Warning: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home. Do not read it if you don’t want to know anything about the movie. Read this excellent oral history of Jingle All the Way instead.
For months, the internet has been abuzz about which actors might pop up in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest film in the Peter Parker saga. Because the movie has to do with the reintroduction of Spidey villains who appeared in previous iterations of the character — including Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock — there’s been widespread speculation that maybe those parallel universes’ Spider-Men would show up, too. Would we get to see Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield back in their most famous role?
By now, you’ve probably found out the answer, either because you checked out No Way Home or you looked at the internet. But while watching the new sequel, which I enjoyed, I kept thinking about how fond I always was of Garfield as the iconic Marvel character. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Maguire — he’ll always be the best Spider-Man — but because Garfield’s run wasn’t as successful, I’ve felt a bit protective of him and his two maligned Spidey films. One of the things I like best about No Way Home is how, in a small way, it validates Garfield’s creative choices in the role. The Maguire films are beloved — well, the first two, anyway — and the Tom Holland movies have done extremely well. But perhaps it’s time to give a little love to what Garfield attempted in-between.
When Garfield was cast as Spider-Man, he’d been riding a wave of acclaim, starting with 2007’s Boy A, where he played a troubled young man just let out of prison. Strong turns in the subsequent sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go and the Oscar-winning The Social Network only further cemented his status as a rising star, and like a lot of rising stars these days, the next step was hitching his wagon to a franchise. But although he was older than Maguire (or, later, Holland) were when they first appeared as Peter Parker, Garfield had a pretty sincere love of the character since childhood. In fact, a year before The Amazing Spider-Man hit theaters, the actor made a surprise appearance at Comic-Con in 2011, delivering a heartfelt, nerdy speech about how much Spider-Man meant to him.
Call it lame or calculated, but it was clear Garfield took the character seriously. Nonetheless, there was a lot of pressure weighing on this reboot — not just because Spider-Man is a major property with a huge, demanding fan base but also because Maguire’s last film, Spider-Man 3, had only come out five years prior to Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man. Wait, Sony was rebooting this thing already? Did we really need to see Peter’s origin story again so soon? It felt like the studio was trying to resell the same thing to us we’d already bought once — and recently — and inevitably Garfield had to endure endless comparisons to Maguire, who’d made the role his own. How good could this new Spider-Man be?
When The Amazing Spider-Man came out, the reviews were mostly positive, although many did complain that having to sit through a similar set-up to 2002’s Spider-Man — teenager gets bit by radioactive spider, teenager falls in love, teenager fights bad guy, teenager loses someone close to him — so soon felt tiresome. To be fair, Garfield played the character a little differently, giving him a bit more of a smartass attitude, but it wasn’t such a radical reinvention that the property screamed out for a redo. The Amazing Spider-Man was fine, and nothing more. But anyone who had been a fan of Garfield’s earlier career couldn’t help but root for him. He was a superb actor — not just a pinup, but a real actor with chops — and you wanted to see him get his chance to bring something special to superhero movies, which even by 2012 were absolutely inundating the multiplexes.
Another reason why people rooted for Garfield to succeed is that Peter’s adorkable relationship with high school crush Gwen Stacy seemed to nicely mirror the one the actor had in real life with co-star/girlfriend Emma Stone. It’s stupid to ascribe meaning to celebrity couples you’ve never met, but Garfield and Stone had such an endearing rapport, both on and offscreen, that they became a pair you just liked. The fact that they fell in love while making the movie only made the whole thing that much sweeter.
But none of those warm, fuzzy feelings kept 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from being a massive disappointment, even when the sequel’s big emotional finale involved Peter trying (and failing) to save Gwen, who falls to her death during his climactic showdown with Jamie Foxx’s Electro. I never blamed Garfield for his two deeply mediocre Spidey movies. As he’d done in his previous films, Garfield brought a focused, empathetic sincerity to the character, easily conveying Peter’s trademark adolescent anxieties as well as his grief over Gwen’s death. It didn’t matter: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 got roasted by critics, and even though the movie made more than $700 million worldwide, it brought in less than the 2012 film.
The writing was on the wall — this just wasn’t working out — and Sony pulled the plug on the series. “[Sony president Amy Pascal and I] would fight, but ultimately, we loved each other on a deep level,” Garfield said earlier this year about his time as Spidey. “We tried to meet as much in the middle as we could in terms of why I wanted to do this role, and what her needs were as the head of the studio.” Still, Garfield’s time as Spider-Man often gets written about as a disappointment, if not an outright failure. For all the actors who became superstars thanks to playing superheroes, Garfield became one of those guys in the other camp, like Brandon Routh or Edward Norton, who will always be known as someone who couldn’t make the leap.
That’s hardly fair, but I’ve been happy to see him continue to do strong work in everything from Hacksaw Ridge to Silence to Under the Silver Lake. (He also won a Tony for playing Prior Walter in the Broadway revival of Angels in America.) He’s received one Oscar nomination (for Hacksaw Ridge) and may receive another for his performance as Rent mastermind Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick… Boom! At least in public, Garfield seems to have put Spider-Man behind him — he and Stone broke up as well, although they apparently remain close — and he’s always enthusiastically told reporters how much he loves Holland’s performance in the recent movies, which have been celebrated for “restoring” the character’s luster. Garfield doesn’t seem to mind that impression: He’s moved on.
Not that that’s stopped every single journalist on Earth from asking him if he’d be in No Way Home. And since Garfield has been promoting both The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Tick, Tick… Boom! for months, he can’t avoid the question. Again and again, he’d swear he wasn’t going to be in the movie, and now that people know he’s been lying this entire time… well, I actually find all of that deception kinda touching. He was a good little company man, never spoiling the surprise — and that dutiful earnestness has always been part of him, even back at that Comic-Con appearance 10 years ago. That loyalty has been rewarded: In No Way Home, alongside the other Peter Parkers, he brings a vulnerability to his performance that, for a brief moment, shows us what kind of Spider-Man he could have been if his films had been better.
For those who remember Peter’s brief character arc in Garfield’s two movies, No Way Home offers a bittersweet punctuation mark. As good as Maguire was at capturing Peter’s dopey awkwardness — and as adept as Holland is at nailing his unformed, rambunctious immaturity — Garfield might have delivered the sweetest and most alienated iteration of the character. There’s always been a soulful, slightly alien quality to his performances — his characters feel deeply but can’t quite connect to the world around them — and it’s a quality a lot of teenagers can understand, not just ones who climb walls.
In No Way Home, his Peter feels in some ways still haunted by Gwen’s death, but the film gives the character a beautiful moment to address that in a way that may be this sequel’s most moving scene. It was never that Garfield wasn’t a good Peter Parker — he just was saddled with Spider-Man movies that didn’t know how to escape the shadow of Maguire’s.
Now that the movie’s out, it must be a relief for Andrew Garfield not to have to lie anymore. And I doubt anyone would begrudge his trickery. It helps that No Way Home is good, but it also helps that the film seems to consciously welcome him back into the fold. At a time when Holland has put his stamp on the character — and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse films are maybe as popular as anything in the Marvel world — it’s easy to forget Garfield’s brief time as the webslinger. But No Way Home vindicates the sensitivity and easy sense of humor he brought to the role. However, the greater vindication for Garfield may be that his career has continued to thrive since he hung up the mask. Spider-Man will perhaps always be his most famous character, but those films — and their failure — surely don’t define him.