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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.

Andrew Garfield.
Andrew Garfield in the Amazing Spider-Man 2. Image: Sony Pictures International.

“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.

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