It’s easy to feel like you could have been Peter Parker.
“He has all of the same problems that we all have – girl problems, money problems,” says Andrew Garfield, who plays Peter and Spiderman in the second installment of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise. “But when he puts on the suit, it’s a massive release. He can breathe. Spider-Man always knows the right thing to do – he’s a vessel for good, heroic energy, and saving people.”
This selfless instinct makes Peter a praiseworthy hero, yet through his relationships with both friend and foe, this new chapter in The Amazing Spider-Man story shows how heroes and villains are not always polar opposites of each other. In fact, they may have more commonalities with each other than differences. What matters is how they respond to the challenges life throws their way.
“In the Spider-man franchise,” says Jamie Foxx, who plays the film’s chief villain Electro, “the villains aren’t always the most angry and the most villainous, they’re just confused, and they’ve been misunderstood.”
They will see me as a god
Electro begins as Max Dillon, a nerdy, underappreciated Oscorp employee who has no friends and feels like no one notices him. He’s not a particularly bad guy – we feel sorry for him more than anything. After Spider-Man saves him, he develops an obsession with heroic web-slinger, to the point of fantasizing conversations with him. Max also designed Oscorp’s new power grid, upon which the entire city depends, yet he’s living in a dinky apartment and being made to stay late at work, even on his birthday.
“That’s the final straw,” says Foxx, “It’s like ‘Man, I’ve given all I can to this place and now they turn on me.’ So there was a little bit of that that he used as motivation so that when he does turn into Electro he wants a little get-back.”
Everyone knows what it feels like to be unappreciated and overlooked, yet when left unchecked, Max shows how a self-centered resentment can fester and grow into something awful. As inspiration for capturing this in Electro, Foxx tapped a famous story from history: “I looked at Amadeus Salieri, the way he felt about Mozart. I wanted Electro to have that jealously, that coveting, like ‘I want what you have’ as opposed to being happy with what you’ve been blessed with.”
Electro and Spider-Man’s first clash in Times Square is fraught with significance, says Webb, because it shows a misunderstood part of Spider-Man’s persona – his inclination to use diplomacy before might. “He doesn’t come in and just clobber the guy,” Webb says. “He tries to understand him. He tries to empathize with him. He tries to talk to him and see him in a way that nobody else is willing or capable of doing.”
Spider-Man can empathize because he has to deal with his own experience of rejection in the press’ distrust of vigilante justice (namely J. Jonah Jameson, whom we encounter only through an email subject line: “WRONG!!!”), which hounds Peter at the beginning of the film.
“I can only really talk about it from the inside of that misunderstood feeling that we all can relate to,” says Garfield. “And it’s the same with all of our lives. We’re all trying to do our best… It’s the exact same thing that Max Dillon struggles with, so there’s a kinship there.”
Tragically, however, Max misinterprets Spider-Man’s attempts to help him as a move to steal all the glory, and he feels betrayed. He has been ignored his whole life, so when he finally appears on the big screen, he wants to keep that recognition at all costs, and his lust for attention becomes his undoing.
Cain and Able
While we feel sympathetic for Electro, Harry Osborn has a more overtly evil bent. The son of Norman Osborn, Harry inherits Oscorp in its entirety from his father, who is dying from a genetic illness that Harry will soon begin to suffer from as well.
“Harry has always been the kind of character that uses his power to his advantage, that uses the fact that he was born into extreme wealth and power to try to buy his happiness. He can get whatever he wants,” says Dane DeHaan. “And the big conflict in this movie is when all of a sudden he finds out he’s dying, and for the first time in his life he can’t get the only thing he actually needs. In that way, you can look at it as a really big temper tantrum.”
Harry is much more than a bitter, rich brat, however, because of his relationship to Peter Parker. The two were childhood friends while their fathers were both scientists at Oscorp. In the film they reunite eight years later, instantly finding companionship.
“There’s a very deep bond that is rooted in this wound that they both share – of having lost, or having perceived to be abandoned in different ways by their parents, but predominately that lack of father,” says Garfield.
The ways that they respond to these losses, though, turn their friendship bitter. Peter refuses to let Harry try Spider-Man’s blood as an antidote to his illness because it could kill him, or worse. He chooses the hard path of love toward his friend, even though Harry can’t see it, and Harry hates him for it.
“It’s brothers, and of course with brothers there’s jealousy, with brothers there’s envy, with brothers there’s competition,” says Garfield. “We all know about Cain and Able, to a certain degree, and I think that it is tragic because all Harry wants is a friend, all Peter wants is a friend. But in the shuffle, in the differing needs, or in the damaged psyche of Harry there’s a misunderstanding that happens between him and Peter, and him and Spider-Man, where he can’t see the wood for the trees because he’s so lost in his own longing and his own need and his own fear of his own demise – which is completely fair – that all of his aggression and anger turns on the one that actually really loves him.”
Peter’s stronger half
In contrast to the stereotypical “damsel in distress” of superhero lore, love-interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) comes to take the central role of guiding compass in Peter’s life. An empowered, modern heroine if there ever was one, she has both the courage and brains to match Peter at every turn. She saves Spider-Man twice in the first film, and she does it again twice more, standing as a testament to Peter’s (and Spider-Man’s) need for help. He cannot succeed on his own.
“She was raised by the chief of police,” says Stone, “so I think she has this impulse to serve something greater than herself in the same way that Peter does. And I think that’s why she understands Peter and is so insanely frustrated that he won’t just accept that she’s okay with him being Spider-man and that she doesn’t need to be protected.”
As producer Matt Tolmach summarizes, “She’s the one calling the shots in this movie. She’s the one with an actual plan in her life. She’s the one with genuine conviction.”
We see this conviction in her high school graduation speech, which provides the film’s moral bookends – she delivers it at the beginning of the film, and Peter watches it at the end. Much like Uncle Ben’s last voicemail in the first film, Gwen’s speech is rich with poetic relevance to Peter’s life. It challenges a sense of invincibility while spurring him on to live as a beacon of hope before a watching world. It reminds him to keeping striving for good even when failure and hardship take so much away. Life is so short, after all, and so much is outside of our control.
Even superheroes can’t stop time
“The first shot of the movie is a ticking clock,” says Webb, “and the first line of the movie is ‘I wish I had more time,’ and then Gwen says ‘time is luck,’ and it is an idea that is inserted as a motif that is asserted and explored time and time again.”
“Life is short, and always transient,” says Jeff Pinkner, one of the film’s screenwriters, “relationships are coming and going, and the best we can do is try to enjoy the journey and make the most of the time we have.”
In a clear symbol of this, the film’s final conflict takes place in a clock tower.
“That last moment – we orchestrated it so that the clock is literally ticking, and (Spider-Man’s) web is slung between two notches,” says Webb. “He puts his foot and wedges it and he’s trying to stop time, and it’s a stalemate, but then the gear snaps and the web is severed because time goes on, and he simply cannot prevent the inevitable.”
Despite his powers, Spider-Man is as fundamentally limited as the rest of us. He’s simply trying to do the best he can for his friends and his city, to make a broken world work out in the end. He understands that with his exceptional powers comes great responsibility (or to use the biblical adage, to whom much is given much will be required), and he wants to inspire others to do the same.
“I’d like to think he gives people hope…that everything is going to be ok in the end.” Peter says to Harry Osborn in the film.
What is a superhero if not a symbol of hope? In the film’s final sequence, a new villain appears in New York to face off with the police after robbing a bank. Amid the flying bullets, a young bespectacled boy slips under a police barrier and steps out into the street, clad in a Spider-Man costume, to confront the bad guy.
How many of us were once that kid? Or better yet, still are?