”Spider-Man” doesn’t begin filming until January, but already fans of the wall crawler are spinning out of control on the Web over the casting of Tobey Maguire (”The Cider House Rules”) in the title role. At Spidermanhype, a message board is glumly labeled ”Will Maguire’s Signing Doom the Franchise?” while the host of Casting Call: Spider-Man! crows that director Sam Raimi (”A Simple Plan” and ”The Gift,” due next month) has made the only right choice. As for Maguire, he says he couldn’t care less about the online feuding. ”I look forward to constantly changing people’s opinion of me,” shrugs the 25 year old actor. ”I think that’s the fun of it.”
But Maguire, whose most notable films (”Pleasantville” and the currently rereleased ”Wonder Boys”) have been bigger hits with critics than with audiences, could discover that squeezing into a superhero leotard isn’t as easy as it looks. Christopher Reeve, who made four big screen appearances as Superman from 1978 to 1987, became so identified with the heroic Man of Steel that audiences rejected him in dramas like ”Deathtrap” and ”Monsignor.” And ”ER” heartthrob George Clooney saw his big screen career hit a rough patch after he played the Caped Crusader in 1997’s critical and box office disappointment ”Batman & Robin.” When his next film, ”The Peacemaker,” also flopped, many questioned whether Clooney had enough star power to carry a big budget movie.
But Maguire, who reportedly beat out Freddie Prinze Jr., and Jude Law (”The Talented Mr. Ripley”) to play Peter Parker/ Spider Man, can sidestep any such career Kryptonite with a little business savvy. ”Spider-Man” — which Columbia Pictures has scheduled for a May 2002 release — is expected to gross more than $100 million due to the name recognition of the character alone. And Maguire’s low profile may actually be a plus in playing Spidey. Unlike Clooney, who was under pressure to live up to his resident hunk status on the top rated ”ER,” the less well known Maguire faces no such expectations. ”He has no baggage and nothing to be ashamed of,” says casting director Mary Jo Slater. ”So any buzz, negative or positive, is good because it stirs peoples’ awareness.”
And though some Spidey fans have grumbled that Maguire has mainly played soulful geeks, his reputation for starring in prestige films like 1997’s ”The Ice Storm” makes him a smarter choice than some of his hunkier competition. His credentials lend gravitas to the comic book adaptation and could draw in viewers who might not otherwise have seen the movie. Plus, Maguire has proven he has the acting chops to wrestle with Spider Man’s inner turmoil. Though little is known about the movie’s plot, rumor has it that the story will explore the teenage Parker’s transformation following a bite from a radioactive spider. ”He’s not in the milieu of the normal Teen Beat heartthrob kind of guy,” says Slater. ”He’s able to delve into character, and this way Spider Man becomes the star of the movie.”
So what about the backlash from Spider Man fans who’ve dismissed Maguire as everything from too old, too young, too wimpy, too nice, and too small to play Peter Parker? ”After two minutes on screen, they’ll forget all about it,” predicts Robert Bucksbaum, president of ReelSource, who notes that ”Interview with A Vampire” author Anne Rice changed her mind about Tom Cruise’s casting as Lestat after seeing his performance in the 1994 adaptation. In this case, Spider Man creator Stan Lee has no problems with Maguire, whom he met during the casting process. A spokesperson for Lee tells EW.com that the former Marvel Comics writer ”thinks Maguire will do a fine job” in the role.
If that still doesn’t sway disgruntled fans, at least it isn’t likely to slow down ticket sales. Loyal Spidey enthusiasts will probably be too curious to skip opening weekend. But in the event that ”Spider-Man” tanks, Maguire has nothing to worry about. ”Even with a hit like ‘X-Men,’ people don’t know who played the characters,” says Bucksbaum. ”And no one remembers who starred in the flops, like ‘Spawn.”’ Don’t tell that to Michael Jai White.