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Swing Time: Inside Spider-Man's Leap to the Big Screen

What a costume drama! All the superheroics behind Spider-Man’s first big-screen outing

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EW

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.

For longer than the executives at Marvel probably care to remember, Spider-Man was the best-known comic-book hero never to make the move to the big screen (though he did land on TV as the star of several animated shows, as well as a live-action 1978 series that quickly flopped). In comics-industry terms, the character is a superstar; Marvel currently publishes four different monthly Spider-Man titles that together sell as many as 500,000 copies, second only to the company’s chart-topping X-Men books.

And yet, looking at Marvel’s overall production slate, Spider-Man seems to be arriving in theaters more as part of the herd than as leader of the pack: X-Men 2 is due next year, as are The Hulk and Daredevil. “It’s come together so incredibly,” says 79-year-old former Marvel editor-in-chief and chairman emeritus Stan Lee, who co-created Spider-Man with artist Steve Ditko in 1962. “Virtually every single important character that Marvel has is being prepped as a movie somewhere — and even some that are considered not that important.”

But the Marvel production picture was drastically different back in 1985, when the Spider-Man rights were licensed to B-movie factory the Cannon Group for a paltry reported $250,000. And that wasn’t the worst of it; by the mid-’90s, piecemeal sublicensing had instigated a six-year legal free-for-all — variously involving Sony, MGM, Viacom, and others — over who should and would get to put the character in a movie. “It was like we had to hide behind a curtain, because there were never good things to talk about,” says Marvel Studios president and CEO Avi Arad, who inherited the rights tangle when he took charge of the company’s Hollywood dealings in 1993.

The Spider-Man case was finally settled by MGM, Sony, and Marvel in early 1999, and a court turned down Viacom’s claims for TV rights shortly thereafter. Marvel and Sony (Columbia Pictures’ parent company) entered into a joint partnership on the franchise, with Marvel reportedly receiving an up-front fee of between $10 million and $15 million from the studio. Still, the entire mess had famously cost Marvel a chance to have James Cameron helm the project. Jurassic Park coscripter David Koepp ultimately crafted the Spider-Man screenplay using Cameron’s extended treatment as a springboard. For a time, the production even pursued Cameron’s Batman-esque idea of building the story around not one but two villains. Classic Spidey baddies Doctor Octopus and the Sandman were both tossed around during development, a process that saw Con Air writer Scott Rosenberg also take a pass at the script.

As it turns out, Raimi and Koepp adhered even more closely to Spider-Man’s comic-book story lines than Cameron had planned to. The movie faithfully recounts the character’s origin, in which awkward teen Peter Parker gains amazing powers after suffering a freak spider bite. While struggling to make sense of the havoc this wreaks on his life — not to mention trying to conceal his dual nature from the world — Peter forms a bond with Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a tech-industry mogul who’s also got something to hide: He’s the Green Goblin, a high-flying supervillain maniacally bent on Spider-Man’s destruction.

At one point, it seemed as if half of young Hollywood was being eyed to don Spidey’s suit. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor, Chris Klein, and Wes Bentley are all said to have been considered; Columbia’s reported choice was Heath Ledger, who had made A Knight’s Tale for the studio. But when Raimi’s wife, Gillian, turned the director on to Maguire’s deftly unassuming performance in The Cider House Rules, the actor struck him as perfect for Parker. “The strength of Spider-Man is that Peter is a character we identify with as a normal middle-class kid,” Raimi says. “We needed someone who was completely vulnerable and lived with a certain amount of doubt and angst. And Tobey was so grounded and subtle, I simply believed him.”

In a somewhat unusual move for an actor with such a solid resume, Maguire tested for the role — reluctantly at the outset, but gamely when it mattered most, tackling one alley-fight scene sans shirt to prove that he looked the part. “I was definitely in shape and feeling pretty athletic throughout the filming,” says the 26-year-old actor, a yoga enthusiast who added a rigorous cross-training program to his five-month regimen during the shoot. “Well, until I got next to a stuntman who’d been a gymnast and a dancer his whole life, and could do triple backflips. And you’re like, ‘Okay, maybe I’m not all that athletic.'” (In the end, both Maguire and his stand-ins filled out the form-fitting Spider-Man costumes by suiting up in T-shirts lined with pec- and delt-enhancing implants.)

“The studio was thinking of somebody who had a sexier public appearance,” Raimi says. “Someone who had done successful action films before. It was a healthy reticence on their part. But once they saw the screen test, they understood.” Apparently so: While Columbia paid Maguire $4 million for Spider-Man, he’s said to have a contract that will boost that figure to $12 million for the sequel (a film for which Sony is already confidently looking at early-2003 production start).

The focus on nailing Spider-Man’s casting was so great that a decision on the film’s female lead got back-burnered. While Maguire was being tested, Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) and Alicia Witt (Urban Legend) were both discussed for the part of Spidey/Peter’s love interest, Mary Jane Watson. Raimi also interviewed Kirsten Dunst, then on a roll with The Virgin Suicides and Bring It On. The 19-year-old actress laughs when she recalls how much she needed to learn about the cult of Spider-Man. Initially, she says, she mistakenly confused “M.J.” with Gwen Stacy, Peter’s other great love from the comic books and a character not featured in the film. “I met with Sam, and I was flipping through comics that were on his desk while I was waiting,” Dunst says. “I hadn’t been told anything about the role, so I saw Gwen Stacy and I was like, ‘I could totally play her! She’s just this blond girl. Perfect!’ And then I realized, ‘Oh, no, Mary Jane is the girl with the red hair….'”

Dunst didn’t formally audition until just days before shooting was to start. With the clock ticking, Raimi and Ziskin bundled a flu-ish Maguire onto a plane to read with Dunst in Berlin, where she was shooting The Cat’s Meow. The filmmakers say it was chemistry, not urgency, that made the call clear. To be sure, it was hard to miss all the reports that Maguire and Dunst were romantically involved during the shoot — stories that the production’s coy sidestepping did little to stifle. (Both actors deny the rumors, insisting they are just friends.)

Not that Spider-Man‘s visibility has needed much goosing. Yet, as big as the movie promised to be before even a single frame was shot, one would think that the line of interested performers might have been shorter. This is, after all, a story in which the hero and his nemesis wear masks that make them unrecognizable. Even on the set, telling Maguire and a stunt double apart could be tricky. “You literally can’t see eyes,” says Dafoe of the movie’s costumes. “You can’t see a mouth.”

Even so, the actors welcomed the novelty. “Getting the character to communicate within this suit becomes about body language and little moments,” Maguire says, noting that costume designer James Acheson briefly considered putting him in a mask that would have been transparent at certain angles. “It was a challenge to keep the human being alive within the superhero throughout the movie.” At times, though, the bigger challenge for Maguire was probably keeping his bladder in check until he could peel off that blasted costume. “Obviously you don’t want to see zippers on the suit,” he says. “So at first they were using zippers that had no [handle] — they would thread it with a safety pin and zip it up. And I finally said, ‘No way. I need a handle.’ But it didn’t matter, because the zipper would break half the time, and they’d literally have to stitch the suit up. I was in that thing.”

Dafoe addresses the costume-versus-craft issue with a shrug. “The mask can be a limitation, but you just deal with it,” says the actor, who was up for the Green Goblin role along with John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage. “You may lose your face, but you do get a glider, you know?” Dafoe adds, referring to the surfboard/mechanical-bull hybrid his character rides. “You do get superhuman strength and pumpkin bombs and all this other stuff to express yourself with.”

Not surprisingly, this meant more than a few damsel-in-distress bits for Dunst, who at one point feared for her front teeth while performing a stunt that involved dropping face-first toward a reproduction of New York City’s Roosevelt Island tram. “Sam told me at my screen test, ‘You know, young lady, you’re going to be doing a lot of stunts in this movie. You up for it?’ And he has such a cute way of talking, how could you say no? ‘Yeah, I’m up for everything, Sam. You can hang me here, hang me there…'” Dunst trails off, then giggles. “But there was a lot more hanging than I thought there’d be.”

Several weeks after the New York shoot, on a soundstage on the Sony lot in Culver City, Calif., Raimi is again doing double duty, overseeing both the intimate and the larger-than-life. Decked out, as always, in a suit and tie — his quaint nod to old-school filmmakers like Hitchcock and Ford — the director shuttles back and forth between a stunt sequence with Dunst and a scene wherein the newly empowered Maguire tests out his webshooting abilities. Targeting some of the teen detritus filling Peter Parker’s bedroom, Maguire snaps his arm forward, flicks a couple of fingers back toward his palm, and fires, aiming for a toy robot but hitting a Dr. Pepper can instead. (This will be the end result anyway, once his computer-generated webs are added to the shot.) “Now this time, after you miss the robot,” Raimi calls out, “look at it like ‘That f—ing robot!’ All right? Let’s give it another shot, gentlemen.”

Clearly, it’s this latter part of today’s workload that has Raimi jazzed. Maybe it’s the fact that this particular detail has been a major bone of contention with the comic’s rabid fans, since the movie has broken with its source material by giving Peter organically generated webbing. (In the comics, he brews up his webs in a home lab, then loads the miracle goop into mechanical webshooters of his own design.) Typical Internet postings argue that Peter is being robbed of his well-established science-nerd ingenuity, as well as a heroic resourcefulness that’s got nothing to do with that bug bite. The filmmakers have politely countered that casting Parker as both a superhero and a supergenius would stretch credibility too far. And besides, they say, as a human arachnid, he logically should be endowed with a spider’s most astounding natural ability.

Really, though, Raimi’s immersion in the scene seems to have everything to do with his ready admission that it’s Peter Parker’s life out of costume that has always fascinated him most about the Spider-Man saga. “As a child,” says the 42-year-old filmmaker, “the thing that drew me to Spider-Man wasn’t just watching Peter become a hero and identifying with that, but also identifying with his desire to be noticed by the young ladies at school, and his rejections. The human story has always been the strength of the comic.”

Indeed, when Spider-Man debuted 40 years ago, the character revolutionized the industry; for the first time, a superhero was depicted as an extraordinary figure who nevertheless struggled with everyday anxieties. Rival publisher DC’s heroes suddenly seemed a little above-it-all by comparison. Superman tended to get more bummed out by Kryptonite than by anything going on in Clark Kent’s life, while Batman always had those fabulous Bruce Wayne resources to fall back on when the superheroics got tough. Thanks to Peter Parker’s famous angst, it has long since become a comics staple to tether superheroes to reality by giving them complex personal lives. “Marvel heroes lend themselves to the screen because we focus on the individual more than the costume,” Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada says. “They’re real people first.”

While this sort of thinking jibed with Raimi’s own, he didn’t appear to be on Columbia’s shortlist of potential directors. Tim Burton, Chris Columbus, and David Fincher were reported to be top candidates. And what, for instance, might a Fincher Spider-Man have looked like? “I wanted to do the character’s genesis only as an operatic sequence at the beginning,” Fincher says, explaining that his real interest was in adapting the comic’s famed early-’70s “Death of Gwen Stacy” story line, in which the character is killed in an encounter with the Green Goblin. “It would be ‘Okay, here’s five minutes of how he became Spider-Man, and then you get deposited into the movie.’ But [the studio] wanted the origin story.”

Fanboy-at-heart Raimi was positively fidgeting to give it to them. Chuckling, he recalls catching the news reports on Spider-Man after his initial meeting with Columbia: “I never saw my name, and I thought, ‘Aw, crap.’ I didn’t think they would take a chance on me, because I’m known for a stranger type of smaller film.”

Still, several of those films were also fairly apt. Although Raimi’s last few outings — A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, and The Gift — have been comparatively polished, he’s more often associated with his microbudgeted first feature, the schlock horror celebration The Evil Dead. The film won Raimi a hardcore following, which he built on with a pair of sequels (not to mention TV’s Hercules and Xena series, on which he served as executive producer). Along the way, he also co-wrote and directed 1990’s Darkman, a masked-avenger flick starring Liam Neeson that had all the trappings of a contemporary comic, even if it wasn’t actually based on one. (In fact, Marvel briefly published a Darkman title after the movie became a modest hit.)

“I’m shocked Sam didn’t do something like Spider-Man before now, because Darkman was a perfect experiment,” says Raimi’s longtime pal and Evil Dead coconspirator, actor Bruce Campbell, who cameos in the film as a wrestling announcer who comes up with the name the Amazing Spider-Man. “He loves this milieu. We were shooting this sequence, and he looks over to me and goes, ‘You know, we’re doing the same gags as the Super-8 crap we used to do in high school. We just have more money.'”

Back on the fire-rescue set, Maguire has popped his bug-eye lenses again — this time, worried that he might otherwise frighten the real baby who’s been brought in for close-ups. The camera crane hovers precipitously close to the little one’s face, but everyone seems to feel secure under Raimi’s charge. Soon enough, the baby is reaching out a tiny hand to play with Maguire’s mask, transfixed. So much for the actor’s concern about scarring the poor thing for life.

Over on the sidelines, it’s time for a superhero meet-and-greet. A crew member scoots his towheaded youngster toward Cirque du Soleil veteran-turned-Maguire double Mark Aaron Wagner. The boy looks to be all of 5, and shakes the stuntman’s hand hesitantly, visibly awestruck. It seems a safe bet that Wagner is grinning behind that scarlet mask. “Now you’ve met the real Spidey,” he says.

For everything it’s taken to get Spider-Man to this point, Raimi and company are hoping that audiences leave theaters May 3 feeling the same way.

Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen