Andrew Garfield in the Amazing Spider-Man 2. Image: Sony Pictures International.
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Thank goodness for Andrew Garfield, saviour of the Amazing Spider-Man 2

Fans cannot live on special effects alone. It is Andrew Garfield's super powers, as Peter Parker without the mask, that justify the explosions and non sequiturs that follow as soon as he puts it on.

“Acting is impossible,” Andrew Garfield told me in 2011, shortly after he had been cast as Spider-Man. “Creating a performance is impossible. Creating a performance that’s good is impossible. I will never ever create a performance that’s good. I know that. I will never be able to watch myself and feel happy with what I’ve done. It’s constant striving.”

Nothing wrong with some healthy perfectionism. And while I wouldn’t argue that playing Spider-Man demands of Garfield the same complexity that he has brought to his most nuanced work to date—his elegantly measured performance as Eduardo Saverin, the wronged and wounded co-founder of Facebook in The Social Network, and his taut, twitchy turn as a juvenile murderer all grown up in Boy A—his work in the two Amazing Spider-Man movies does go above and beyond the call of duty. His performance is in a whole different key to the one given by Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man trilogy: Peter Parker is a doe-eyed dope, after all, rather than a strutting id like Iron Man’s human counterpart, Tony Stark. But both engender the same feeling in the viewer: we don’t want them to disappear into the melee.

As with Downey and Iron Man, the bond Garfield forges with us when he is Peter Parker is so strong and sympathetic that the movies can’t help but suffer a slump whenever the mask and the bodysuit goes back on. Every time he’s the amazing Spider-Man, the movies become that little bit less amazing.

The least an actor needs to do in a superhero movie is to keep his or her head above water; that is, to render a performance that won’t be overwhelmed by special effects. Much of this is out of the actor’s hands. What makes the final cut is down to the director, the editor, the studio, but these are not stupid people. They know that a superhero movie in which the audience has no connection with the man or woman in the cape or the mask or the Lycra bodysuit will count for nought. Less than nought. Less than Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Garfield and his co-stars in The Amazing Spider-Man 2—Emma Stone, who reprises her role as Gwen Stacy from the previous movie, and Dane DeHaan as Peter’s childhood friend-turned-adversary Harry—are not blockbuster veterans, and they don’t work in the broad, hammy acting style that can be the default setting of the action genre. They contribute detailed, attentive work that just happens to be mounted on the canvas of a noisy, sprawling superhero film. Not, in itself, anything new: ever since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, the cleverest actors have recognised that it pays in this genre to keep your integrity, your intimacy, while all around you, everything explodes.

The disparity in scale between fine-grained acting and lumbering action is one of the intriguing elements of a movie like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It needs its high-calibre cast (to connect with an audience that cannot survive on special effects alone, however much it might want to) but must also end up overruling precisely what makes those actors special. At some point the filmmakers have to pay the piper, which means crass action sequences comprised of escalating explosions, violent non-sequiturs and the arbitrary destruction of property, all rendered unintelligible by stroboscopic editing.

Until that point, with buses and cars being tossed around Times Square like Tonka toys, there is Andrew Garfield, thank goodness. Just as the enduring moments from The Amazing Spider-Man were small and tender and humorous—Garfield not strolling but skipping down the school corridor during a moment of romantic elation, or apologising when he accidentally starts web-slinging on a crowded subway train—so the best parts of the sequel have nothing to do with combat or confrontation. The actorly miracles lie in his bleary, discombobulated tomfoolery when his aunt almost walks in on him in full Spider-Man costume, or the expertly choreographed slapstick when he is called upon to engineer some distraction, or his coquettish peek-a-boo from behind the branches of a tree during a heart-to-heart with Gwen.

Like Johnny Depp’s intricate physical pantomimes in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, or—to take a superhero movie precedent—Gene Hackman’s withering, perpetually disappointed villainy in the first two Superman films, these are the gifts an actor gives to the audience. It’s a trade-off. They nourish us through the long sequences of bone-headed bluster and shallow spectacle. And, if they’re lucky, we come back for parts 3, 4 and 5.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is released 16 April.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why I refuse to swallow the "clean eating" craze

Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth reveals the dodgy science behind the restrictive eating trend.

Some years ago, my sister fell seriously ill just as she was about to take her university finals. No one knew what was wrong, but we suspected – even if none of us dared to say the word aloud – that she had some form of cancer. How else to explain the vomiting and exhaustion, the pewter circles beneath her eyes? Many tests later, we learned the truth. She has coeliac disease. In the circumstances, this was wondrous news. All she had to do to be better was to give up gluten. In the years since, however, the sense of escape has gradually dimmed. What a pain it is. How lovely it would be for her to be able to scoff a bowl of proper pasta, to demolish a pizza along with everyone else.

It’s thanks to my sister that my tolerance for the swollen ranks of the gluten-free brigade is even lower than it might ordinarily be (which is to say, about as low as the Dead Sea, and then some). Coeliac disease is not a fad but a lifelong autoimmune disorder affecting 1 per cent of the population. It is exasperating to have to listen to non-sufferers spouting so much pseudo­science on the matter of gluten – lies and half-truths out of which some of them are making a great deal of money – though if there’s one thing that is more exasperating, it’s those same people refusing to explain themselves when confronted with expertise.

In Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth, (19 January, 9pm), a Horizon film presented by Dr Giles Yeo, a scientist at Cambridge University’s Metabolic Diseases Unit, the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, who eschew not just gluten but grains in their bestselling cookery books, were notable by their absence, having declined to appear. As Yeo tossed bones into a pan of simmering water, preparing to make their broth (“the ultimate superfood”), my blood was already boiling. What’s wrong, girls? Lost your nerve?

Yeo’s film, righteous and entertaining (if not, perhaps, sufficiently savage), took as its starting point the broad idea – promoted by the Hemsleys, among others – that while some foods aid “wellness”, others actively make us ill. The beauty of this open-ended approach was that it allowed him to show that clean eating is merely one end of the 21st-century food fad spectrum. At the other can be found people such as Robert O Young, who believes that alkaline foods can cure terminal diseases.

A one-time Mormon missionary, last year Young was convicted by an American court of practising medicine without a licence; as Yeo also revealed, in 2010, he charged a young British woman, Naima Mohamed, $77,000 for a stay at his “miracle” ranch in California not long before she died from breast cancer. The two ends of the spectrum are not unconnected. It was Young, for instance, who inspired the alkaline eating “revolution” of Natasha Corrett of the successful Honestly Healthy website. She, too, preferred not to appear in Yeo’s documentary.

The film built from sceptical jauntiness to what seemed to me to be a rather careful anger (perhaps the lawyers had been at it). One clean-eating star who did agree to meet Yeo was “Deliciously” Ella Woodward (now Mills), and with her help, he made a sweet potato stew, a photo of which he then uploaded to Instagram (social media and clean eating go together like linguine and crab).

But thereafter, he got out of the kitchen and on to a plane, eager to dismantle the diktats not only of Young, but also of his compatriots William Davis (the Hemsleys’ guru), a former cardiac doctor who believes that all human beings should give up wheat, and Colin Campbell, who advocates an entirely plant-based diet (Mills read Campbell’s bestseller The China Study before embarking on her own experiments).

Skilfully, Yeo queried the scientific evidence for these people’s claims and, in the case of Young, revealed his sweaty charlatanism. It was all rather, well, delicious, though I wanted more. Restricted by time and format, Yeo could not take the next step. What the rest of us need to do now is to call out the publishers and newspaper editors who enthusiastically peddle the diets of Ella and co, seemingly without recourse even to the most basic kind of fact-checking. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era