A Brief Cinematic History Of Your New Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield

The announcement that Sony and director Marc Webb have chosen Andrew Garfield to be the new Peter Parker in Spider-Man came as a bit of a surprise. A welcome surprise to many of us, as the young actor is among the best of the crop of talent that was being considered for the role. But when his biggest role is in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus — hardly a blockbuster — Garfield may seem like a choice out of left field to some.

So, here's a quick guide to help acquaint yourself with the work of Andrew Garfield. Check these films out and you'll quickly understand why he'll make a hell of a good Peter Parker.

First up, I understand the concerns some have that Garfield may be too old for the part — we've been told that we're getting a younger, high school Spider-Man and at 26, Garfield is on the cusp of being too old to play that. But until we know more about the script I'm not going to worry about this angle too much.

(UPDATE: HitFix says that the script is being reworked to place Parker in college rather than high school. That makes perfect sense, especially if the idea of a high-school Parker was originally motivated in part by wanting to find a young, cheap actor. With Garfield on board, a college-age setting works fine.)

And for those thinking this is a total surprise, don't forget that Garfield is in David Fincher's The Social Network, also a Sony/Columbia movie. I'm told by a few people that (a) The Social Network is really good and (b) as you might expect, Garfield's work in that film led directly to being cast as Peter Parker.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Boy A (2007)

Garfield positively shines in John Crowley's film as Jack, a young man just released from prison after serving a sentence handed down for being part of a young girl's death. Underage at the time of the crime and trial, Jack's true identity has been hidden. The papers call him Boy A. In the days following his release, Jack successfully sets up a new life, but a generous act threatens to reveal him as Boy A and unmake everything he's built up for himself.

As Jack, Garfield turns in a stunning performance — he's marked by a deep undercurrent of guarded fear as he goes through a charmingly awkward attempt to fit into a society he never really got to know. It's his best work so far, and a moving performance in a story that isn't afraid to cast light on how we treat those who have been part of terrible things in the past.

How this relates to Spider-Man: Not too hard to figure out, really. His character has a secret that he's desperate to keep hidden. It's almost the real-world equivalent of a secret identity. While I wouldn't expect to see Peter Parker in quite the same straits as Jack, there are definite parallels between the characters. If Spider-Man sees the actor turning in a performance even half as nuanced as this one, it'll be an unusually well-acted blockbuster.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)

Garfield appears throughout the three parts of UK crime thriller Red Riding, but his role in 1974 is central, and his work in the film is a the standout for the series. 1974 begins as young reporter Eddie (Garfield) covers the disappearance of three young girls as he deals with the death of his father. A bit of a young Turk, Eddie is the classic naive reporter who gets in over his head.

Call this a sort of companion performance to Robert Downey, Jr. in Zodiac, but Garfield here is less showy. Eddie takes things farther than perhaps he should but Garfield doesn't push the performance over the top. The film plays like a sprawling thriller, but Garfield is a lens through which the story is focused and his work keeps everything on track.

How this relates to Spider-Man: Yeah, sure, Peter Parker is something of an aspiring photojournalist, but 1974 and Spider-Man are a pretty tenuous pair. But this is Garfield in the closest he's been to mainstream performance mode, and you can easily see how his slightly gritty performance as Eddie could be polished up to make a spot-on Peter Parker.The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Here's the Garfield-centric version: Terry Gilliam cast Garfield as Anton, a small-time illusionist who travels with the aged Doctor Parnassus and is utterly in love with the old man's daughter, Valentina. But she falls under the spell of Tony, a talented but shady raconteur the Parnassus troupe rescues from near death. As the truth about Tony begins to come out, Anton stays true to Valentina and fights to win her over.

This is a relatively minor role for Garfield — he owns only a handful of scenes because Tony, played by Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law, is the propulsive element of the story. But he still holds his own, and Anton emerges as a stalwart, trustworthy and loving character in his own right. It's not an attention-getting performance, but in a film that is full of flash and fire, it is a grounded and very sympathetic turn.

How this relates to Spider-Man: Anton is like the young Peter Parker that can't win the hand of the girl he likes, but doesn't let that force him into compromising who he is. Take this together with the inquisitive, stronger character in Red Riding, and you've got the two halves of a character very much like Parker.I'm Here (2010)

The short film by Spike Jonze was all the rage earlier this year, and for good reason. It's a gorgeous, heartbreaking little tale about a version of LA in which robots are a marginalized underclass. Garfield plays Sheldon, a robot library assistant who meets Francesca (Sienna Guillory), a fetching robot who doesn't play by the rules Sheldon has always accepted without question.

There's a bit of magic in Jonze's film and Garfield's performance. Sheldon's head is a taupe box like an old PC case, and most of his performance is physical. But between his vocal inflections and shuffling, hesitant movements, Sheldon is more human than the scary bearded guy with whom he shares the back seat of Francesca's car, and he projects a pure, totally untainted image of a man...robot...in love.

How this relates to Spider-Man: Call it a stretch, but what we see in this little film is the fact that Garfield can easily project his personality through a performance that doesn't show his face. Sure, the robot Sheldon has those big eyes, but I don't think it's too much to use this as a basis for understanding how Garfield will be able to work through Spider-Man's mask.

As far as this overview goes, I'm going to skip over Garfield's performance in Lions for Lambs because, frankly, I consider it a terrible movie and I'd hate for anyone to have their first exposure to the actor come via Robert Redford's didactic, dull film. If you've seen everything else on this list and not Lions for Lambs, by all means, go for it. Garfield is not the problem with the movie, by any means; it is the script and stiff direction that sink it. And I'll skip The Other Boleyn Girl, merely because Garfield's role is rather small. I've not seen his appearances in Doctor Who, so can't speak to the effectiveness of that role.

UPDATE: OK, after a few requests I'm relenting and addressing Lions for Lambs to some extent. Here's a couple clips of Garfield in the film, in which he plays a student under the tutelage of a professor played by Robert Redford. You can get a brief taste of the actor's ability with an American accent, and also of why the film is so lousy. Imagine two hours of exchanges written like this; it's not a movie, it's a lecture. Never thought I'd be so unhappy to just see a string of scenes of good actors verbally sparring, one on one.