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It’s Time to Recognize the Kinetic Greatness of Andrew Garfield

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ can’t exactly rehabilitate the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ films, but it does stand as good reason to celebrate its star’s unique take on the neighborhood superhero

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

Before everyone in the world showed up to watch three Peter Parkers in Spider-Man: No Way Home, both Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s legacies were somewhat besmirched by weak installments in their franchises. Maguire’s trilogy will always carry the glow of both having the first live-action Peter Parker and including what many consider one of the best of the Spidey films in Spider-Man 2, but the less said about Spider-Man 3 the better. And Garfield’s movies had been dumped on the ash heap of comic-book movie history and his Peter Parker often considered best forgotten. That context makes Garfield’s return as a scene-stealing, wise-cracking, emotionally fragile Peter Parker all the more triumphant. He emerges from No Way Home as the film’s MVP in a stacked cast of Oscar winners and bright young Marvel stars, elevating the overall impression of his superhero turn in the process. But the truth is Garfield has always been the best and most interesting actor to slip into Spidey’s red-and-blue spandex suit.

There’s always been something theatrical and almost operatic about the way Andrew Garfield attacks a role. Though he got his start on the British stage doing Shakespeare and more, Garfield first caught the eye of mainstream American audiences in 2010’s The Social Network playing Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life maligned friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin. At the time, director David Fincher told the Los Angeles Times that he couldn’t cast Garfield as Zuckerberg because his “incredible emotional access to his kind of core humanity” wouldn’t work for the dispassionate Facebook CEO. Garfield ran away with the movie anyway: though he was (criminally) overlooked in the Oscar race, Garfield’s melodramatic rendering of Saverin’s break-up scene with Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg remains one of the film’s most defining moments. It resonated so strongly that a beat-for-beat re-creation by Dylan O’Brien became an early viral hit of the actors-bored-in-their-house pandemic era. Of all the searing lines of dialogue he’s ever written, Aaron Sorkin likely couldn’t have predicted that this would be one to live on.

It’s that blend of the line’s comedic ridiculousness and Garfield selling Saverin’s real grief at Zuckerberg’s betrayal that makes the moment stick.

Garfield went directly from Silicon Valley to the Spider-verse, a big move for an actor so early in their Hollywood career. And Spider-fans weren’t necessarily ready to move on from Tobey Maguire’s franchise, which had only wrapped up in 2007. 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man is unquestionably a mixed bag. The villain, Dr. Curt Connors, doesn’t work all that well and pales in comparison to the iconic baddies Maguire battled in his first two films. But what is unquestionable in both of Garfield’s movies is the romantic spark between Garfield and (eventual) real-life girlfriend Emma Stone. It might be heretical to say so, but their scenes generate far more chemistry than even that iconic upside-down rain kiss between Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire. Just look at them:

If the Spider-Man movies were simply romance films, we wouldn’t even be having a debate about who is the best Peter Parker. But Garfield had equal (if very different) chemistry with Sally Field, who played Aunt May. In one scene in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 she reluctantly tells him the truth about his father while declaring, in her best Steel Magnolias angry cry, that he’s her boy. Garfield matches the queen of hysterical sobs tear for tear.

Garfield also makes unusual and unexpected choices in his scenes with both Field and Stone. Those unpredictable, off-kilter moments are a hallmark of all of his performances. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, he plays one romantic interlude with Stone’s Gwen Stacy from behind a tree trunk.

And in the conclusion of The Amazing Spider-Man, he comes home to Aunt May battered and bruised and gutted by loss, but greets her with this truly unhinged smile.

One could argue that it’s pretty easy to generate chemistry with two Oscar-winning actresses of Stone’s and Field’s caliber. But Garfield even manages to find a spark with Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn, one of the most misbegotten elements of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. James Franco and Tobey Maguire had an entire trilogy to play out the collapse of Harry and Peter’s friendship into tragedy, whereas Garfield and DeHaan had to cram it all into just a few scenes. But as long as the two of them are sharing the screen, it works. The spark is there.

It’s certainly not Garfield’s fault (and it may not even be DeHaan’s fault) that every other Harry Osborn scene in that movie is a total mess. But beyond his uncanny ability to profoundly connect with whoever he was playing against, Garfield’s performance was also often fun, funny, and deeply kinetic:

If there’s one legitimate criticism to levy against Garfield in this role, it’s that he comes off as a little too self-possessed and a little too old (he was 28 when his first Spider-Man film premiered) to play the awkward, teenage Peter Parker. Those concerns play no part in his return in No Way Home as an older, worn-out Peter who carries the grief of losing Gwen Stacy in every line on Garfield’s (still young!) unshaven face. Garfield has also, in the intervening years, tapped into even more of an awkward weirdness that makes his Peter in No Way Home a misfit in his own right.

Since he hung up the Spidey suit in 2014, Garfield has been digging even deeper into the open-wound extremes that make him such a watchable actor. He put himself through actorly hell, starving his already slim frame to play a religious zealot of one kind in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and picked up an Oscar nomination after playing a different flavor of religious fervor in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

In between a number of other film projects, Garfield spent the better part of 2017 and 2018 playing Prior Walter onstage in Angels in America. The lengthy play (Part 1 is about 3 hours and 30 minutes and Part 2 is about 4 hours and 15 minutes) is an emotional marathon at the best of times, and Prior Walter is an intensive, highly dramatic role. But Garfield played Walter (to great acclaim, some criticism, and a Tony win) dialed up to 11.

You can’t do that for two years without either tapping into some new level of ability or burning yourself out entirely. Garfield’s other crowd-pleasing 2021 performance, as Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick … Boom!, proves he did the former. All the hallmarks of a classic Andrew Garfield performance are on display in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, including gutting emotional climaxes …

… and unexpected acting choices that land nonetheless.

But it’s worth noting that he delivered all of the expected Garfield goods while also studying to sing for the first time professionally. (Something both Garfield and Miranda talked about endlessly on the film’s press tour.) He’s actually phenomenal in the role—not just “good enough” for a movie star trying to sing. The whole Tick, Tick … Boom! experiment speaks to a kind of fearlessness in Garfield and a willingness to risk looking like a fool in order to deliver an unforgettable performance.

Which brings us back to Spider-Man. There’s no way of knowing exactly how Garfield felt about stepping back into the role that tarnished his reputation for a time in Hollywood. Garfield, unable to spill Marvel secrets out to the general public, has been straight-up lying about his involvement in the film for months now. Still, it’s easy to guess that playing Spidey again was a scary prospect.

Garfield is as funny and as weird as you hope he might be in the role, but it’s the raw way he plays Peter Parker as someone with completely exposed nerve endings that makes his appearance so special. Using that uncanny knack for connection, Garfield as Peter bonds instantly and believably with Ned, MJ, and the other Peters. His Peter is gentle with Tom Holland’s younger version of himself while also marinating in the grief of losing Gwen. The fact that Gwen Stacy’s death has suffocated him for so many years makes Sony’s decision to bump off Emma Stone—one of the worst moves in comic-book movie history—feel a little weightier than it once did.

Garfield’s rescue of Zendaya’s MJ in No Way Home is a fairly heavy-handed call and response to Gwen Stacy’s fall in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s a moment that, in all its obviousness, shouldn’t work at all. But, of course, Garfield sells it. “Are you OK?” he asks MJ through his tears. “Are you?” she asks back, as he delivers a shaky nod in a response that’s both funny and devastating. The moment is a true Garfield special and just one of many reasons that Spider-Man’s most maligned Peter Parker is suddenly everyone’s favorite. But the real ones know that Andrew Garfield deserved that praise all along.