There Is Only One Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire
“Who am I? You sure you want to know?”
You might not remember that the 2002 Spider-Man opens with voice-over narration from Tobey Maguire. In fact, all three films in Sam Raimi’s superhero trilogy start this way. “The story of my life is not for the faint of heart,” Maguire reads. “If somebody told you I was just your average, ordinary guy, not a care in the world…then somebody lied.”
Can you imagine a Marvel movie being so sentimental? No record scratch. No fourth-wall-breaking rewind that reveals we’re watching some cheesy movie-within-a-movie. And when Peter Parker appears onscreen, he’s not a super-chiseled movie star hiding behind a pair of glasses. He doesn’t grind rails on his cool skateboard or exchange wisecracks with his lovable sidekick. He’s just Peter Parker–a total dweeb. Even the school bus driver bullies him.
With No Way Home out in theaters later this week (I’ve seen it–my lips are sealed), we’ve officially left the era of Spider-Man and entered the strange new world of Spider-Men. This isn't even just a comment on the rumor that there are, allegedly, three wall-crawling superheroes from Queens in Marvel's latest film. (Though it is, partly.) Between Andrew Garfield’s ill-fated Amazing Spider-Man trilogy, Into the Spider-Verse, Insomniac’s Spider-Man PS4, and all the other big-budget Spider-Man stories in video games and comics right now, the overall tally of web-slingers now mirrors the population of a small island.
And sure, there have been several good Spider-Men since 2002 (the gang in Spider-Verse especially). But while I firmly believe “there’s a hero in all of us,” only one Spider-Man from the past 20 years has contained the necessary combination of sincerity and dopeyness to make me believe that a regular person can fly…or swing.
When you look back at the original Spider-Man, it’s actually pretty astonishing to see how much Maguire commits to this idea of Peter Parker being a complete loser. Especially by Marvel standards–where every line is a lightning-fast quip, every actor doing their best Robert Downey Jr. impression–the actor's in a league of his own. And not in a cool way. He mumbles, he doubles back, he spends too much time reaching for the right thing to say, and when he finally says it, it comes out all wrong.
I mean, who could forget this line? “The great thing about MJ is…When you look in her eyes and she's looking back in yours...everything...feels...not quite normal…” Unlike Garfield’s dark and dreamy take on Peter Parker, Maguire’s Peter can barely talk to a lady so much as sweep her off her feet. He fumbles around Mary Jane, and it’s not until he quite literally saves her life that Peter gets a chance with her. Though, in the end, he’s still not savvy enough to make the job and the relationship work at the same time.
Maguire seems oddly comfortable in the suit, though. This comes as a major surprise, especially considering that the actor looks about as much like a blockbuster superhero as Rick Moranis. It’s said that Maguire sealed the deal for the role by self-submitting a tape to Sony execs of himself, shirtless, beating up bad guys. If you’ve seen the clip, you know that there’s something legitimately enthralling about a silent Maguire, drenched in rain, kicking the shit out a gang of thugs. That sensation is heightened by his full-send commitment to being a real human being–something that feels rare in today’s superficial superhero movie machine.
It's also not just his playing of Peter Parker as a loser that made Tobey Maguire the quintessential Spider-Man. (Though it’s definitely inspired quite a few memes.) Maguire is so distinctive because he’s so un-superhero in general. He’s like Michael Keaton in Burton’s Batman or Christopher Reeve in Superman. He's unimposing, and somehow, uses that as a super power. You can’t say the same about Tom Holland, who is built like a professional soccer player, can actually do backflips, and is about as unassuming onscreen as an air horn.
For Maguire’s Parker, even at the height of his powers, he never abandons that dopey look on his face. When a building-sized wall falls on his back and he locks eyes with Mary Jane at the end of Spider-Man, he doesn’t have some iconic one-liner to deliver. He’s so smitten he can barely do more than smile. “This is really heavy.” Oh, Peter.
If I had to guess why even our most kid-friendly blockbuster superhero movies have become so obsessed with self-aware humor, I'd go with cynicism. We just had less of it in 2002. (And 2004 and 2007, when Maguire's other installments arrived.) You can barely get through a minute of a Marvel film without a jab of sarcasm, some too-witty comment about how silly it is to be saving the world in a sparkly costume. Not to mention the irony that the entire Marvel universe is situated around the idea that a narcissistic, mega-rich arms dealer can save the world, while Raimi’s Spider-Man films are all about the opposite: a working-class hero stopping powerful men from creating weapons of mass destruction. (I can’t claim that observation as my own. You can thank my podcast co-host for that one.)
Because it, itself, is cynical, the internet has, in the years since their release, proven pretty comprehensively that the Raimi Spider-Man movies are silly as hell. But take a look at Maguire’s performance again and see what happens when an actor fully commits to the bit. He understands the assignment; he’s a goofy little nerd with a heart of gold, and we love him for it. It’s the reason why no other superhero moment will ever reach the magnificent train sequence in Spider-Man 2, why the (rumored) return of Tobey Maguire has thrown the entire internet into madness for two whole years. Remember sincerity?
“Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words. With great power, comes great responsibility. This is my gift, my curse.” Who is Spider-Man? You already know.
From: Esquire US