Webslinger in Front: How an Infamous Death Transformed the ‘Spider-Man’ Franchise
Editor’s Note: This article includes major spoilers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Four years ago, before cameras rolled on The Amazing Spider-Man, director Marc Webb knew exactly how the second movie of his rebooted series would end. He rattles off his source of inspiration the way a baseball fan might recall a legendary no-hitter: “Amazing Spider-Man #121. 1973. Gerry Conway.” It’s why he wanted to make Spider-Man movies in the first place.
“After the first [movie], I was really fucking tired, and in a generally bad mood,” Webb says. “You disappear from your life for a couple of years when you’re doing that. I woke up and went, ‘What is going on?’ But then I kept on thinking about that story line. We very quickly went back into the second movie, and I think that was the right thing to do.”
The payoff of Conway’s legendary “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” arc was about all Webb and producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad had planned for their new incarnation of the Spider-Man franchise. But the director needed time for audiences to fall in love with Peter Parker and his girlfriend Gwen … so that he could take it all away, pitting the character against absolute tragedy. To properly pace the arc, Webb filled his movies with action, intrigue, and comic-book gravy. Parallel to the intensifying Peter and Gwen romance, Spider-Man fought the Lizard and Electro, investigated the mysterious disappearance of his parents, and crossed paths with characters who could be reckoned with down the road.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is two different beasts in the hands of its director and Sony Pictures. They share a goal rooted in contemporary demands: The story must be serialized. It’s no longer enough to spend $200 million on a movie that lets the audience off the hook when the credits roll. Something has to bring them back for more — two years later, four years later, 10 years later. Sony’s marketing for the movie focuses squarely on its breadth, teasing what’s to come with more fervor than what’s in front of the audience. (Case in point: Audiences can whip out their phones during Amazing Spider-Man 2’s end credits and Shazam Alicia Keys’s closing song to unlock a glimpse of future villain costumes.)
For Webb, the expansive mythology that signals a never-ending, interconnected “world” is a perk, not a driving force. What he plants may pay off right away or it may not. With these first two movies, the concentration is on Amazing Spider-Man’s first arc — he and the writers can dredge up the series’ biggest mysteries down the road. Box-office number crunchers suggest that Amazing Spider-Man 2 needs to haul in more than $752.2 million worldwide to improve upon its predecessor’s haul (it’s currently sitting at $369 million, with $92 million coming from this weekend’s domestic release), but Sony’s given the franchise a vote of confidence. The company is in the Spider-Man business. The mechanics would sound risky if Amazing Spider-Man was operating like a run-of-the-mill franchise. But Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 aren’t films. They’re the riskiest “Season 1” in movie or television history.
In December 2013, six months before The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opened in theaters, Sony announced that Men in Black writer Ed Solomon, Cabin in the Woods writer-director Drew Goddard, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner would join forces to form a Spider-Man “brain trust.” Their task: sequelize and spin off the comic-book webslinger into a sprawling mega-franchise. Think the screenwriter version of the Avengers.
“I think Alex, Bob, Ed, Drew, and I would diminish that idea a bit, humbly,” Pinkner says, laughing off the “brain trust” label. “That wasn’t our idea.”
A more appropriate phrase might be “writers’ room.” As shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad introduced a cinematic language to television, blockbuster storytelling now finds itself siphoning strategy from the small screen. Marvel Studios was among the first to serialize and integrate its properties, conceiving a timeline that would cross over Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America into The Avengers team-up movie — crafted by TV demigod Joss Whedon.
The Amazing Spider-Man franchise blurs the line even further. These guys are nearly all TV veterans. While Kurtzman and Orci are the duo behind Transformers and Star Trek, they’re former colleagues of Pinkner and Goddard, who all worked together at ABC’s Alias. Goddard and Pinkner went on to write for Lost, with Pinkner later re-teaming with Kurtzman and Orci to run Fringe. (The lone man out, Solomon, worked with Kurtzman on last year’s hit Now You See Me.)
“They’ve all come out of that sort of J.J [Abrams] world, and they know each other, and they trust each other,” Tolmach says. “They each have their own installment within this universe, and Avi and I sit in on all of them. It’s going to allow each of those movies to have its own color, shape, and tone, but the similarity, and the thing we preserve more than anything, is Spider-Man.”
It’s easy to imagine 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man arriving on the heels of Marvel’s Avengers movies with an almost biblical seven-day plan for Creation. Not the case. After failing to develop an adequate take for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4, producers Arad and Tolmach opted to reboot the series completely. Since Sony took complete ownership of Spider-Man’s film rights in 1999, Marvel’s poked it with lawsuits in hopes of a bigger piece of the pie. But Marvel Studios bigwig Kevin Feige recently told Digital Spy that there’s little chance of Sony allowing the character to return to his home: “The contracts are such that as long as they keep making those movies, they can keep making those movies. So I don’t see that changing any time soon.” When Sony announced it was canceling Spider-Man 4, it also announced that Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt had written a script for The Amazing Spider-Man. Webb, fresh off the indie hit (500) Days of Summer, was hired to reenvision the property. Escaping the Raimi trilogy’s shadow proved difficult. Webb was cutting his teeth on large-scale action filmmaking, while Arad and Tolmach were plowing through writers to find the right angle.
“We never had enough time to have one script that had really gotten the work, the time, the love, and the attention it needed,” Tolmach admits. “On many levels, we sort of had to rush getting into production.”
For Arad, Amazing Spider-Man’s preconditions plagued the rebooting process, retreading familiar beats for the sake of younger viewers. Still, the movie earned more than $750 million worldwide — and there was a creative silver lining. “We walked out of the movie feeling very good about our choices of actors — the new Spider-Man, the new Gwen — when we went into Movie 2, we had this amazing freedom,” he says. “Now we can go in and start this whole other universe.”
Though Vanderbilt returned to pen a sequel draft, Tolmach and Arad scrapped it before the first movie even hit theaters. Tolmach’s blunt about why: “We needed a great script.” It came about in the most Hollywood way imaginable. While picking up his son at preschool, Tolmach found himself standing beside Kurtzman, who was doing the same. “I looked up at him and said, ‘Spider-Man?’ And he was like, ‘My God, yes. My God, yes!’ And that was it. We sat down with him.”
“I think they needed the movie,” Arad says of Kurtzman and Ocri, describing their excitement for Spider-Man as an “emotional catharsis.” After plucking Pinkner from the fifth season of Fringe, the trio pitched ideas that would escalate to Webb’s desired “Death of Gwen Stacy” finale. That turned the foundation of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 into an origin story for Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who would mutate from emo boarding school kid to the Green Goblin in one swift arc. The character-driven angle necessitated another supervillain for Spider-Man to battle while Harry evolved (this is a comic-book movie, after all). Enter: Electro, simple and visually stimulating. Any “universe building” — a brief appearance by Felicia Hardy, better known as Spidey villain Black Cat, or a brief email with Daily Bugle loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson — came from filling in the blanks with comic-book geekery. A tease for fans? Maybe, but Pinkner says it’s the same tactic that served them in their TV days.
“The thing we developed early on at Alias and carried through was the confidence to do things in any given episode not exactly knowing how they’ll pay off, but knowing they’ll pay off,” he says. “Sometimes we knew exactly how it’d grow, but sometimes we remembered the thing we planted back there and [we'd say], ‘Oh, this is how it pays off.’”
There were instances when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 became too indulgent, requiring the team to make on-the-fly sacrifices at the cost of world building. In their screenplay for the film, Kurtzman, Orci, and Pinkner introduced Mary Jane, Peter’s love interest previously seen in the Raimi trilogy. Webb cast Divergent star Shailene Woodley in the role. Scenes were shot. The character didn’t make the final cut of the film.
“It was our mistake to try and introduce Mary Jane too early,” Pinkner says.
In a movie that carves out room for Paul Giamatti’s bookending villain Rhino — a likely candidate for the forthcoming The Sinister Six movie — Webb insists the decision had everything to do with honoring the Gwen story line. A poster-worthy Russian gangster like Giamatti’s character makes for a great James Bond–style action sequence. But a second love interest creates a bigger ripple effect.
“To hint that there was [another love interest], to put that in the water, I think would have tarnished the sacred sort of bond that these people had,” Webb says. “By the end, Peter Parker can only see [Gwen Stacy], and you have to preserve the integrity of that.”
To those bemoaning the endless string of superhero movies, Team Spider-Man’s television-inspired, movie-by-committee approach could feel creatively dire. Yet it’s those mechanics that define the comic book and have kept Spider-Man running for more than 50 years. A peek into the Marvel publishing process reveals a massive mythmaking orchestration, with writers biting off huge stories, illustrators bringing their own ideas to the table, and editors carefully making sure the micro plays nice with the macro.
“You look at your overarching stories and try to pace out the rise and fall to keep the reader guessing, avoid fatigue, break the tension, and then ratchet it up again,” says Marvel senior editor Nick Lowe. “Then every story fits within that general structure. In Spider-Man specifically, we try to have a huge event-size story that will have its core in Amazing Spider-Man but tie into a bunch of other books once a year. But the rest of the year, we try to tell stories that are huge to Peter Parker, but not necessarily to the rest of the Marvel [Universe].”
At Marvel, autonomy paves the way for personal writing and art, even when every book eventually writes itself into the publisher’s grand tapestry. Pinkner says the experience of writing Amazing Spider-Man 2 took the same cues. According to Arad, the Venom and Sinister Six movies were both on a proposed Spider-Man production schedule when the idea of rebooting entered the equation. When Kurtzman, Orci, and Pinkner boarded the project, tethering the movies never even came up. There is before Gwen’s death and after. “[We had to] let those movies come out of Spider-Man,” Tolmach says.
When it became clear The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would fracture into sequels and spinoffs, the only thing Webb sacrificed was his personal life. “You have to have a lot of meetings,” he jests. He points to the movie’s dramatic turning point — when DeHaan’s Harry stumbles upon Oscorp’s “Special Projects” lab, chock-full of Spider-Man Easter eggs — as one of the few times he looked ahead. “I had to talk to Drew Goddard and make sure these things were going to be played out in the future universe,” he says. “There are some very specific plans, for example, for [Doc] Ock and for Vulture. Or the man in the hat at the end of the first movie. All those things emerge with varying degrees of emphasis.”
More curious is how Webb plans to deal with his emotional investment. The director spent four years nurturing Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy into a kind of 21st century Nick and Nora. His most ferocious critics praise the natural chemistry of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (whose wry fictional romance caught fire offscreen, too) — so how do you come back from throwing it all away? Webb says he’s found himself reinvested in Harry Osborn’s betrayal of Peter and how bachelorhood could be his hero’s Kryptonite.
“Will Peter Parker love again? When [relationships] end, it’s very difficult to imagine emerging from that,” Webb says. “I think that’s, emotionally, where he’s going to start off in the next movie.”
By the closing minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 , Spider-Man returns from a brief hiatus to fight Rhino. That’s the beginning of a new thread for Webb. “Spider-Man is back, but is Peter Parker?”
Only now is Team Spider-Man meeting in its “writers’ room” (sometimes an office, sometimes Tolmach’s living room) to break the stories for The Amazing Spider-Man 3, Sinister Six, and Venom. Yes, there’s a giant board with notecards tacked to it, keeping track of ideas as they’re conjured from conversation. No, they don’t have enough material to three-hole-punch into a series bible. As brainstorming begins, Pinkner says they’re carrying over a mantra from Alias: An “episode” isn’t done until everyone who isn’t writing it is envious of the person who is. And they have their own version of Abrams to keep them on track. “I gave Avi a hug after the premiere and said, ‘I love you.’ He said, ‘I love you [too] — get back to work,’” Pinkner says.
And now that his dream of realizing “Amazing Spider-Man #121. 1973. Gerry Conway” has come true? “We’ve had very casual conversations where we’re sitting around a table, and primarily my responsibility is, ‘Where is Peter Parker? Where is Spider-Man?’” Webb says. “And I am his protector and his emissary.” You can’t kill everyone off.