Yes, I'm Still Tobey Maguire - and Look at Me Now!

A lot of eyebrows were raised when Tobey Maguire was chosen to play Spider-Man in the film version of the comic, but it turns out that Maguire is the best thing in the movie, which opens this week in Israel

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Uri Klein
Uri Klein

In one of the most successful scenes in "Spider-Man," Sam Raimi's film version of the popular comics, which opens this week in Israel, Peter Parker, a high-school student who lives in Queens, wakes up one morning after having been bitten by a genetically altered spider and glances in the mirror. To his surprise, he discovers that his body has become muscular.

Raimi wisely does not give Peter's body an over-stylized look. If he had attached, say, the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the head of Tobey Maguire, who plays Peter Parker, the result would have been grotesque. After all, adolescent boys want to change, to mature, to realize their masculine self-image; but the change also induces anxiety. Because Raimi restrains himself and does not render Peter's physical transformation in an overly extreme manner, the brief moment when Peter discovers his new look in the mirror becomes a celebration of that transformation. That moment would not work with the same degree of charm and even wit, were it not for the particular look, a look of some complexity, that appears on Maguire's face at the sight of the masculine image reflected back at him. It's a look of both surprise and irony, which reflects total pleasure though also understandable panic at the overnight change, and it also expresses the desire to share the transformation with the whole world, yet at the same time, to conceal it from the world.

Above all, the expression on the face of Peter Parker - who until now has submissively accepted the fact that his classmates pick on him and that Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door, with whom he is secretly infatuated but who is apparently completely unaware of his existence, doesn't yet know the meaning of the change he has undergone and what the significance is of the power that the transformation gives him. In the meantime, though, he is willing to put aside the uncertainty he feels in favor of the excitement that courses through him. As he goes downstairs to join his aunt and uncle, whom he lives with, for breakfast, he does a sudden, rapid cartwheel, which seems to take him as much by surprise as it does us. The flip he does with his body encompasses the totality of the feeling of pleasure that the film has to offer: Not only does it express the pleasure of the character at the change he is undergoing, it also reflects the pleasure of the actor who is playing the character.

Throughout the scene of the discovery of the physical transformation, the feeling is that Tobey Maguire, the actor who is playing Peter Parker, is also looking at himself in the mirror. But whereas Peter is surprised at the new masculine image that is reflected back at him, Maguire observes the character and himself from the side and says to us: Yes, it's me, the same Tobey Maguire who played vulnerable and wounded youngsters in "The Ice Storm," "Ride with the Devil," "The Cider House Rules" and others; the same Tobey Maguire whose casting as Spider-Man generated a protest movement among the fans of the comic. Yes, the same Tobey Maguire - and look at me now!

Maguire has big eyes that are usually wide open in amazement, an expressive mouth that usually has an artificial and sometimes even a bit of a foolish smile, and a voice that grates like a fingernail on a blackboard. In most of his previous roles, he represented something slow, weary, lax, that seemed older than his age. His face was largely expressionless. There was something monotonous in his performances that was oddly phlegmatic, almost pathologically so. That's the reason his screen work frequently turned people off, though there was also something touching about the emotional impassivity he projected.

Maguire has usually played roles of youthful excess, but in the unattractive sense of the term. He seemed to be posing as an alternative to Lionardo DiCaprio and all the other actors since James Dean who have assumed the character of the adolescent as an alluring romantic victim, and there was something in the boldness that marked Maguire's willingness to take this route that revealed a certain fragility.

Questions of identity

A stage on the way to Spider-Man was Maguire's previous film, Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys," in which he played the part of a gifted student who becomes the protege - and object of envy - of a frustrated writer, played by Michael Douglas. In some senses, Maguire's performance in that movie was the continuation of all his previous roles as the youngster who copes with the presence, or absence, of a dominant father in his life (the treacherous father in Ang Lee's "Ride with the Devil," for example, or the doctor who adopts him and against whom he rebels in "The Cider House Rules," directed by Lasse Hallstrom). But for the first time, in Hanson's film, he seemed capable of taking an ironic view of himself and exposing the slyness of the passive-aggressive dimension of the characters he plays.

Even the homosexuality of the character was presented as a kind of defiance of the world that sought to exploit him and as a rebellion that had the goal of fashioning him an independent, separate identity. That tendency continues in "Spider-Man," and even if it is acted out in this film in a completely heterosexual context - his unrequited desire for Mary Jane is presented as the main motivation for his activity in the film - he is still dealing with questions of identity, growing up and masculine continuity. Whereas Superman fashioned himself a mature identity in the person of a reporter named Clark Kent, and Batman is the eccentric, mysterious billionaire Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is an adolescent. That is the main difference between him and his two glorious comic-book counterparts (I am ignoring here the recent television attempt to shape Superman, too, as a tormented, self-questioning adolescent).

Another difference is that whereas Superman and Batman did their thing in the mythological cities of Metropolis and Gotham City, respectively, Spider-Man operates in New York. But all three of these mythologies, along with many other films that dealt with divided, split masculine figures that undergo a transformation, are engaged with loss and the attempt to cope with it. Superman is an orphan who was cut off from his adoptive parents. Batman was a witness to the murder of his parents as a child. Spider-Man's parents died in an accident when he was a child and he was adopted by his uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and his aunt May (Rosemary Harris). In the course of the film, he will witness the murder of the beloved uncle, who is a symbolic substitute for his father (and who will utter in his presence the primary motto of the film: "With great power comes great responsibility").

Each of these three characters try to compensate for his loss by means of disguise and imposture that manifest large doses of the infantile and the perverse. Superman dons a colorful body garment with a large "S" emblazoned on it, Bruce Wayne covers his entire body and most of his face with a rubber coating (the very material is fraught with sadomasochistic implications), and Spider-Man is clothed in a red costume, which, like that of Batman, exposes only the bottom part of his face. So, in the most interesting moment in the film, Mary Jane kisses Peter, who is dressed up as Spider-Man and is hanging upside down from some sort of cornice of a skyscraper. The kiss between the two opposite-facing faces turns Spider-Man into a mere mouth for that moment, with all the sexual and psychoanalytical connotations that this fact entails.

Fathers and sons

Spider-Man, like Batman, invests his masculine identity with a symbolic essence that is borrowed from the animal world, though not necessarily a heroic or magnificent animal (Superman adopts an identity that is severed from a bestial connotation). Peter Parker combines adolescent and spider - an arachnid of which the major symbolic use in the cinema has been in a feminine context. Murderous heroines were described as "black widows" and women in the film noir genre were said to be weaving webs in which to catch the heroes of the films. True, the choice of a spider makes it possible for the creator of the comic, and not of the film, to involve the hero in many spectacular situations of climbing skyscrapers. At the same time, though, it signifies the fact that Peter Parker's identity is still fluid, undecided, in a process of emergence and formation. All this occurs as a result of the same loss that Peter shares with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne.

Peter Parker is the victim of a double and afterward even a triple loss. First, he loses his parents, then his uncle who was a substitute father, and in the film, he wages a battle against the person who, at first, seems to be the replacement for the two dead men: Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), an affluent, megalomaniac businessman and inventor, who is also the father of Harry (James Franco), Peter's best friend. In other words, the central intrigue (which develops, by the way, with surprisingly shoddy and at times downright embarrassing script sloppiness) deals with the question of the good father and the bad father, and plays it off against the question of the good son and the bad son.

The discussion of those two questions is at the center of all the American mythologies that have ever existed - from those invented by Mark Twain to those that continue to be fashioned by George Lucas in his "Star Wars" series - and in "Spider-Man," it is given a treatment that may not be brilliant or particularly original, but which continues the American preoccupation with the proper relationship between fathers and sons. One of the interesting aspects of the "Spider-Man" myth is the fact that not only Peter Parker undergoes a transformation. So does the bad guy, Norman Osborn, who, as a result of an experiment, becomes the Green Goblin, whose ability to soar in the air between the skyscrapers of New York is as great as that of Spider-Man.

The metamorphosis undergone by Peter Parker and Norman Osborn is not as acute as the one described by Franz Kafka in his novella, but it generates rather similar connotations and is presented as the shared fate of the fatherless adolescent and of the person who changes from his potential patron (Norman is deeply impressed by Peter's intellectual abilities, which exceed those of his son, and the film hints that he may adopt Peter as his ward) into his sworn enemy.

Within the framework of this situation, "Spider-Man" constructs a melodrama that gives rise to another version of the Cain and Abel myth, which has had a good many literary and cinematic adaptations, the best known of which is "East of Eden," the John Steinbeck novel of 1952 that was made into a film in 1955 by Elia Kazan. As in "East of Eden," the struggle gradually focuses on the relationship between two brothers who vie for the attention of the same father and compete for the love of the same woman. The fact that Peter and Harry are only friends makes no difference, of course, in this context. They are symbolic brothers in every respect.

Mysterious romance

An interesting dimension of the mythological transformation that takes place in the film version of "Spider-Man" is that whereas Peter Parker, as played by Maguire, is presented as a kind of contrast to adolescents as they were played by James Dean and his fragile successors, the character of Harry, Peter's friend, continues the tradition that Dean represented (incidentally, a few months ago, James Franco, who plays Harry, won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of James Dean in a television biography, which can occasionally be seen on the Hallmark cable channel). Kirsten Dunst, who plays Mary Jane, is all the girls we have ever seen on the big screen who were said to be from the wrong side of the tracks. The relationship that develops between her and Peter is almost the only aspect of Sam Raimi's film that charges it with a modicum, at least, of refined feeling.

As in the Superman and Batman mythologies, much of the emotional and romantic tension between Peter and Mary Jane derives from the fact that she does not identify Spider-Man in Peter. Or perhaps she does make the connection but is still not conscious of it or is not yet capable of being conscious of it and of accepting its implications. Raimi succeeds in translating this uncertainty into emotional hesitation that typifies the onset of every love story. The affair that develops in the course of the film between Peter and Mary Jane thus becomes a mystery that has to be resolved. Not only is this the most correct way to describe love - any love - it also underscores the major paradox that underlies Raimi's film: That what transpires on the ground is far more interesting, exciting and thrilling that what happens when both the film and its hero start flying through the air.

The majority of the scenes that show Spider-Man climbing up skyscrapers and flying between them suffer from a poverty of execution and, even more, from limitations of imagination. It's a pity, for example, that Raimi makes barely any use of the fact that "Spider-Man" is ostensibly set in a more realistic urban reality than either "Superman" or "Batman." Underlining this aspect of the myth could have lent the film a distinctive dimension of form, which is almost totally absent here. Much of the effectiveness of the cinematic versions of "Superman," "Batman" and additional mythologies that deal with male transformation (for example, the film versions of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" both as direct adaptations of Stevenson's novel and at the inspiration of the myth, such as Jerry Lewis' 1963 film, "The Nutty Professor") stems from the fact that at one of their levels, these films deal in the most direct manner with the work of the actor, depicting both its magic and the dangers it entails.

A certain tension has always existed between two styles of acting in the cinema: the traditional style, which advocates a form of disguise in order to hide the actor within the character he is playing; and the ostensibly contrasting style, which underscores the personality of the actor at the expense of the characters he portrays and enables him to demonstrate another variation of his familiar persona in each new film. There is a long and varied list of exponents of each style, and the best actors, from Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, fused the two styles to create a style of acting that is unique to the cinema. (I have noted only the names of male actors here, because I am discussing the subject in a male context, but the same phenomenon characterizes film actresses, from Bette Davis to Meryl Streep.)

"Spider-Man," like "Superman" and "Batman," deals totally with imposture and addresses also the motivation for the need of a "real" character to disappear into an invented one, and also with the price that this vanishing act entails. The film describes the work of the protagonist as deriving from a sense of loss and as being driven by an unrealized longing for recognition and love. The result is a split identity, an identity that is constantly on the brink of collapse. For this reason, myths like "Spider-Man" always have a dark, threatening side, which is even more pronounced in their cinematic versions. They deal at some level with schizophrenia, which, in its symbolic thrust, is common to both the character and the actor who plays the character.

Sam Raimi's film is not as dark as the first two films of the "Batman" series, which were directed by Tim Burton, but it has less of a smiling face than the "Superman" films, which were directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester. That is due in no small measure to the wise choice of Tobey Maguire to play Peter Parker. It is precisely the seemingly monotonous and unchanging quality that Maguire brings with him from one film to the next that enables him to succeed in expressing his awareness as an actor to the degree of madness that characterizes the situation in which his character finds himself. Something in his small smiles and in the furtive glances he casts in every direction says that he understands the character's excitement at the transformation that is being undergone and that he identifies with the panic that grips the character as a result.

Maguire's performance consists entirely of dualities. On the one hand, he is careful not to discard the persona we are familiar with from his earlier films, while at the same time, he lets that persona fly freely in the space of the imagination, of fantasy and above all, of desire. Like the character he plays in "Spider-Man," who must cope with the implications of the power he has been given, Tobey Maguire shows throughout the film that he is aware of the pleasure that accompanies the particular power that he has been given as an actor, but also to the limits of that power and its latent dangers.