Revisiting The Amazing Spider-Man After No Way Home

Does Andrew Garfield's The Amazing Spider-Man duology deserve reappraisal after Spider-Man: No Way Home? We look back on those films 10 years later...

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man
Photo: Sony Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man movies were practically born to fail. The genesis of the first movie—where we would watch another Peter Parker origin story—was already deemed a bad idea among many fans when it was announced, and Sony didn’t change any minds over the next few years. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a mess and while it made money, it didn’t make the kind of money Sony wanted and all the big plans for a sequel and beyond fizzled. Next thing you know, there’s a Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and he has his own Disneyland ride. The Marc Webb era of cinematic Spider-Man is thus a doomed duology sandwiched in-between the iconic Raimi Trilogy and the one who gets to hang out in the world-conquering superhero film franchise.

Then something unexpected happened. When Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third solo installment for Tom Holland’s MCU Spider-Man, came to theaters and brought in heroes and villains from the previous films, it was Andrew Garfield’s performance as the Peter Parker of the Webb universe that had people talking. Well, not as much as Willem Dafoe dropping the crispest spinebusters you’ve ever seen, but Garfield was easily the highlight of the three Spider-Men.

That supporting role makes one wonder about the Amazing Spider-Man series. Is it better than we remember? Is it worth revisiting for another installment, perhaps as part of the Venomverse?

Andrew Garfield Is The Amazing Spider-Man

As I said at the start, the very idea of Amazing Spider-Man was met with laughter and groans. Despite its critical backlash, Spider-Man 3 did really well at the box office and certainly earned enough to get a fourth movie greenlit. The threequel’s $895 million gross was, in fact, the highest haul ever earned by a superhero movie up to that point. So it wasn’t the viewers who grew tired of Spider-Man movies, but the director.

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Sam Raimi called it quits early in production on Spider-Man 4 and none of the other main actors cared to stick around either. Sony’s position was understandable. Raimi was done, but money showed that people still wanted motion pictures of Spider-Man. Not to mention that they still had to crank out Spider-Man movies every few years to keep the film rights.

Hence, the studo made it clear that Spider-Man was getting a reboot in the same week Raimi announced he would not be able to get Spider-Man 4 into theaters by 2011. Fine, Sony more or less announced, they would have the reboot ready for summer 2012. A reboot five years after his last adventure. Five years after we saw a defining take on the hero. Sony had to create a movie that was still Spider-Man, but different enough to not be the previous Spider-Man. It’s the same situation that gave us the animated series The Batman and Rise of the TMNT. Even if they’re good, they’re following up something so popular, and doing it so soon, that there will inevitably be built-in hate for it.

This was also a time when The Dark Knight Trilogy was finishing up and its success was causing studios to try and make superhero movies dark and grounded. On one hand, going that route with Spider-Man made sense, as it would certainly be different from the bright and goofy Raimi movies. On the other hand, Spider-Man going gritty doesn’t usually work out. Hell, Marvel once tried to do a Spider-Man version of Dark Knight Returns called Spider-Man: Reign and that book’s legacy is laughter over how they killed off Mary Jane for the sake of tragedy.

Speaking of Mary Jane, this series got to differentiate itself from the Raimi Trilogy by making Gwen Stacy the love interest and exploring that relationship. We also got a new villain with the Lizard, which was the perfect way to follow-up the Raimi Trilogy. Raimi spent three movies building up to the Lizard’s inclusion and was still reluctant to put him in the fourth movie. FINALLY, we got some payoff, even if it was a different actor in a different continuity.

At the heart of it though is Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield had to be different from Tobey Maguire, which was luckily something Spider-Man had room for. While Maguire played a good, nerdy Peter Parker and he had the heroic parts of Spider-Man down, he lacked the humor that the webslinger is known for. His only notable jokes were calling Randy Savage gay and calling Green Goblin insane in the cringiest way possible. Garfield played it differently, using his lanky frame and Robert Pattinson good looks to portray a Peter who was less of a dork and more of an awkward weirdo. He was smart and still a victim of bullying, but he was less a punchable loser and more of a lonely outsider.

On a side note, the Amazing Spider-Man films definitely got the better, more comic-accurate version of Flash Thompson when it came to Chris Zylka. It would have been interesting to see his take on Agent Venom.

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There is a good amount of stuff that still holds the movie back 10 years later. Everything involving Peter’s parents is like a boring drum solo in these movies. Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben is such an unlikeable wet blanket of a character that I can’t wait to see him get killed. His death is so stupid that Garfield’s Spider-Man chooses not to reference it in No Way Home (though it’s not as stupid as the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Broadway musical where Uncle Ben died from intentionally running in front of a stolen car).

Dennis Leary is great as Captain George Stacy, mainly because the scene of him seeing Spider-Man unmasked feels completely earned due to solid scripting. His trust in Peter doesn’t come from simply knowing him or because his daughter is dating him. His trust comes from the earlier scene where Peter literally came to him to explain the threat of the Lizard and George laughed in his face. Yet Spider-Man isn’t a no-good vigilante who fights for selfish reasons, like George originally believed. In this instance, Peter tried to let the authorities handle the problem, but had to fall back on being Spider-Man out of necessity to save lives. George understands his own mistakes at the end and, by extension, understands Spider-Man.

What holds this movie together is Garfield and, to a lesser extent, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Garfield may not completely sell the nerdy genius aspect of Parker, but he does have personality where it counts. His banter isn’t just jokes, but a sense of propped-up power. When Garfield’s Spider-Man is cracking jokes, he’s messing with his enemies. He’s taking control of the situation and using humor to humiliate whoever he’s up against. It’s almost a weapon in itself.

Rewatching the movie, you can definitely see why Garfield would stand out so much in No Way Home. He has to carry a lot of it on his back and there’s some earnest charm to him in both identities. He feels like the same person in No Way Home, but the MCU setting highlights his strengths differently. He’s no longer buried by everything that’s so distractingly bad in these Amazing movies. In comparison, Rhys Ifans made a forgettable Spider-Man movie villain in 2012, and he doesn’t stand out much better when he makes the jump to No Way Home. But Garfield pops in 2022 because there are other, better superpowered characters to play off.

Now that the dust has settled and history allows the movie to be more than a questionable reboot to keep a comic character’s movie rights, Amazing Spider-Man feels like a stronger entry. You’re left with an average superhero movie that honestly could have been way worse, all things considered. Speaking of…

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

In the same year that The Amazing Spider-Man came out, Marvel released The Avengers. A lot can be said about how Hollywood learned the wrong lessons from Avengers’ success: the disaster of the Dark Universe, the pointlessness of the Fantastic Beasts sequels, the oversaturation of cinematic worldbuilding in Batman v Superman, and so on. Sony saw all the names that came with the Spider-Man property and prepared to use The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as a launching point for a new expanded cinematic universe.

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But as an actual 2014 film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a sloppy, incoherent mess. Sitting through this one again was rough.

Spider-Man 3 gets a lot of flack for having too much going on and too many characters, but I feel that the different plots and characters at least mix to some extent. Peter’s corruption with the alien symbiote ties into his rivalries with Eddie Brock and Harry Osborn, his frustrations with Mary Jane, and his hatred for Sandman. With the exception of the Stacy family, everything comes together in the end to give us a fun little superpower tag team match. It’s not perfect, but it sticks together better than what we get in Amazing Spider-Man 2.

With Amazing Spider-Man 2, the various plots feel like oil and water. It holds together for me throughout much of the first act—-until Spider-Man defeats Jamie Foxx’s Electro the first time. Up to that point, it’s a half-baked villain origin story, but it’s entertaining enough. Then we’re given what feels like an hour of downtime. Peter and Gwen are mopey, and Dennis Leary gets an easy paycheck for just standing around the background and glaring. Spider-Man refuses to try and save the life of his long lost friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) because there’s a non-zero chance that he might become a monster (note: if that were to happen, just punch the monster. You are Spider-Man). Oscorp is corrupt and filled with jerks. It’s belatedly revealed Campbell Scott’s Richard Parker did some mysterious stuff back in the day, and Peter is compelled to investigate it.

It’s a real shame that we barely get any real interaction between Harry and Electro as their dynamic feels right. They both feel betrayed by Spider-Man and Oscorp. They’re both deranged in their own ways. They work together well. So of course we only see two scenes of them interacting. They don’t even share a scene in the finale.

The subplot with Peter and Gwen becomes a weird meta conflict. Peter and Gwen love each other. Not being together makes them sad. On the other hand, Captain Stacy told Peter that bad things will happen to Gwen if they stay together. Anyone who knows anything about Spider-Man knows that bad things will happen to Gwen if they stay together. The attempted fix for this is having Gwen insist that getting killed by the Green Goblin is relatively okay because she’s putting herself in danger of her own volition. The whole exercise in killing her but going through such lengths to keep it from being too problematic just feels bizarre.

At the time of its release, the movie’s use of Gwen’s death falls flat. The film is about over and there’s no reason to have it there other than to make Spider-Man sad and later give him last-minute inspiration to keep being Spider-Man. As I’ll get to in a bit, the only thing that makes Gwen’s obligatory death slightly meaningful is how No Way Home completes the arc in a more satisfying way.

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Garfield does what he can. When he’s being Spider-Man, he brings a lot of fun to the table, at least when you ignore how bad some of the context is—like how he’s messing with the future Rhino and doing a comedy routine while dozens of cars are getting smashed up. Seeing him in action as Spider-Man is great, especially when he’s saving a kid from bullies,  but it’s a Spider-Man movie that’s over two hours long and doesn’t have much Spider-Man in it!

That said, the Three Stooges bit where Peter messes with the Oscorp security guards while repeatedly apologizing is probably the highlight. Garfield can’t carry this mess with his charm, but at times he’s capable of softening the blow.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Certain scenes from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suggested that the next movie would center around the Sinister Six. Funny enough, Sony actually had plans to give the Sinister Six their own movie. Also, a movie for Black Cat, who only had about a minute and a half of combined screentime in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Aunt May was going to have a spy-based prequel. There was going to be a Venom movie using the Flash Thompson incarnation. Yes, Sony saw dollar signs from Avengers’ success and wanted in.

The problem was that while Amazing Spider-Man 2 made money, even sequel money, it didn’t make expanded universe money. According to some hacked Sony emails that got around, they were really going to go through with at least an Amazing Spider-Man 3, but then Garfield no-showed at a convention where they were going to make the official announcement and that angered Sony executives enough to pull the plug. Supposedly, the sequel was going to be about science-induced resurrections, which would bring the likes of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn back to life, albeit at a horrible cost.

In its desperation, Sony began meetings with Marvel about maybe putting a new Spider-Man in their universe and another reboot was soon born. The Tom Holland Spider-Man lucked out from being part of a pre-existing cinematic universe. By appearing as a supporting character in Captain America: Civil War, he was given just enough of an intro without redoing the origin. Even Uncle Ben only gets outright mentioned in an episode of What If…?

Considering he and Garfield are the Spider-Men who know how to quip, the comparison is night and day. Holland Spider-Man always comes off as overwhelmed by what’s going on around him and jokes around to make the best out of the situation. Garfield’s Spider-Man jokes with more confidence, even if he does feel overwhelmed by his challenges, he’s at least able to fake it better with his schtick.

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When it came to Spider-Man: No Way Home, it’s no surprise that Garfield’s Spider-Man stole the final act. More than all the other visitor characters, he was the one who did the best job playing up the ridiculous situation that they were all in. I know scenes like Doc Ock being laughed at for his wacky comic book name are frowned upon, but sometimes a character needs to be like Hawkeye in Avengers: Age of Ultron, taking the situation seriously while admitting that reality is bonkers. Garfield’s Spider-Man does that better than Maguire Spider-Man, Electro, Doc Ock, Sandman, and all the rest.

What made Garfield really stand out was that he was the Spider-Man with something to prove. Maguire’s Spidey felt like he was walking through with his story just about over. He even tells us some vague stuff about his relationship with Mary Jane. Garfield’s Spider-Man was incomplete because his movie series was incomplete. Gwen’s death still messed him up and may have turned him into the menace that J. Jonah Jameson always suggested him to be. That’s why his big rescue scene of Zendaya’s MJ hit so hard. Even as a supporting Spider-Man, he got to have the much-needed closure that his own movies failed to give him.

Also, while he’s the coolest of the three Peter Parkers, he’s the one who also feels the lamest when teaming up with his counterparts. He’s the doofiest of the doofuses and needs his fellow Peters to vindicate him as a viable cinematic Spider-Man.

In the last several years, Sony showed that they didn’t really learn their lesson as they’re once again building up an expanded universe of Spider-Man characters. The two Venom movies brought a silly buddy dynamic that viewers bought into. Morbius is… Morbius. Now we have movies coming about Madame Web, Kraven the Hunter, and the ever-so-obscure El Muerte. Even with Morbius’ status as a meme to laugh at while Sony thinks we’re laughing with it, it’s a little too early to call this expanded universe a failure just yet.

Some people have been wanting to see Garfield return for another go. All things considered, just plugging his version of Spider-Man into the Venomverse while claiming it was the Webb Universe all along is probably the way to go. Garfield’s Spider-Man was never the problem, but crafting a world around his flimsy movies was what caused things to crumble. By giving us less Richard Parker spy mysteries and more over-the-top Tom Hardy goofball shit, the whole thing just might work.