In 2002 the first Spider-Man movie was released to general acclaim, acclaim that slackened over the following years as the limpness of the action scenes and some of the second-half writing became apparent. But at least everybody agreed that they hit a home run in casting Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man; I myself in my review said in typically overstated style that “Tobey Maguire has taken any doubts about his suitability for this role and pounded them into the ground with hammerblows from his genetically enhanced fists.” But y’know what? I was wrong. Tobey Maguire sucks as Spider-Man. The problem is that as an actor, he’s incredibly neutral. Look at him in The Ice Storm or The Cider House Rules or Wonder Boys or Spider-Man and you’ll notice that most of the time he’s wearing the same inert expression, slightly-lidded eyes and a half-smile. He tends to sit quietly while other people talk to him, slightly nodding his head every so often; he absorbs energy from other actors. Which works fine for Peter Parker, who’s supposed to be a quiet, bespectacled nerd. The problem is that Spider-Man isn’t. Spider-Man is the personality opposite of Peter Parker. Where Peter lacks confidence, Spider-Man is brave and smart and cool under pressure; where Peter is quiet, Spidey’s always cracking jokes. This, by the way, is the basic appeal of Spider-Man as a superhero. He’s not Superman, the icon of ultimate of power and morality; nor is he Batman, the human twisted by fate to drive himself to virtually superhuman effort. Spidey’s appeal comes from the fact that he’s a shy, nerdy loser who learns to release the incredibly cool person inside. The spider that bit Peter didn’t give him spider-wit, or spider-charm, or spider-confidence. That, as the Christmas cards and comic books tells us, was in him the whole time. So for a Spider-Man movie to truly kick ass, it has to grab that element, that fact that Spider-Man is the guy we’re interested in, the person we know we could be if we had the courage. That means giving him dialogue, giving him wisecracks, letting him come alive as a character and not just Peter Parker in a bodysuit. Which is where Maguire really falls down. The guy playing Spider-Man has to be physically expressive; he’s got to be able to act through that body-and-face-covering suit. He’s got to have intensity, a real pop in his sense of humour, some of that sarcastic-nerd stuff we saw from Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore. Tobey? It’s like he needs a winch to yank his features into anything more exercised than “half-bored-looking.” And, y’know, he’s just not all that funny a guy. He’s not a joke-cracker. I’m still going to Spider-Man 2, of course (though man, couldn’t they have called it The Amazing Spider-Man instead of the barfy Spider-Man 2?), and I expect to love it, having dreamed vividly since the ’70s of seeing Doctor Octopus in a movie. It looks like they’re stepping up and giving us some balls-out Spidey action, but y’know, I still have this bad feeling Spidey’s not quite gonna be the Spidey he could be, peppering Ock with insults to get him off his guard, making the jokes and coming alive in the suit. I hope I’m wrong. V
This week: Stephen Notley critiques the casting of Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man.