Whatever you may have thought of its quality, Spider-Man: No Way Home was undoubtedly the biggest movie of 2021. Just when many assumed that movie theaters had bit the dust, No Way Home came through and smashed all expectations for how it would perform at the box office. One of the reasons the movie did so well is because it united Tom Holland’s Peter Parker with Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s versions of the character. And, somewhat shockingly, Garfield manages to walk away with the whole movie.
Holland and Maguire are great, and Maguire especially seems to fall back into his performance as Peter Parker with ease after more than a decade away from the role. Garfield, though, has emerged as the most venerated actor of the three, and his Peter may be the most tragic.
That tragedy isn’t just because of what happened to Garfield’s version of the character, but also because of what happened to Garfield’s fledgling Spider-Man franchise. 10 years after The Amazing Spider-Man hit theaters, the movie is not all that fondly remembered. There may have been some built-in nostalgia for Garfield’s performance, but no one was excited about No Way Home because the Lizard was in it. If The Amazing Spider-Man is remembered at all, it’s remembered because of what it couldn’t do and the potential Garfield showed to be one the best cinematic Spider-Men of all time.
The Amazing Spider-Man came out in 2012, the same year The Avengers proved that the MCU project was going to work. Sony was eager to keep pumping out Spider-Mans, so just five years after Maguire’s last spin in the role, they had recast the franchise and were ready to launch it again. Sony may have been ready, but the public was not. Seeing Peter Parker’s origin story again didn’t charm critics or fans, and the franchise was dead after just one additional installment.
The movie didn’t work because it couldn’t keep up. Like the DCEU, it had to try to catch up with Marvel as quickly as possible, but with only a fragment of the intellectual property available to them. As a result, The Amazing Spider-Man creates a grand mystery around Peter’s parents, and by its second installment, is teasing a Sinister Six movie that features a bunch of villains we’ve never met.
These are movies brimming with unnecessary lore and silly plotting, and the first installment also features an extending sequence where Peter Parker skateboards to Coldplay. They really don’t make them like this anymore … and in this instance, that’s a good thing.
Out of the rubble of The Amazing Spider-Man, though, one thing was clear: Andrew Garfield, and his co-star and girlfriend at the time Emma Stone, were way outclassing the material they’d been handed. What Maguire’s version of Spider-Man lacked was the clever banter that often defined the character in the comics. Maguire’s Peter was a hopeless romantic and a goober, but his Spider-Man never felt as funny as he could have been.
Garfield turned out to be a pretty ideal complement to that balance, playing a version of Spider-Man that was endlessly clever, even as his version of Peter proved to be a little less defined. Garfield’s Peter, on the other hand, is basically all signifiers. He’s smart because he wears glasses, but also kind of a hipster because he seems to carry a skateboard everywhere. He’s not a nerd, exactly, but he’s definitely not cool either.
Ultimately, though, Garfield is really just playing Spider-Man in plain clothes, a distinction that works mostly because of the charisma that he’s able to bring to the performance. Particularly in his scenes with Stone, Garfield is electric and electrifying, and the chemistry between them is basically the only reason to watch either of these movies.
Garfield’s nervous energy works perfectly with Stone’s droll sarcasm, and there are some genuinely funny moments throughout their time together. Strangely, then, The Amazing Spider-Man is the Spider-Man movie for people who like rom-coms and hate superheroes. It’s a movie brimming with longing and flirting that has basically no ideas outside of pointing the camera toward Stone and Garfield and hoping for the best.
Even as his on-camera energy helped keep a pretty rock franchise afloat, at least for a little while, we were treated to how thrilled Garfield was to have the role. He showed up at San Diego Comic-Con in costume and gave an earnest speech about how much the project meant to him. He talked over and over again about how excited he was to take over the role. Plenty of actors take superhero gigs to pay for the work they really want to do, but Garfield, for all his prestige, clearly wanted to be a superhero for as long as they’d let him. As it turns out, though, that wasn’t very long.
In a world less obsessed with nostalgia, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 likely would have been the end of Garfield’s Spider-Man forever. As sad as that would have been, Tom Holland’s rapid emergence meant that the spider-shaped holes in our hearts weren’t there for long.
Over the past decade, though, a consensus has emerged that, while The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel probably aren’t likely to top your list of Spider-Man movies, Andrew Garfield’s version of the character very well could. That’s why, when he showed up in No Way Home, it felt like a bit of redemption, and one that Garfield seemed to jump at, and succeed at, with a performance that was heroic, funny, and memorable.
His enthusiasm for the role is evident on screen, and it’s ultimately the reason that he outclasses everyone else in the cast. It’s notable that Garfield comes through his portal (to deafening cheers in many theaters) fully draped in his Spider-Man garb, while Tobey Maguire seemed to agree to be in the movie only if he could stay in the clothes that he already had on.
Garfield’s gratitude at getting to play the role is so effervescent that it almost makes watching The Amazing Spider-Man worth it, just to see someone getting to do something they truly seem to love. You may not love his movies, but it’s hard not to be happy that Garfield got a little piece of closure for a franchise that just disappeared without much fanfare.
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