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.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad