Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield Dish on the Scientific Spirit Behind Spider-Man

By Corey S. Powell | May 12, 2014 12:16 pm

If there is any superhero who qualifies as a nerd icon, it is Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker. His powers depend one half on scientific experimentation, one half on his own research and innovation. But unlike other comic-book inventors like Batman or Iron Man, he has no personal wealth or corporate connections to draw on. Unlike hero teams like the X-Men or Avengers, he has no support network of colleagues. He is an intellectual and emotional outlier, a character who could have been lifted straight from the psychological profile of The Drama of the Gifted Child.

Spider-Man: superhero or science teacher? (Credit: Columbia Pictures/Marvel)

Spider-Man: superhero or science teacher? (Credit: Columbia Pictures/Marvel)

At least, that is how I see the character, and that is how a lot of others do, too. Now I know the actors and producers behind the latest series of Spider-Man movies feel the same way.

I recently participated in a set of roundtable interviews with key members of the team, including Andrew Garfield (who plays Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy, Peter’s oft-estranged girlfriend), Marc Webb (director), and Avi Arad and Matthew Tolmach (producers). I got to ask them pointed questions about the scientific spirit behind The Amazing Spider Man 2; they had genuinely thoughtful answers, including insights into their own interests in science and technology. It’s enough to make me forget–almost–a key plot point revolving around the nonsense concept that a magnetized nail can hold a limitless amount of electric charge.

The highlights of our conversation:

Part I: Emma Stone [Gwen Stacy]

On Gwen Stacy as an academic role model: Yeah absolutely I would say she’s a role model. She’s a modern woman who’s making her own way in the world and not just waiting around see what her boyfriend is going to decide. She knows she wants to go off to college, she knows what she wants to do with her life. She’s making her own decisions. It was great that we got to modernize Gwen [compared to the source comic books from 1973].

I think she’s following her destiny whether it’s Peter’s destiny or not and hoping that he can figure out how to work into the balance of that. She understands the heroic impulse, and she has that in her. She’s going to school in medicine, she wants to save people in the best way that she can, which is with her intelligence. She’s a wonderful student, has a great mind for science, so she’s using that kind of gift.

There is something magical in their connection [between Gwen and Peter Parker]. They have similar interests, they’re both science-minded, they love to learn and to invent. Peter Parker is a pretty great amateur inventor, he comes up with his own web shooters.

On her personal interest in biology: When we first started shooting this movie last year I was talking [about biology] to a guy at Columbia and he sat on the phone with me for three or four hours. I was getting ready to take some classes at Columbia to learn more about what what Gwen does—she’s learning about molecular medicine. It gets pretty intense, and I just have a GED. I was on the phone with him and he was explaining how the brain works. It was so much information, so interesting, but I realized I wasn’t fully understanding at a college level what was happening.

Then I was working all throughout last year learning things for other movies, so I haven’t gotten to do any biology tutoring yet. But I have some downtime now, and I was thinking about taking some classes this summer—I want to look more into biology, because there is an innate interest and connection that I have to it. [Emma Stone’s aunt and uncle work at Merck and helped develop the vaccine Gardasil, as she discussed in a revealing 2011 interview.] I think I would have absolutely loved biology in school, even though I don’t really understand math, and that component is difficult if you want to be involved in science.

Part II: Andrew Garfield [Peter Parker]

On his feelings of cosmic existentialism: I have reservations about getting out of bed every morning, because what the hell is going on? What is this weird rock that we’re on, floating through the universe? It’s scary out there. Well, then of course you kinda go, ‘Well, I may as well do something. so we may as well tell the Spider-Man story.’ That might be no accident that I’m an incredibly existential, neurotic, terrified person. I think that [director Marc Webb] probably witnessed that and thought Peter Parker would be an appropriate character I need to play. Ultimately you gotta get out of bed and you gotta give yourself to something greater than yourself, and for me right now it’s Spider-Man.

Spider-Man dabbles in the lab. (Credit: Marvel Comics)

Spider-Man dabbles in the lab. (Credit: Marvel Comics)

On the biophysical implications of being a human spider: I needed to feel as flexible and as open as possible. I studied Bugs Bunny and Charlie Chaplin and Muhammad Ali and Usain Bolt and Pharrell, and also worked with two great dance choreographers, Jack Ferver and Michelle Moller. We would do ridiculous contemporary dance and make sure that all of my extremities were as long and wide as possible. The potentiality of a spider’s movement is, it can be here and then it can be over there in a split second. The lightness and stillness it can achieve are balletic and so beautiful to witness. So, I hope it’s not just a guy in a suit beating people up. It’s gotta be a Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, spider, contemporary dancer, Buster Keaton hybrid.

On Spider-Man as an icon of human achievement:  One of the things that I am taking away from playing him is he feels like a metaphor for all of our lives, in terms of the ordinary struggles we have go through and the ordinariness and the imperfection, the failure, the stumbling, the fumbling through life, and the mystery of it all. We are all Spider-Man in the sense that we have something wonderful and extraordinary to give. I think our only real duty is to ourselves in the sense that we need to discover what our spider powers are, whether it is bricklaying or art or business or science.

Part III: Director Marc Webb, producers Matthew Tolmach and Avi Arad

Webb on the Jungian touchstones of Spider-Man: There are some eternal, universal, mythological, archetypal parts of the Spider-Man character: He’s a trickster, he is a protector, and that kid has a heroic impulse that we can all identify with. Peter Parker in the comics back in the day was more of a nerd, but a nerd was a shorthand for an outsider. The archetypal component of Peter Parker is that he’s an outsider. He’s the guy who’s on the outside looking in; he’s been abandoned and is not sort of as loved and as paid attention to as we would all like to be.

Tolmach on Spider-Man as social commentary on science: Look at Harry Osbourne [Peter Parker’s best friend, who takes a very dark turn], look at the technology around what happens to him: a suit that heals. That’s science that’s come a long way from the Sandman [an early villain in the comic book] being irradiated, but there is a certain constant. It goes back to Frankenstein; it goes back a lot further than that, which is the fear of change and the fear of science. There’s also this other theme of the over-reachers, the people who misuse science. The science changes, but what’s constant is the dynamic. You have Peter Parker and Spider-Man who always end up on the right side of complicated moral decisions. Then you have villains who are oftentimes scientists or science-adjacent, and they make the wrong decision. That’s a constant in our ongoing conversation about science.

Arad on the movie’s inherent pro-academic message: In this movie is is very clear that Peter, without science, would have lost to Electro [one of the movie’s main villains]. So here, being the geek, I believe he went to science because the only thing he knows about his father is that he was a scientist. And Gwen is probably the smartest girl ever portrayed in a superhero story, as it should be. When comics got started [the writers] seemed like they didn’t know that women could do anything else but smile and get dressed. In this movie, she helped him not to be decimated by a superpower. Kids look at [Gwen and Peter], and they realize that intelligence is good.

Part IV: Bonus round–the amazing history of the Spider-Man back lot.

A Lunar Module under construction in Bethpage, NY, where parts of the new Spider-Man movie were shot. (Credit: Grumman/NASA)

A Lunar Module under construction in Bethpage, NY, where parts of the new Spider-Man movie were shot. (Credit: Grumman/NASA)

One of the most surprising science connections in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the back lot where some of the key scenes (including parts of the Times Square battle) were filmed. They were shot at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, Long Island, in some of the exact same hangars where Grumman once built the Lunar Module that landed the Apollo astronauts on the moon.

You can visit the nearby Grumman Memorial Park, either virtually or in the real world, to learn more of the site’s history. There are some beautiful memorials and image galleries online. For people living near the old Grumman plant, the movie work is hugely helpful to the local economy, and it is intriguing to have such a rich back story to the movie’s special effects.

But there is no way around the element of sadness as well. A half century ago, this location was dedicated to the real exploration of the universe. Now it is used to manufacture fantasy and escape.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

 

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About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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