Electro-fying: Marc Webb ups the ante as Jamie Foxx and Paul Giamatti join ‘Spider-Man’ villains gallery
He leaps into the void without a net, pouncing onto things and occasionally cracking wise to relieve the tension and make a point. Spider-Man? Sure. But also director Marc Webb, who with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, his second film with the Marvel Comics superhero, finds himself, he says, more confident and assured this time in handling a franchise whose predecessor earned $262 million domestically and $490 million internationally for a worldwide cha-ching! of over three-quarter of a billion dollars.
Hey, no pressure, dude—and Webb does seem, in fact, a no-pressure dude.
"To be perfectly honest, it was terrifying the first time around and this time we just really had a great time making the movie and I think it shows," says the soft-spoken and endlessly affable director. "I just felt more comfortable in that space—and more willing to flex and experiment. I just felt more competent."
Good thing, too, given that the new film—only his third, following the low-budget (500) Days of Summer and the blockbuster The Amazing Spider-Man—cost an amazing $200 million to produce, according to one estimate, putting it in the ballpark of the previous film’s $200-$230 million. How does a director scale up after a more than decade-long career of music-videos, TV commercials and a $7.5 million romance comedy-drama, even one that did earn $60.7 million? And add to this that Spider-Man is a critical franchise for Columbia Pictures, which otherwise in that regard has only The Smurfs and a limited stake in the MGM-produced James Bond movies.
"You know, it's really very simple on the surface," Webb maintains. "You're addressing the same issues on a big movie as you are on a small one. Movies are a social experience for the audience—you want to create a feeling, and it's just the situations that are different." Having been an avid student of film since childhood, going to movie theatres at least once a week, he says, "I think I have an intuitive understanding of how things work that I can lean on. I also did music-videos and commercials for [over] ten years, so I had a foundation. But even with a small movie, there was a lot of figuring things out and experimenting and using different equipment. So, really, (500) Days of Summer was a sort of film school for me," says Webb, who, after graduating from Colorado College with a Bachelor's degree in English, did attend a semester of film school at New York University.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the studio's fifth movie starring the arachnid superhero, following Sam Raimi's highly successful 2002-2007 trilogy and Webb's 2012 reboot—picks up with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) graduating from high school and going into separate lives. As Spider-Man, Peter later finds himself confronting Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an employee at the shady multinational firm Oscorp, who through a genetics project involving electric eels has becomes a traumatized, blue-skinned conduit of electricity, able both to absorb it and to fire off powerful bolts. In the comics he's called Electro, and while comic-book movies sometimes do and sometimes don't use the occasionally silly-sounding names of superhero and supervillain characters, Webb says only that "the word 'Electro' is out there" in the film.
Spider-Man also faces off against a surly Russian (Paul Giamatti) trying to steal an armored truck carrying valuable and dangerous scientific cylinders, and who later returns in an armored suit as an antagonist who in the comics is called The Rhino. (Is the name used in the film? "Eventually" is all Webb will say.) We additionally learn Oscorp appears devoted to introducing animal DNA to human beings—just like frankenfoods, except, y'know, frankenhumans—including wings a la the Spider-Man supervillain The Vulture. Since Columbia has committed to two more Spider-Man films, for 2016 and 2018, and plans spinoffs including one featuring the loose conglomeration of villains called the Sinister Six, this all makes cohesive sense in the fashion of Marvel Studios' unified Marvel Cinematic Universe over at Disney.
And just as those films place as much a premium on character development and relationships as on visual spectacle, so too does this franchise in general and this installment in particular, Webb promises. "In this movie, Peter Parker is going to realize why he has to keep his identity secret—why it's so important. Just from a narrative standpoint, this movie is about choices: In the first movie, Peter asks whether or not he can be Spider-Man. In this movie, Spider-Man is wondering whether or not he can afford to be Peter Parker—he has to negotiate with the possibility of Peter Parker."
Given preview scenes showing Gwen falling from some high structure and being caught by Spider-Man, it's impossible to ignore the possibility the film is revisiting one of the comics' most famed or perhaps infamous stories: "The Night Gwen Stacy Died" (The Amazing Spider-Man #121, cover-dated June 1973), in which the Green Goblin throws her from the Brooklyn Bridge and Spider-Man, rescuing her with his adhesive webbing, inadvertently snaps her neck. (Other hypotheses about her cause of death have been floated, but as Roy Thomas, Marvel's editor at the time, wrote in the letters page of issue #125, "It saddens us to have to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey's webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her… [I]f he had done nothing, she still would certainly have perished. There was no way out.") Webb is understandably mum on Gwen's movie fate.
He's more voluble speaking about the logistics of production, which took place completely in New York State, mostly in and around New York City. "We built a massive version of Times Square in Long Island, in a parking lot," he says, for a major set-piece featuring Spider-Man and Dillon. He shot on stages at Grumman Studios, in Bethpage, and, as well, "We shot in Brooklyn, [and] we shot [Peter's friend] Harry Osborn's (Dane DeHaan) house down on Wall Street—we converted a bank. Part of a car chase we shot in Rochester."
The production made one much-publicized, only-in-New-York concession when it adjusted its schedule so as not to film in the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during the eight-day Passover religious holiday, in order to avoid the prosaic issue of hogging parking spaces during that busy time.
"I really wasn't involved in that as much as the line producer and the studio," remembers Webb. "In New York you're in a thriving metropolis and a lot of times you're dealing with people who just don't give a shit. They're not impressed by you, and you have to be really respectful of those communities. And it's hard—sometimes conflicts emerge, but we were certainly trying to be as respectful as we could of that situation," as local politicians at the time indeed said they were.
Webb also is happy about having taken a more hands-on approach this time with some of the fight scenes. "In a very real way, fight scenes aren't far off from dance scenes, which I did a lot of when I was doing music-videos," he notes. "You have a fight coordinator or you have a choreographer. At this point I understand that process pretty well. Like with the plane," he says, referring to an opening flashback in which Peter's father, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), fights an assassin (Bill Heck) on a doomed private jet.
"From the beginning I knew it was going to be an incredibly small space and I knew it had to have a certain velocity and realism to it. I knew I wanted to use handheld cameras and my stunt coordinator, Andy Armstrong, worked with Campbell and Bill for a week. With the first movie, because I didn't have that much experience with fight scenes, I would often sub in stuntmen. This time I wanted the actors doing as much as possible, and the plane scene is the best example of it. Richard Parker has to get [a computer file] out [via a satellite link]. Everything else is an obstacle that prevents him from doing that. And, of course, there's an emotional agenda we're trying to project as well. The other stuff is technical: It just takes time and planning. Once you have the idea of it, the emotional underpinnings of it, clear in your head, the rest of it isn't that hard."
That's actually a pretty modest thing to say, but it goes along with the 39-year-old Webb's boyish Midwestern mien. Take this emblematic exchange, with some background first: Dillon in this film is plagued by what seems like schizophrenic—or possibly external—voices feeding his paranoia. At the end of the previous film, an imprisoned Curt Connors speaks to a man who may or may not really be there, and is listed in the credits only as "Man in the Shadows." Might the voices and the man be connected? It seems logical.
"Wow. That is a good question," Webb says, genuinely surprised at the thought—and then across his face, an endearingly mischievous grin takes over. "No," he finally says, still smiling. "I want so desperately to say yes now! That's such a great idea! Maybe the third movie," he ponders—seeming now for all the world less the captain of a franchise than an ordinary film-kid who's been given great power.
And then it hits you: Marc Webb is Peter Parker.
We should have known—"Webb" is such an obvious clue. Don't worry, "Marc"—your secret's safe with us.