. But Webb had a different reason in mind. “Bridges are inherently sematic. They’re a way, in an urban setting, to create a sense of danger and isolation. For Spider-Man in particular, bridges are a part of his relationship with Gwen Stacy, although that part of the story doesn’t play out in this particular movie…” Webb trails off. Does that mean he is already involved in a sequel? Webb, like most directors trying to keep their sanity, professes he hasn’t even thought about his involvement in the potential franchise yet.

The production period for The Amazing Spider-Man was long. Webb was hired for the job over two years ago, in January 2010, and the film won’t release until the Fourth of July holiday (specifically, July 3), prime summer real estate. (Spider-Man 2 is among the many blockbuster films that have opened over the national holiday, a list that includes such huge movies as Transformers, Men in Black and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.)

Even after so many months, there’s still plenty of effects work that needs to be completed. For Webb, the intensive effects work is “one of the more exciting components” of the process. During filming, he tried to make Spider-Man and the villainous Lizard (played by Rhys Ifans) look as naturalistic as possible, which involved a lot of performance capture. Since Spider-Man is completely covered in a suit, and the Lizard is, well, a reptile, body language was extremely important. “We would capture how they move across surfaces, how people jump. For the Lizard, I wanted to have some sort of emotive visage. We would record Rhys performing the part, and apply that information to the animated creature.”

The death-defying stunts of superheroes and villains may strain credibility for some viewers, but after all, these characters do have super-powers. “I don’t think anybody intends to make things look cartoonish, it’s just you’re unfamiliar with the abilities of the superheroes. You can’t be, really—you haven’t seen them in real life. It’s difficult to find the level of authenticity that feels physically real because you just don’t have evidence of that in real life.” In an effort to create spectacle that looks real during the fights between Spider-Man and the Lizard, “we used bits of the actual performance mingled with CG to give it a more grounded quality, while still serving the expectations of spectacle.”

While 3D has produced some notable disappointments for audiences, Webb offers assurances that this Spider-Man is closer to an Avatar than a Clash of the Titans. “I feel like there is an organic reason to shoot in 3D.” Vertigo, volume and velocity, the “three V’s,” translate particularly well in 3D. Spider-Man, a high-climbing, fast-moving superhero, gives Webb an opportunity to use two of the “V’s” without straining the narrative. “There is a visceral sensation you get while watching the film that you wouldn’t get otherwise, [whether it’s] moving through small spaces or getting that sense of speed when you’re closing over a surface and going over it rapidly.”

The 3D effects may have even more of an impact because Webb inserts point-of-view shots from Spider-Man’s perspective. “I took character point-of-view to its extreme by shooting some of the action from Spider-Man’s point-of-view. In 3D, I thought it would be interesting to see what Peter Parker or Spider-Man was seeing.” However, given the size of even the most nimble of 3D cameras, the RED, many of these shots had to be generated in the computer.

Even though The Amazing Spider-Man promises lots of spectacle, Webb aimed to balance that with a strong narrative. James Vanderbilt, who scripted Zodiac and is already at work writing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, has the picture’s screenwriting credit. Vanderbilt was reportedly hired for his emphasis on character elements. “There’s a lot of action and a lot of ass-kicking and velocity, but I do feel there’s also a genuine heartfelt quality,” Webb explains.

Much of that feeling comes from the talented actors in the lead parts. “Andrew [Garfield] and Emma [Stone] have a really wonderful chemistry as Gwen and Peter,” Webb notes. Garfield, who had a breakout role in The Social Network, plays his biggest part yet. Stone, an experienced comedic actress, helped loosen things up. “She has a lot of improv background, and she brought that out in Andrew. That combination felt right.” The two characters fall in love despite the fact that Gwen’s father (Dennis Leary) is the police commissioner, intent on stopping Spider-Man’s vigilante actions.

Garfield won the part in the oddest of ways. Webb was watching a screen test that had a scene of Garfield eating a cheeseburger. “It was such a stupid detail,” Webb marvels, but “he was moving around in a way that was so fun to watch. He made such a minute moment feel real.” He brought physicality to the role of Spider-Man. “There was an authenticity and nuance that was really exciting,” Webb says admiringly.

Webb seems hesitant to compare the indie love story he previously directed to the romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. He won’t call his current picture a love story, except in a vague sense, although he acknowledges that “there’s an attitude relative to the romance that I think that people might recognize from (500) Days of Summer. It feels like a real relationship, and I think the texture of that relationship is an honest one.”

Some comic-book adaptations, like Watchmen, Sin City and 300, copied their storyboards straight from the source material in order to remain faithful to the material. Webb decided against pursuing that look. “I wanted to do something that felt more contemporary, and was less based in representing panels from the comics,” he explains. He wanted to focus on “spirit” over style.

Since Spider-Man 3 released in 2007, just five years ago, and earned $885 million worldwide, people are familiar with the saga of Peter Parker. Will a new cast of performers arriving so soon be disorienting, or distract viewers hung up on comparing the two versions? Or will it invigorate the franchise, much the way director Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman Begins revived a flailing series? Webb is cagey about just how much the mythology of Spider-Man has been altered, saying he has remained true to creator Stan Lee’s vision while also uttering the word “new” without exactly specifying what’s been changed.

“My collaborators and I want to create something that’s new and specific, to [have you] enjoy the film in a new and different way,” Webb declares. He acknowledges a “sense of responsibility” to the fanboys who thrive on these kinds of films, but he seems reasonably confident that demographic segment will approve of his vision. With so many effects left to complete, no one in the general public has seen a cut yet. The verdict will arrive when moviegoers take their seats in air-conditioned theatres this July, popcorn and Sno-Caps in hand, and discover exactly what direction the Spider-Man franchise has taken.