return of the back

The Backbreaking In-Joke in Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man getting into cobra pose. Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Warning: As with nearly everything Vulture writes about Spider-Man: No Way Home, this post spoils plot details of the film’s second half.

Say what you will about Spider-Man: No Way Homeour critic Bilge Ebiri did — but it’s certainly a film plugged into the history of the Spider-Man franchise. In fact, for older viewers, that’s the main source of its power: reminding you how you felt in 2002 or 2012, when everything was fun and fresh and new.

But as one of the film’s in-jokes reminds us, not everything felt good back then. I’m referring, of course, to Tobey Maguire’s back.

(The spoilers will truly begin after this paragraph.)

For people who don’t remember Hollywood gossip of the early aughts, there’s a scene in No Way Home that must be totally mystifying. Thanks to some multiverse shenanigans, both Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire have returned to reprise their roles as Peter Parker, leading to some wistful notes about the sad inevitability of aging as well as body-horror gags about how Maguire shoots his webs out of mysterious orifices in his wrists. But at the height of the big action climax, the plot stops in its tracks so the two elder Spider-statesmen can have a long back-and-forth regarding back pain like they’re 40-something dads at a barbecue. (Apparently, web-slinging is not great for the lumbars.) Eventually, Garfield-Spidey physically picks up Maguire-Spidey and cracks his back so they can get back to swirling around a CGI sandstorm just as God and Sony Pictures intended.

What’s the reason for all this? Some might say putting Maguire and Garfield in such a position is its own reward. But it’s probably also a reference to one of the most treasured bits of meta-textual Spider-Man lore: the time Maguire possibly faked a back injury in the hopes of securing a higher payday for Spider-Man 2.

The story goes like this: In the spring of 2003, shortly before production on the superhero sequel was about to begin, Maguire began making noise about being unready to step back into the Spidersuit due to a back problem exacerbated on the set of Seabiscuit. Industry scuttlebutt had it he was playing hardball with the studio in the hopes of securing a better contract. “Columbia felt that Maguire’s reported back problems … were now being used as a threat during negotiations if the actor’s list of demands wasn’t met,” Variety wrote.

But the studio hit back with threats of its own. Sony began hinting about replacing Maguire with Jake Gyllenhaal, who happened to be dating Kirsten Dunst at the time. Eventually, things got sorted out in a manner reminiscent of Call My Agent! Maguire was in a Hollywood relationship, too — with Jennifer Meyer, daughter of Ron Meyer, who was the president of Universal, which was releasing Seabiscuit. (Maguire and Meyer were married from 2007 to 2020.) Per the Los Angeles Times, the elder Meyer told his future son-in-law to make nice with the studio and used his influence to persuade Sony to take him back. It worked: Maguire apologized and got his job back, though Sony did make him submit to physical tests to prove he was indeed fit enough to retain the role. He also fired his agent, which was widely taken as another gesture of contrition.

Maguire contends his concern was solely about his health, not money, and the studio maintains it never actually tried to hire Gyllenhaal. (The Times dryly reported of a meeting with Gyllenhaal, “The fact that it took place on the Spider-Man set and that Gyllenhaal encountered” Spider-Man 2 producers Julie “Ziskin and Avi Arad was a coincidence.”)

The Affair of the Back quickly became notorious, and Spider-Man 2 didn’t hesitate to joke about it. One of its Daily Bugle front pages features a headline asking, “Can Chronic Back Pain EQUAL BRAIN SHRINKAGE?” and the film includes a scene in which Maguire’s Spider-Man brags about being “back,” then immediately injures his back.

At least he continues to be a good sport about it!

The Backbreaking In-Joke in Spider Man: No Way Home