Actors We Wish Had Been Cast In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man

The modern superhero movie renaissance is a lot like the Disney Renaissance in that it's open to debate which film really kicked it off. Indeed, many would be quick to praise "Blade" and "The Great Mouse Detective" as the unsung heroes of these respective movements — and not just because they both feature key fight scenes set at sordid adult establishments, either.

Still, as much as Wesley Snipes' day-walker helped change the game for comic book movies, it was Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" that fully unlatched the floodgates in 2002. Raimi was coming off directing a wildly eclectic batch of films in the 1990s when Sony recruited him to bring the web-slinger to the big screen. He would go on to cast Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the lead roles of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, at a time when the pair had only just begun to make a name for themselves starring in arthouse or indie fare like "The Cider House Rules" and "The Virgin Suicides," in turn.

But what if he hadn't?

Now, before we go any further, let's clear something up. I'm not here to hate on Maguire or Dunst or any of their "Spider-Man" co-stars. (Well, okay, I'm here to hate on James Franco a little, but he deserves it.) I'm here to speculate about what might've been had Raimi cast his touchstone superhero blockbuster differently. Except for J. Jonah Jameson, because, let's face it, J.K. Simmons is the Daily Bugle's yelly Editor-in-Chief no matter what timeline we're in.

Jake Gyllenhaal As Peter Parker

Over a decade before he menaced Tom Holland's Peter Parker as Mysterio in "Spider-Man: Far From Home," Jake Gyllenhaal nearly played the web-slinger himself in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2." Per a report from Variety in 2003, the "Donnie Darko" star was approached about replacing Tobey Maguire in the sequel after Sony decided the latter's long-known back problems were "being used as a threat" amidst his talks to return for the film.

It's not too hard to imagine Gyllenhaal portraying the awkward, nerdy Peter Parker in Raimi's "Spider-Man," what with him having taken on a similar role with great success as the rocketry-loving Homer Hickam a few years earlier in 1999's "October Sky." The actor's casting wouldn't have spared us "Bubble Boy" (which came out in 2001), but it might have allowed Gyllenhaal to scratch his blockbuster itch earlier on in his career and, thusly, turned him away from 2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time."

If there's a downside to this scenario, it's that Gyllenhaal's "Spider-Man" trilogy commitments may have also prevented him from lending his talents as a character actor to films like "Brokeback Mountain" and "Zodiac" in the aughts. Then again, by that same count, Maguire would've been freed up to further hone his craft on more of that decade's non-blockbusters. Either way, the pair could still meet up in the 2009 drama "Brothers" before their paths split once again.

As for those who wonder if this would've ruled Gyllenhaal out to play Mysterio in the MCU, I say, "Why not both?"

Thora Birch As Mary Jane Watson

No stranger to depicting the pangs of adolescence on-screen, Thora Birch had successfully transitioned from playing spirited kids in films like "Hocus Pocus" early on in the 1990s to typical chaotic teens in "American Beauty" and "Ghost World" by the turn of the century. Had Sam Raimi cast her as Mary Jane Watson in "Spider-Man," Birch could've seamlessly shifted into the next phase of her on-screen coming-of-age journey: Portraying someone tasked with navigating the pitfalls of young adulthood.

Funnily enough, Birch and Kirsten Dunst's career trajectories might've not been all that different had the former signed on to play MJ instead of the latter. As adult actors, they've both tended to gravitate towards the indie film scene more than the mainsteam. In fact, Dunst admitted in 2007 she was drawn to working with Raimi on "Spider-Man" because his approach to the project made it feel "like an independent film" to her.

Even without a detour into the Marvel movie world, Dunst would have no doubt only continued to prove her mettle as one of the great acting talents of her generation in the aughts. As for Birch, "Spider-Man" would've certainly given her a much better chance to shine than the ill-conceived 2000 "Dungeons & Dragons" movie had two years earlier.

Heath Ledger As Harry Osborn

That's right: In the same universe where Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," his "Brokeback Mountain" co-star Heath Ledger was brought onboard to play Peter's best friend Harry Osborn in the film. The fan-fiction for this paring writes itself.

Sure, Ledger played classic "bad boy" high schooler Patrick Verona in 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You," but he could've just as easily slipped into the role of Peter's wealthy, insecure high school buddy and spared us from having James Franco portray the son of the Green Goblin. As with Gyllenhaal, however, there is a risk this may have prevented Ledger from starring in Ang Lee's moving queer cowboy drama. Then again, perhaps Lee would've had all the more studio support on his side had he wanted to recruit two "Spider-Man" stars for his film.

There's also the chance Ledger starring in "Spider-Man" might have discouraged Christopher Nolan from casting him as the Joker in "The Dark Knight" — but for the sake of this what-if discussion, let's just pretend that's not a concern and enjoy the idea of Ledger getting to put his spin on both a Marvel and DC Comics character.

Robin Williams As Green Goblin

Robin Williams showed the world a far creepier side to his on-screen persona in the 2002 thrillers "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia," both of which saw him playing fairly restrained, down-to-earth individuals who do terrible things. Thing is, Williams was so talented at using his entire body to bring his characters to life (having performed as a mime early on in his career), it's hard not to wish we could have seen him embody a more extravagant, scenery-chewing antagonist.

Enter Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," a role Willem Dafoe tackled with relish in our universe.

Mind you, in this idealized imagined scenario, Williams would've been able to work on "Spider-Man," "One Hour Photo," and "Insomnia," giving us three very different (yet equally memorable and alarming) evil-doers in the same year. What's more, this probably wouldn't have had all that big an impact on either Williams or Dafoe's careers. Both were seasoned pros by the time the aughts came around, having long proven not just amicable to but also comfortably capable of oscillating between crowd-pleasers and esoteric arthouse films. A role, or lack thereof, as a Marvel super-villain wasn't going to change that.

Paul Newman And Lois Smith As Ben And May

By the time 2002 rolled around in our world, Paul Newman was more invested in car racing than film acting, and Lois Smith was busy having surprisingly strong romantic chemistry with Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." But if we couldn't have the terrific Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Peter Parker's Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," then Newman and Smith would have made for a fine replacement.

Both Newman and Smith could play salt-of-the-earth types like it was nobody's business by that point in their careers, as they already had some years prior to "Spider-Man" in 1990s films like "Nobody's Fool" and "Twister," to cite but two examples. In a heightened world of colorfully costumed heroes and criminals, it's all the more essential for regular folk like Ben and May to come across as real people, as they surely would have in the hands of these two accomplished thespians.

While Smith would've likely been able to swing appearing in "Minority Report" and "Spider-Man" in the same year, Newman playing Ben might have stopped him from starring in another 2002 comic book film, "Road to Perdition," at a stage when he was far less active as an actor. Then again, who knows? Perhaps we would have ended up with two very different Paul Newman graphic novel adaptations in the same year.

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