Say what you will against the Hollywood event film, and you can say it twice about Spider-Man. Twice, because this movie has been so successfully pre-sold, mall-booked, cross-marketed and revenue-streamed that Columbia Pictures confidently scheduled Spider-Man 2 before it ever let an audience see the first. Violent? The fight scenes in this picture must have cost a hundred Foley artists a hundred nights in the recording studio, banging away at a hundred anvils. Crass? The product placements are literally as big as Times Square. Crude? The camera is perpetually drawn, as if by animal magnetism, to the cleavage of Kirsten Dunst, the better to examine two of her character’s few defining features. It is not enough to say that Spider-Man is a big movie. It is a big, big movie.
And Spider-Man is also a small movie, which hangs from the thin, very odd thread of its lead actor, Tobey Maguire. A little late in life, though not implausibly so, Maguire plays high school senior Peter Parker: the smart, shy, artistic, dateless victim of his graduating class, the kid voted Most Likely Not to Be Voted Anything, who happens to get bitten by a mutant spider and so turns into–what? A superhero? More like a freak. As conceived for comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was the first really alienated guy to swoop around fighting crime in a funny outfit. His strange powers made this teenage outsider into even more of an outsider–and Spider-Man the movie stays true to that idea, thanks mostly to Maguire.
Consider his voice, first of all: a nasal tenor instrument, with which he’s in no hurry to say anything. Maguire doesn’t cultivate a stammer, as did James Stewart (whom he occasionally calls to mind), but he does give a consistent impression of letting his words trail a beat or so behind his thoughts. You might recall his doing so in The Ice Storm (in which, for my money, he was the film’s one point of contact with reality), or in The Cider House Rules (where he was used for his air of moping fragility, yet somehow held his own against Michael Caine), or yet again in Wonder Boys (where Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. kept competing to see which one could play more broadly, and Maguire very quietly and subtly took control of the movie). It’s characteristic of him that in one of his better moments in Spider-Man, he says nothing at all. “Just got contacts?” asks MJ (Dunst), the girl of Peter Parker’s dreams, when she sees he’s no longer wearing glasses. The question sounds casual, but the occasion is charged; MJ has noticed for the first time the color of Peter’s eyes (spider-power has corrected his vision), and he’s just been granted his first chance to look into hers. Maguire considers her question, pauses as if a dozen possibilities were crowding his head and then settles on a reply: He grins. It must be the right choice. At the screening I attended, the audience answered his smile with laughter.
Maguire can get that effect because he generates a time zone of his own around his body, and also because that body is a mismatch not only for its surroundings but for itself. The carriage is stiff. The smile, when granted, loops goofily up and down the long face. The features of that face don’t quite come together. Although the assertive cleft chin might well belong to a superhero–or a movie star–it cohabitates a bit uncomfortably with rosebud lips, a delicate nose and eyes whose natural tendency is to watch for trouble. The impression, as a whole, is one of pleasant ungainliness–which may be why Maguire seems as surprised as the audience to discover what’s happened to his musculature. When he awakens after the spider bite, this 98-pound weakling finds that his torso can bulge and ripple, just like something from an old Charles Atlas ad.