Does anything beat a child actor from the ’90s?
Obviously, no. Perhaps it’s because the ’90s were a golden era of kids’ TV, with Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel providing launchpads for countless actors and performers who are still working today. Or perhaps it’s just because, as ’90s kids, we’re biased. Either way, there’s always been a certain aura around childhood stars from the decade, and it’s always fun to look back on their work or see them popping up again today.
The fact that this aura wasn’t tapped when Sam Raimi and Sony first brought Spider-Man to the big screen in 2002 has always been frustrating. Sure, he was boyish enough to present a satisfying Peter Parker, but Tobey Maguire was 27 years old when he started playing Spider-Man! He was 32 when he finished! It’s pretty common for Hollywood to cast people a few years older than the characters they’re playing, but Maguire and the cast assembled around him were pushing it given that half the intrigue of the Spider-Man saga amounts to teenage drama.
Now that Marvel Studios has taken over Spider-Man, there appears to be a focus on presenting a younger superhero. Tom Holland (the new Peter Parker) is only 20 and has already made his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War. And on top of that, Chris Hemsworth says Holland is an athlete and a gymnast, which makes him considerably more spry than Maguire, who wrapped up his web-slinging tenure battling back problems. At any rate, kudos to Marvel for going with a younger choice.
But what if Sony had done this to begin with? What would an original Spider-Man movie built on ’90s child stars and popular actors have looked like? Sadly, we’ll never know. But we can imagine how it would have looked, which leads me to the following hypothetical casting possibilities….
What do you need for a good Peter Parker? Actually, based on three actors who’ve presented decidedly different takes on the character, it’s hard to say. Maguire was boy-faced and pitiful; Andrew Garfield was somehow clumsy and smooth at the same time; and Holland looks to be witty but immature. I suppose the ideal Peter Parker would be somewhere in between all of them: a boyish, thoroughly imperfect character with a quick wit and an ability to hurl an insult or throw a punch as readily as he might put his foot in his mouth. So who fits the bill?
It’s pretty hard to think of a better candidate than Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Born in 1981, he’d have been about 21 when Raimi’s first Spidey movie came out, and at the time he was the quintessential ’90s child star, having moved from Angels In The Outfield to 10 Things I Hate About You with a few other roles in between. He was boyish but charming, sheepish but capable of being assertive, and had the perfect Parker look. Young Simba himself (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) would have been another interesting option, and even pre-LOTR Elijah Wood might have been an interesting choice.
Mary Jane Watson
Alright, so there’s an argument to be made that the Marc Webb Spider-Man series actually got it right, and that Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s primary love interest. But then again, Kiersten Dunst and Tobey Maguire shared the most iconic MTV Movie Awards moment of all time (it was once ranked as the 24th best “Best Kiss” ever, which is nonsense), and in a sense it’s hard to imagine a better Spider-Man love interest than Mary Jane. But who would play her?
This is actually a tough one, because a lot of the most memorable child actresses of the ’90s were legitimately children (as opposed to teenagers or young adults) during the decade. For instance, Hilary Duff obviously comes to mind, but she was born in 1987—probably a little too late to fit into Raimi’s Spider-Man. One interesting actress who comes to mind is Michelle Trachtenberg. It’s hard to be much more ’90s than the girl who starred in The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Harriet the Spy from 1994-1996. Plus, she often had the red hair typical of Mary Jane, and she would have been about 17 or 18 by the time Raimi’s film came out.
Norman Osborn/Green Goblin
Yeah, yeah. The Green Goblin has been tried and tried again and he’s always come across a little bit cheesy. But like it or not, he’s clearly a public favorite as a Spider-Man villain. In addition to multiple film roles, he’s even the subject of an online casino game that’s featured alongside Rocky, Gladiator, and other prominent characters. The game is “Attack Of The Green Goblin,” and though it’s just a slot reel, it makes the titular villain as much of a focal point as Spidey himself. The same can almost be said of a few more mainstream video games as well. Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, whether because of Raimi’s films or because of comic storylines, is the Spider-Man bad guy.
Choosing which ’90s standout could play him better than Willem Dafoe is tricky, however, because this isn’t a child role. Still, let’s take a shot at it. Gary Oldman was certainly an up-and-coming actor at the time, after starring roles in Air Force One and The Fifth Element. He’d have been a perfect pick for the mix of fatherly concern and criminal insanity at the heart of the character. Another fascinating but less likely choice might have been Jeff Bridges, who would have been only a few years removed from his career-defining turn in The Big Lebowski.
Hayden Christensen? Hayden Christensen! No, just kidding… not Hayden Christensen.
Harry Osborn is actually a difficult character, because he needs to be likable enough to be Peter’s best friend but ornery enough to give in to the power of the dark side (but seriously, not Hayden Christensen). James Franco has become a capable and entertaining actor, but even he was relatively miserable in this deceptively complex role. So who from the ’90s could have done it better? Maybe Richie Rich himself, Macaulay Culkin, Prince of the ’90s. Something about this guy became unlikeable over the years (maybe it’s that he blew it with Mila Kunis), but at the time he was a beloved star with just a hint of mischief in his face. He might have been a perfect fit.
That covers the key roles in a ’90s-ified Spider-Man. Put yourself back in 2002…. Wouldn’t you have wanted to watch frenemies Culkin and Gordon-Levitt fighting over Trachtenberg while Oldman cooked up evil schemes? I know… me too.