Why Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man/Peter Parker is So Great
If you’ve ever met me (which I’m sure you haven’t), you know that I’m a huge fan of the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. In my opinion, they were and are fantastic films that pushed superheroes into the mainstream and set the tone for other superhero movies to follow.
However, now that we are well into the (second) cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man series, it’s become a valid question to ask: Which Spider-Man films are the best? Which director wrote the best Spider-Man, and which actor portrayed the character the best? And by now, I’m sure you already know exactly who I think takes the proverbial cake: Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire, respectively.
In typical Wilcox Arcade (and Comics) fashion, I can’t just write an opinion within the first two paragraphs and leave it unexplained. So, because I think Tobey Maguire is so awesome and because I have little to no life whatsoever, I’m gonna write an overly long article about it.
I don’t know why you people read this garbage.
Oh, and just as a brief note, I am not comparing and contrasting Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man to Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland, because A) I wasn’t personally invested in the Webb/Garfield films enough to bother re-watching them, and B) I haven’t seen Spider-Man Homecoming yet and it’s been ages since I watched Civil War. So with that in mind, I’m rating the Raimi/Maguire portrayal of Spider-Man on its own merits. Outside of a few inconspicuous references, there will be no blatant mention of Garfield or Holland.
So without a further ado, here’s some crud to read about Tobey Maguire.
I. In the original trilogy, Peter Parker was a socially awkward nerd who was genuinely bullied.
Oh, for sure. Parker was a geek, a nerd, a bookworm—a total loser who everyone picked on. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was so incredibly awkward that I had no problem whatsoever believing he was a nerd—even without arbitrary proof like, say, building webshooters. Peter didn’t have to prove it, because it was shown to us through his interactions with others.
Within just the first few minutes of the first film, we already see everyone treating Peter like dirt. He misses the bus and has to chase after it, so what does everyone do? They laugh. Laugh their heads off. Heck, even the bus driver gets a kick out of poor Parker’s misery. And when Mary Jane tells the bus driver to stop, everyone lets out a collective “Awww,” because it’s just that fun to pick on nerdy Peter Parker. And when he gets on the bus, even the geeky girl refuses to let Peter sit by her. Like I said, it has been 100 percent proven that our poor protagonist Peter Parker (alliteration, people) is a sorry nerd who gets bullied relentlessly. This is true to the comics, and Raimi’s directing and Maguire’s quiet, geeky aura makes this oh-so evident. On top of that, Peter never stands up to bullies. (That is, until he gets his powers. Even then, it was mostly accidental use of newfound Spider Sense, and not so much him suddenly not being a weakling nerd.)
But maybe that doesn’t really show that Peter’s as nerdy as he is in the comics. After all, we don’t know if he’s smart yet. For all we know, he could literally just be a total loser, but not so much of an actual nerd. So, how does Raimi proof it to us?
In the Sam Raimi’s films, most of what we know about Peter’s nerdiness is shown through his interactions with others. When Peter first meets Norman Osborn (also within the first few minutes of the film), the first thing Osborn says is, “Harry tells me you’re quite the science whiz.” Peter goes on to say that he’s read all of Norman’s research on nanotechnology. Norman asks if he understood it, and Peter’s answer is a yes—with the added bonus that he wrote a paper on it. And throughout the trilogy, we’re reminded through many conversations just like this one that Peter is most definitely brilliant—a brilliant, nerdy loser.
But of course, it’s never enough to tell us that someone’s a nerd; it really has to be shown to us that this glasses-wearing, bullied sap is a totally academically inclined science geek. During the field trip where Peter gets bitten by the Spider, we hear him geeking out as soon as he walks into the demonstration: “This is the most advanced electron microscope on the Eastern Seaboard. It’s unreal.” And just a bit later, he tells Harry that “Some spiders change colors to blend into their environment. It’s a defense mechanism.” To this, Harry remarks, rolling his eyes, “Peter, what makes you think I would want to know that?” Peter, being the science geek he is, says, “Who wouldn’t?”
As I’ve said, Raimi already makes it crystal clear that Peter is a gigantic nerd within the opening scene of the film, and Tobey Maguire’s awkward portrayal of Parker brings it all together so perfectly. Just like in the comics, our hard-luck hero loves science and gets bullied, two defining traits of Peter’s early days in Midtown High. And though he graduates high school and goes into college, Raimi and Maguire make sure to bring the nerdiness along with Peter for the next two films, even if his life dynamics change. Raimi didn’t forget, people—Tobey Maguire plays a real nerdy fella in these films.
In Spider-Man 2, we’re reminded further that Peter Parker is brilliant (even if his life as Spider-Man is causing troubles with his grades). When Peter goes to Dr. Otto Octavius to write a paper on him, Octavius remembers Peter by how Dr. Curt Connors described him: “Brilliant but lazy.” But despite this characterization, Octavius soon realizes how smart Peter really is, and they spend the next hour discussion science concepts and Octavius’ experiments.
I still can’t stress enough that something as arbitrary as the lack of webshooters doesn’t discredit Peter’s portrayal as a genius and a loser in these films. He is written as a nerd, and Maguire plays him as a nerd. But…maybe I can stress it a bit more. How about it?
Two of the most incredibly awkward moments in Spider-Man’s cinematic history occur in the Sam Raimi trilogy: the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” scene in Spider-Man 2 and the…ahem, dancing scene in Spider-Man 3. In Spider-Man 2, Peter quits being Spider-Man (with plenty of excellent “Spider-Man No More” homages), and he returns to his nerdy, glasses-wearing persona. Though he gets his personal life in check, Peter certainly doesn’t become any cooler from these life changes. In fact, one of the first things he does in this sequence is, well, trip and fall. After putting his glasses back on, we’re treated to Maguire walking like…a complete loser. But you know what? It works, because no matter how much he gets his life together, Raimi understands that Peter Parker is a nerd at heart, and Tobey Maguire portrays that awkwardness so positively perfectly.
I’m sure that many of you agree that that scene in Spider-Man 2 is actually pretty good. After all, it really showed just how much better Peter’s life has gotten since he tossed the Spidey mantle. And heck, you’d probably agree that it effectively displays Parker’s nerdiness, too. The Spider-Man 3 dancing scene, though…that one’s a bit more…controversial.
Many, many people see the dancing scene as the single-worst part of Spider-Man 3. They bash it as cringey, awkward, and difficult to watch. But you know what? I think that’s exactly what makes it so great.
Peter Parker is not cool. Let’s just establish that. So since he’s not cool, would he suddenly become cool when a symbiote amplifies his confidence and aggression? No, not one bit. Maguire succeeds in this scene because he exemplifies what a nerdy loser would look like if they tried to be all “edgy.” This scene is not supposed to be cool. Peter is not supposed to be cool. People around him give him weird looks! And that’s why it works so well! Peter Parker is cringey as all get out because he’s got a symbiote on him, he thinks he’s cool, and his complete failure to be cool is HILARIOUS. Peter Parker is a nerd, and Raimi understood. Maguire just happened to portray it perfectly and hilariously.
So that was…a little long. The TL;DR version? Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker portrayal is so great because he’s a dorky science whiz who gets picked on (at least in high school, where it makes sense). It’s faithful to the source material! And luckily for us, he’s not a hipster skater boy who stands up to bullies before he evens get powers. (I’m sorry; I’m not even being subtle at this point.) In my opinion, that’s just one bit of what made this trilogy so faithful to the comics, and great movies in their own right.
II. In the original trilogy, Peter is an average, relatable guy…with a heavy dose of Parker Luck.
Though these films were made in the early 2000s, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Peter is missing a lot of amenities, especially around the time of the final film. His apartment’s an absolute dump, with a door that’s always broken, a community bathroom, and a very...eccentric landlord. And as far as luxuries go, he doesn’t have a computer, television, or even a landline. What does he have? Oh, just a police scanner and the payphone in his apartment building. Peter is by no means well off. Heck, even his Aunt’s house isn’t anything above average, and she struggles to pay bills herself. But you know what? It’s brilliant.
Peter is an Average Joe. He shouldn’t always be financially sound, and he shouldn’t have high-end entertainment. If Spider-Man 4 had been released in 2012 as planned (R.I.P. Spider-Man 4), Peter wouldn’t have had a smartphone, and he wouldn’t have had a modern computer to search stuff on Bing. (Oh, and he wouldn’t have been a hipster on a skateboard. ‘NUFF SAID.) Then again, it might be a stretch to say the average person in today’s world doesn’t have a smartphone or computer. Well, I guess he could just have a flip phone and an ancient computer.
Regardless of what an Average Joe looked like in 2012, the fact of the matter is that Peter Parker was so incredibly relatable in the original Sam Raimi trilogy. He doesn’t have everything wants or everything he needs, because his responsibilities as Spider-Man come first. And speaking of not having everything he wants, Peter’s relatability is not limited to his material possessions or financial means—his personal life’s a wreck, too.
Part of being an Average Joe is having average problems always popping up. Peter’s problems happen to be magnified, however, due to his double-life. Peter Parker is the down-on-his-luck protagonist, and Spider-Man 2 is the literal personification of that fact.
Spider-Man 2 is a wonderful character piece highlighting Peter’s responsibilities as Spider-Man and his wants and desires as Peter Parker. Because of his duties as Spider-Man, Peter is late to class all the time and his grades are slipping, Mary Jane is losing faith in Peter’s ability to be there for her, and Harry hates him. Peter’s life is crashing down around him, and who’s to blame? Spider-Man.
And while Parker Luck may be taken to the absolute conceivable extreme in Spider-Man 2, it is present in all three films, and this is exactly what Raimi’s handles so well and Maguire portrays so effectively. But you know what? We’ve talked a lot of Peter Parker—perhaps too much. There are two sides to this character—so what about Spider-Man? How does he hold up?
III. In the original trilogy, Spider-Man is almost secondary to Peter Parker, and Spider-Man himself is characterized properly…for the most part.
In the comics, Peter Parker’s life is a real soap opera. When he’s not Spider-Man (or even when he is Spider-Man), he’s always thinking about whatever personal crud he’s got going on at the moment. And considering that the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films spent so much screentime focusing on Peter’s personal life, I think Raimi captures the spirit of the Spider-Man/Peter Parker balance perfectly. I mean, for crying out loud, Peter quits being Spider-Man for, like, 30 minutes in Spider-Man 2. Those are lasting consequences—like a fourth of the film!—that take the soap opera up to 11.
But speaking of Spider-Man, I really haven’t mention his side of the character that much yet, have I? I’ve gone on and on about Peter Parker being the social awkward science nerd with relatable circumstances and a huge helping of Parker Luck, but I haven’t gone into any great length on Spider-Man’s characterization. Sam Raimi can balance the soap opera and heroics as well as much as he wants, but if the heroics don’t succeed like the soap opera does, then it might as well be pointless. So, is Raimi’s Spider-Man written like a good Spider-Man? Does Tobey Maguire portray him nearly as well as he portrays Peter Parker? I say yes—yes, he does. Well, almost as well.
An oft-cited critique of the original Spider-Man trilogy is that, well…Spider-Man is cracking jokes 24/7. And in Raimi’s films, there isn’t really an onslaught of jokes. However, I don’t think it’s really a problem.
You see, on a comic panel, time can be a little wonky. An panel with a single action that might just a few seconds in real life can be filled with a dialogue in comic time—including wisecracks. I believe Raimi recognized that when translating Spider-Man to the big screen, and he adjusts the level of joking accordingly.
Also, it’s often forgotten that, even in the comics, Spidey knows when to close his mouth. He knows that sometimes the situation is far too dire and dangerous for constant wisecracks, so he gets a little serious. This is pretty evident in Raimi’s Spider-Man throughout a number of instances, but mostly each time that Spider-Man first meets a new villain.
A great example of this occurs in Spider-Man 3, when Spider-Man meets Sandman for the first time. Upon meeting him, Spider-Man says, “I guess you didn’t hear. I’m the sheriff around these parts.” Because Sandman hadn’t proven himself to be a serious threat yet, Spider-Man feels comfortable quipping around him. However, in the final battle with Venom and Sandman, Spider-Man is well aware of the incredibly dire situation unfolding before him. Then, of course, he doesn’t throw around a bunch of quips. And this is a recurring theme is ALL of the films—Spider-Man jokes, the villain becomes a real threat, the joking stops. It’s not a completely inaccurate portrayal of Spider-Man.
Raimi instead delivers most of the humor through Peter’s life—every scene with J. Jonah Jameson, for instance. And beyond that, Peter’s hard luck is just as much a source of humor as it is relatability. Raimi’s Spider-Man is by no means humorless.
But of course, powers are just as central to superhero characters as their personality is, and that raises a few important points. Detractors of the original trilogy are quick to point out that Spider-Man isn’t quite as acrobatic as we’ve seen in the comics, and that not creating his webshooters is a huge deviation from the original origin story. And to that, I say: Eh, it isn’t quite that bad.
Somehow, in recent years, everyone has gotten this idea that Spider-Man should super skinny—a design element that only came about with Mark Bagley’s work on Ultimate Spider-Man. In the comics, once Peter got powers, he we wasn’t lanky and skinny anymore. He was muscular because, well, he gained the proportionate strength of a spider. Tobey Maguire’s larger frame is nothing to be concerned about once he’s in his Spidey suit. And besides, the action scenes were still incredible, even if he wasn’t “acrobatic” enough (which I don’t quite find to be an accurate statement).
And in regards to the webshooters, it is true that we lose a bit of that “science geek” side of Peter if he doesn’t have to develop his own webshooters. However, that very well could have been to streamline the origins for the movie, and that is somewhat understandable. Mechanical webshooters really didn’t do much more in the comics than A) show us the nerd side of Peter, like I said, and B) occasionally stop working to mess around with the plot during an important battle. And as seen in Spider-Man 2, organic webshooters can apparently stop functioning, too. So in all honesty, I don’t think we REALLY lost that much when Peter didn’t develop his own webshooters.
So perhaps Spider-Man wasn’t nearly as perfect characterization-wise as Peter Parker was. In all honesty, I don’t mind, because this was still an amazing trilogy.
I guess we’re left now with the task of assimilating this gigantic info-dump. What do I think? I think Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is awesome, and I think Tobey Maguire is a great Peter Parker and a pretty good Spider-Man. Why? It just seems to me that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire have such an incredibly deep understanding of the character. They know that Peter is nerdy, awkward, and down on his luck. That’s why Tobey Maguire does all of those weird faces throughout the films—they are very natural expressions for a very natural character. And that’s why Peter is so incredibly cringey and awkward! He’s not supposed to be cool; he’s not supposed to be a legendarily fad-tastic skateboarder and beat up the bully and get the girl. He’s supposed to fail—he’s supposed to be pitifully relatable.
And that, my friends, is why I think Tobey Maguire, Sam Raimi, and the entire early-2000s Spider-Man trilogy was so incredible. Though it had high-flying, stylized action, it also had a heavy dose of heart. I hope you now see exactly why I like this version of live action portrayal Spider-Man/Peter Parker the best, because I felt like it needed to be written. For whatever reason, it instantly becomes cool to hate Tobey Maguire as soon as a new actor takes up the mantle of live action Spider-Man, and this feels completely unwarranted to me. Have people forgotten that Spider-Man 2, the film that pretty much defined the cinematic superhero subgenre, exists and is awesome? Sigh. Maybe I'm just a Tobey fanboy.
I’m sorry for writing such a long article about something so pointless. Please go now.