Along Came Spidey

Superheroes are not supposed to get fired. Sure, they quit now and then, but saving the world from evil forces would appear to be a pretty secure career choice since bad guys are never in short supply. So the call Tobey Maguire received from "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi last year must have come as a shock. The two men had not spoken for quite a while, communicating instead through agents, managers and studio executives. Raimi was deep in preproduction on "Spider-Man 2" and under pressure from Columbia Pictures to get the sequel on screens by summer 2004. The original shredded box-office records, grossing $820 million worldwide. Expectations were high, to say the least, and Raimi had reached the conclusion that his star would be unable to meet them. After much agonizing, he phoned Maguire. "Given this situation, I don't think we can make the picture with you," Raimi told him. "I have to hire somebody else."

On June 30, part two of the most successful comic-book movie in history, and the linchpin of what's likely to be a multi-billion-dollar franchise, will arrive in theaters. For a brief time in 2003, the future of that franchise--the entire weight of the "Spider-Man" juggernaut--balanced on the fragile spine of one 28-year-old actor. Maguire had suffered from recurrent back problems for years. As the "Spider-Man" sequel was gearing up, he was just coming off "Seabiscuit," a movie for which he'd had to lose a lot of weight and do a lot of horse riding, neither of which helped his condition. "My back was the worst it had ever been," he says. "I looked at the stunts I was going to have to do for 'Spider-Man 2,' which were going to be three times as difficult as the stunts on the first movie, and it became a little overwhelming." And that became an overwhelming problem. Soon, Maguire found himself fighting to hold on to his Spider-Man tights.

In Hollywood, records are made and broken almost every month, but when "Spider-Man" opened in May 2002, it racked up an astronomical $115 million in its opening weekend, a feat that no film to date, including the last installment of "The Lord of the Rings," "Shrek 2" or the third "Harry Potter," has managed to top. Much has been made of the fact that "Spider-Man" was the first post-9/11 blockbuster, and the conventional wisdom is that the film was a phenomenon because America needed heroes again. But maybe it's something more. To the rest of the world, the superhero symbol of the United States is Superman--broad shouldered, unconflicted, virtually indestructible. For decades, we've preferred to see ourselves that way, too. Spider-Man is none of those things. He's burdened by self-doubt. He wants to do the right thing, but isn't always sure what that is. He's constantly forced to choose between helping others and helping himself. He looks tough, but he's easily injured. In America after September 11, Superman was who we wanted to be. Spider-Man was who we were.

In "Spider-Man 2" life has only gotten worse for Peter Parker. He may be keeping the criminals at bay, but he's exhausted, failing his college classes, getting fired from his job and alienating his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), and his one true love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Plagued by guilt, and desperate to lead a normal life, Peter tosses his costume in the trash. Unfortunately, Peter's idol, scientist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), has had a little lab accident, and is now a madman menacing Manhattan with four mechanical tentacles. Peter is forced to choose between heroism and his own happiness, his relationship with Mary Jane in jeopardy all the while. "I was interested in the price of being a good person," Raimi says. "It's a story of someone trying to live up to an ideal and finding it impossible. Peter's living a life out of balance. He thinks he's got to make this journey alone, but he doesn't realize that to love someone is not to shield them from the truth, but to share it with them."

If that sounds a little deep for a summer blockbuster, it is. "Sam's smart," says Dunst. "He knows that you might spend five hours on one special-effects shot, but at the end of the day, if it's not emotional, nobody cares." That might have worried some studios, but Columbia Pictures was onboard. "In the past, these kinds of movies tended to focus just on who the next villain was going to be," says studio chairman Amy Pascal. "But the heart of 'Spider-Man' is Peter Parker. It's about making sure his story is as complicated and angst-ridden as it was before, if not more so." Not coincidentally, that angst is precisely what has made "Spider-Man" one of the best-selling Marvel Comics characters for more than 40 years. It's also why Tobey Maguire proved such a wise casting choice the first time around, and why his possible departure from the sequel generated so much angst of its own.

When Raimi cast Maguire back in 2000, the decision was met with some skepticism. The young actor had starred mostly in artful, emotional dramas like "The Ice Storm" and "The Cider House Rules." He didn't fit the standard idea of a comic-book hero, which was, of course, why Raimi wanted him. Columbia Pictures was happy, too. Maguire's lack of box-office clout allowed the studio to sign him to a three-picture deal for a relative song. Maguire earned only $4 million on the first movie, and although Columbia eventually gave him a bonus after "Spider-Man" exploded, he was still contracted to make the sequel for only $8 million. It wasn't unreasonable of Maguire to think he deserved a bigger check. His fee on "Seabiscuit" had already risen to $12 million, and it wasn't as if Columbia were hurting for cash. His agent asked for $25 million, or 10 percent of the gross--whichever was bigger. The studio said no.

At the time, Maguire was finishing "Seabiscuit," working 14-hour days, six days a week. In the middle of Maguire's contract negotiations, Raimi, who was prepping the special effects for "Spider-Man 2," asked him to come in on his day off to do about 10 hours of scans, in which computers would map every point on the actor's body to help create a digital double. Maguire declined. "I was on the verge of being sick, my back was killing me, and I was like, 'If I go do this, "Seabiscuit" is going to suffer'," he says. "It was a tricky situation. I didn't want to hurt the movie. I didn't want to offend Sam. I was just trying to balance everything in my life. So I postponed it for three weeks, and they got pissed off. I didn't realize that at the time." He didn't realize it because he wasn't talking to Raimi or anyone at Columbia directly, but through his representatives. Meanwhile, Raimi and top Columbia execs were doing the same. This "have your people call my people" communication system is standard practice in Hollywood, but in this case, it pushed a tense situation into crisis.

The studio agreed to give Maguire a raise, bringing his total salary package to about $17 million. But that didn't solve the problems. When Maguire began preparing for "Spider-Man 2," he realized his stunt work was going to be much more intense, something Raimi had warned Maguire's reps about. "He's running, leaping and taking falls," Raimi says. "He's being thrown against walls, grabbed by tentacles and yanked across rooms, shattering through furniture." Maguire's doctors were concerned, and his reps began insisting on limiting the amount and difficulty of his stunts. Eventually, Raimi says, "it got to me that if Tobey's back was hurt seriously it could cause paralysis. I didn't want to ask an actor to do something that would cause permanent injury. Yet, as a director, I didn't want to compromise my movie. I realized, I'm going to have to lose Tobey." Hence the phone call telling Maguire he was out.

Raimi's wife suggested Jake Gyllenhaal as a replacement. The rising young actor was not unlike Maguire--soulful eyes and talent to spare--and Raimi made a call to gauge his interest. Maguire, meanwhile, was eager to get back in the game. The actor lined up doctors to assure Raimi and Columbia that he was up to the task. Around the industry, speculation was rampant that the actor had exaggerated his back problems in an effort to hold the studio hostage for even more money. Columbia chairman Pascal won't say whether she agrees with that analysis. "I love Tobey, and I did not want to replace him," she says. "Did he have a bad back? Yes. Was it exacerbated by the situation on 'Seabiscuit'? I think it was. Was it exacerbated by the fact that we didn't want to pay him more money? You can ask him that."

Maguire insists it wasn't. "All that stuff about money was total bull----," he says. "I was never worried about my compensation." He pauses. "But you know, on the first movie I was like an excited little monkey. I'm a passionate actor--maybe obnoxiously so sometimes. On this movie I wasn't talking to them. I think [Raimi and the studio] probably felt like, 'What happened to Tobey?' But when I figured out what was happening, I dealt with it." By then, of course, someone had leaked the news that Gyllenhaal might replace Maguire to the media, and the story blew up around them. "No one wanted that out there. No one," Pascal says. "It was awful. Embarrassing and awful and humiliating and icky for everyone." Soon after, new medical reports indicated that Maguire would, in fact, be able to perform his stunts. Even so, it's fair to say the relationship between the actor and the director had been strained by the experience. At a meeting between Pascal, Raimi and Maguire at Pascal's home in March 2003, fences were mended. Maguire was rehired.

Raimi had just one more thing to do. "I had to call Jake back," he says. Gyllenhaal had never officially been offered, nor officially accepted, the job, but Raimi felt he owed him the courtesy. "He was such a gentleman about it, just great," Raimi says. The whole situation could not have been easy on Dunst. In addition to being Gyllenhaal's girlfriend, she had reportedly been romantically involved with Maguire during the first film. Talk about awkward. When asked about it, she smiles patiently and chooses her words carefully. "It was... complicated," she says. "Yeah, complicated. Of course it was complicated."

By the time production began last spring, everyone was grateful to have the mess behind them. They even managed to have a sense of humor about it. In one scene in "Spider-Man 2," Maguire plummets from a building and crashes into parked cars. He hobbles away, moaning, "Oh, my back! My back!" Mention it, and Raimi laughs. "My brother wrote that," he says. "Tobey was really game for it. He's not afraid of poking fun at himself." Joking aside, the production now faced a huge challenge. They had to try to top what they'd done before. Columbia, and its parent company, Sony, wanted the film to be ready by May, hoping to kick off the summer, as they had two years earlier. Producer Laura Ziskin made it clear that wasn't possible. "We couldn't do the visual effects in time," she says. "Sony's saying, 'We want it. We have to have it.' The underlying implication is that they want it in May even if it's not as good as the first one. But if you show them the movie and it's not as good, they're going to kill you. It's got to be better."

It is, thanks in part to a much cooler villain in Alfred Molina's "Doc Ock." Eager to avoid the cheesy, Halloween-mask look of the original's Green Goblin, Raimi and crew began designing Ock months before they even had a finished script. "He's very complicated and complex to produce," says Ziskin. "But we had played around with Ock as a secondary villain on the first movie, so we'd already started thinking about what he would look like, and the vision of him came pretty quickly." The result is a seamless blend of man and machine, with Ock's steel tentacles slithering and hissing around him like a high-tech Medusa, and Molina plays him with relish. "I felt very strongly about keeping the rather dry, sardonic humor he has in the comic books," he says. "He's a bit like Richard III, who tells you exactly what he's going to do, how he's going to do it and how he feels about it. Like all great villains, he's completely transparent."

Cool as Ock is, he was tedious to film, requiring a mix of live action, puppetry and computer-generated effects. "I spent a great deal of time on my own in front of a green screen, which I loved," Molina says, laughing. "I love my own company. I didn't have to worry about any other actors with their irritating habits." It also led to one rather absurd moment, shooting a scene in which Ock snags Peter Parker's aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and threatens to drop her off a skyscraper. "Rosemary and I were just hanging there by these wires, and I said, 'Rosemary, we're classically trained actors. We've done Ibsen. We've done Shakespeare. And here we are hanging off wires and our only bit of dialogue is, "Aaaaahhhh!"'" Of course, that was easy, compared with hauling around 75 pounds of puppet tentacles. Speaking of which, how's his back? "Not too bad," he says with a laugh. "Thanks for asking."

Amazingly, though, it's not all the visual splendor or killer action sequences that elevate "Spider-Man 2" above its predecessor and almost every superhero movie that has come before. The central drama isn't even Spider-Man's battle with Ock. Strip all the comic-book iconography away, and it's a tortured coming-of-age story about love and fear, regret and loneliness. To achieve that, Raimi didn't hire some hotshot, high-concept screenwriter straight out of grad school. He hired Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," to help build the story, and the screenwriter of "Ordinary People," Alvin Sargent, to pen the final script. "I don't write comic-book stories," Sargent says. "But Peter Parker is the guy down the block. He feels guilty about the death of his uncle. He worries about his aunt May. He lives in a crappy one-room rental with a bathroom down the hall. He's a lonely boy who wants nothing more than to be with this girl who loves him. And he can't tell her. That's a great story. That's mythic." And the exact reason Spider-Man has continued to resonate with teenage boys for more than four decades.

Stan Lee created Peter Parker with artist Steve Ditko around 1961. "I was trying to shatter every comic-book cliche," says Lee, now chairman emeritus of Marvel Studios. "There had never been a teenage superhero. There had never been a hero who had personal problems. And there had never been a hero who, even though he triumphed over the villain, would never achieve a full victory because there was always something that he regretted or felt guilty about." In fact, that guilt, that belief that he has to do penance as Spider-Man for not preventing the death of his uncle Ben, sets Peter apart from every other Lycra-clad crime fighter. "Revenge is a typical motivation, like with Batman," says Chabon. "With Superman, there's a general sense of just wanting to do what's right. With the X-Men, there's fighting for one's own kind. But I don't think there's another comic-book superhero that's as completely driven by trying to pay some debt, a debt that can't be paid, as Spider-Man is." All that guilt has led to an amusing theory about Peter. "For years people have speculated that Peter was sort of crypto-Jewish," Chabon says. "You know, living with his uncle Ben and aunt May in Queens." "I don't know," says Columbia's Pascal. "Maybe he's Catholic."

The answer will have to wait at least until "Spider-Man 3." Maguire and Dunst are signed on, and Raimi's already at work on the script for the film, which is slated for 2007. "As a child, I dreamed of being Spider-Man, and I always wanted to be a motion-picture director," says Raimi. "So in writing, I get to be both. I really relate to Peter Parker. I really worry about him." Is there life for the franchise beyond part three? Not for Dunst, sadly. "Three's enough," she says. "I'm retiring. If they want to hire another girl, that's fine. I don't want to be known only as Mary Jane. I'm sure Sam will have a heart attack if he hears I don't want to do it. He'll have a nervous breakdown."

A lot of fans may, too. Judging from the Web, early reaction to "Spider-Man 2" has been nearly ecstatic. The studio, of course, would love to see the film break its own box-office record, but Raimi says that's not how he'll measure his success. "I'm going to judge it based on the reaction of audiences I sit with, and on the reviews," he says. "But I know in my heart that I tried to be true to what I love about the character. I put everything I had into the picture." It shows.