Spider-Man confidential

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      LOS ANGELES–It's possible that Spider-Man needed Tobey Maguire more than Maguire needed the movie franchise. When he took on the role in 2002, he was 25 and had already starred in three acclaimed films: Pleasantville, Wonder Boys, and The Cider House Rules. Then, between the first and second installments of the Spider-Man series, he took on the role of a jockey in best-picture Oscar nominee Seabiscuit. Although it would appear that he could have carved out a successful career without taking the job, Marvel Entertainment's Avi Arad and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi knew they needed a low-key actor who could play someone who really didn't want to be a hero, and Maguire was the perfect fit.

      It was clear that Spider-Man would be a hit with comic-book fans and people who like action movies. However, the fact that the first two films in the franchise are the only two films based on comic books to sit on the top-10 all-time box-office list is an indication that the franchise is drawing from groups other than committed fans. Maguire's likability is probably one reason, and Peter Parker's relationship with Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst, could be another.

      In fact, the third episode, Spider-Man 3, which opens next Friday (May 4), seems, at times, like a small relationship drama wrapped inside a $200-million action film. As the film begins, Parker is overcome with happiness. He has confided to Mary Jane that he is Spider-Man's alter ego and Spider-Man has become New York's favourite hero. He assumes that everyone will live happily ever after. However, Mary Jane begins to question his commitment to the relationship when she is fired from her job in a Broadway musical. She looks for support from Parker and discovers that he's too wrapped up in his own adventures to be responsive to her needs. While he is off battling the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and the Green Goblin (James Franco) and a dark side of his own personality, she begins to consider a life without him.

      The bad news for fans of Maguire and Dunst and their on-screen relationship is that they could be missing from action after this installment. Both actors admit to reporters at a Los Angeles hotel that they will not return if Raimi leaves to do other movies, including a rumoured job as director of New Line's The Hobbit. Maguire, who fought back from a Seabiscuit injury to reclaim the role from an in-the-wings Jake Gyllenhaal prior to Spider-Man 2, says he is unsure if he will sign on for the three future episodes that Arad and his Sony Pictures partners have on the drawing board.

      "If there was a great story there and something interesting for him to do and Sam was involved and the right cast was in place, I might consider it," Maguire says. "If Sam isn't there? Then no. I think early on and also through [episodes] one and two, I felt I would do three and that would be enough. I am not saying I will do a fourth one at all, but we will see what happens. I just want to do good films with good people. I have no specific path that I am on."

      Maguire does admit that he, like Parker, is different than when he was hired for the part six years ago. But he says that unlike the character he plays, the fame has not gone to his head.

      "I am sure that I have changed over the last six years," he says. "I am not quite sure what the change has been, whether it was the movies or just growing up. I think Peter and I react differently to the fame aspect of it. He is really kind of loving it and bathing in it and getting a sense of arrogance and self-importance. I enjoyed playing that."

      Having established a career prior to donning the Spider-Man suit, Maguire probably has fewer concerns about the future than most actors who have played superheroes. He took a small role in last year's The Good German and has The Quiet Man, a comedy about a mute man who wants to be an orchestra conductor, coming out later this year. He says that he feels as long as he is being sent scripts, he can control his professional identity.

      "I have opportunities to do other kinds of movies. I am identified with this film and with this character, and I don't see that going away anytime soon. I am not fighting that or resisting that. As long as I can make other movies, I am fine with that."

      Maguire is happy with the story in Spider-Man 3, one that sees both Parker and Spider-Man exploring their dark side after a mysterious substance creates a black version of the traditional red suit. He says that changing Parker from the affable character of previous movies to a selfish jerk required a lot of work, but it was worth it.

      "I felt that this movie was definitely the continuing story of Peter and the other characters but that we were exploring new territories for the characters and finding a new side to Peter. It's something kind of unexpected to see in terms of the way Peter behaves. It was a lot of work for Sam and me to go over it and discuss the right tone for that part of the movie, but it was exciting to venture into other areas."

      Maguire's ascension from a pack of young actors seeking fame to becoming a star began slowly. At 18, his was just another postpubescent face in the crowd in the Vancouver-shot This Boy's Life, which launched the career of his friend Leonardo DiCaprio. He had personal struggles after his parents divorced when he was three, and he lived with relatives before striking out on his own after dropping out of Grade 10. He says that although there were some tough times, he has few complaints.

      "I was fortunate enough to find different people along the way, people who helped me when times were down. I didn't want to be a victim or kind of wallow in things. I wanted to move forward. I was pretty ambitious and thought I had a pretty good vision and imagination for my life. People were telling me, 'You are driving the vehicle of your life. You are the master of your own destiny, in a sense, so do whatever you want to do.'"

      Although he may walk away from Spider-Man after this film, Maguire is aware of the effect that it will have on generations of fans. He takes the obligations of playing a hero seriously.

      "I love kids and I love interacting with them, but it is a little confusing because I want to take the lead from parents. But sometimes parents will explain that I am an actor and sometimes they want to keep the illusion, particularly if the children are younger. Earlier [in the series], when I was asked by a child how I crawled up the walls, I said: 'We took a building and put it on its back.' The kid was really bummed out. It ended up being a sweet thing, but for a while I felt really bad with it."