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Swing Time

What a costume drama! All the superheroics behind Spider-Man’s leap to the big screen.

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Oh, the irony. It’s taken more than a decade for Marvel Comics and Columbia Pictures to steer their roughly $100 million superhero epic Spider-Man toward the big screen, in large part because of convoluted legal battles over film rights to the iconic character. Yet here it is, April 2001 on the movie’s frenetic Manhattan set, and where does our protagonist find himself? Getting hassled by the law.

It’s a classic Spidey moment: The scene calls for the webslinger to swoop to the rescue as fire rips through an Upper East Side apartment building, only to have the NYPD come gunning for him, misguidedly convinced he’s a public menace. And right now, director Sam Raimi is dealing with a classic moment specific to his own line of work: He’s asking a crowd of skeptical extras to imagine that a bit of Day-Glo duct tape slapped onto the end of a raised 10-foot pole is actually Spider-Man swinging overhead. Anything to provide a focal point. Yet there’s also some reality behind the illusion. As crew-generated flames shoot from the building’s windows, a couple of fire marshals perched on a nearby craft-services cooler discuss whether the ancient wooden window frames might ignite, spelling genuine trouble.

Meanwhile, Raimi is determined to make himself available as an actors’ director, not just as a filmmaker with pyrotechnics and effects logistics on the brain. He gives special attention to coaching a day player whose baby is supposed to be trapped in the blaze. ”Mama, it’s all in the eyes,” he says through a megaphone as a crane-hoisted camera zooms in tight on her face. ”You’re quietly praying. Growing intensity. ‘Why aren’t they coming out? Why aren’t they coming out?”’

Never fear—this morning’s filming also has Tobey Maguire, who’s starring as Spider-Man, striding into a shot with a prop baby cradled in his arms. Up close, the actor’s signature red-and-blue, web-latticed costume looks like a scaly, funkadelic Body Glove. (Unique as the getup appears to be, it’s actually one of 23 made for the production, at a cost of up to $100,000 apiece. Four would ultimately wind up stolen.) After he hands off the plastic peanut to its grateful mother, a cop busts out with an urgent ”Don’t let him get away!” before a mock-leaping Maguire exits stage right. In the finished scene, digital effects will give the star’s hops some much-needed lift, catapulting him up the face of the building. Of course, this is just one of the hundreds of elaborate F/X shots that visual-effects designer John Dykstra (Star Wars) and the team back at Sony Pictures Imageworks will be inserting into the movie—covering everything from Spider-Man’s aerial acrobatics to an explosively photo-realist Times Square battle sequence. No wonder Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin says, ”In a way it was a good thing that the movie didn’t happen for 10 years, because the technology really didn’t exist before.”

With a time-out called for another setup, Maguire takes a seat as a wardrobe person pries the oversize, nearly opaque lenses out of his mask. Before heading off the set for the break, Maguire dons a bulky hooded robe, not unlike a boxer entering the ring. The intent, one gathers, is to thwart onlookers who might have thoughts of snapping photos and posting them on the Internet. Security overkill? Tell that to the guy who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Spidey’s costume closet.