Gyllenhaal may take over webslinging duties

A web of intrigue enveloped Tobey Maguire Monday as word circulated that he may not be back as Peter Parker in Columbia Pictures’ “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the sequel to the top film of 2002 that earned Sony $800 million at the worldwide B.O.

Waiting in the wings is Jake Gyllenhaal, star of “Moonlight Mile,” “The Good Girl” and 20th Century Fox’s own summer 2004 tentpole, “The Day After Tomorrow.”

“After doing two physically demanding films in a row, Tobey has experienced mild discomfort in his back, which is in the final stages of healing,” Maguire’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “With an April 12 start date around the corner, everyone involved wants to be certain he is able to do the intense stunts.”

Maguire wrapped “Spider-Man” in April 2001. Eighteen months later, he began production Oct. 15 on “Seabiscuit” in the role of racehorse jockey Red Pollard. The four-month shoot wrapped Feb. 18.

If Maguire exits, it would come only a month after his reps renegotiated a career-best $17 million payday for the actor. Maguire earned $4 million for “Spider-Man” and $12.5 million for “Seabiscuit.” He agreed to star in the sequel last spring, prior to the first pic’s release.

This scenario is only the latest superhero snafu in a town that is increasingly reliant on big-budget tentpole pics overseen by comic-book protagonists. Warners is currently navigating the bumpy road to hiring an actor willing to wear the “S” on his chest for the next three “Superman” films.

If Maguire were replaced, some of Col’s box office risk would be mitigated by the fact that Gyllenhaal would be good for the budget’s bottom line. Although he’s received kudos for performances in films like “October Sky” and “Donnie Darko,” he hasn’t yet commanded the salary of an above-the-title actor like Maguire.

Sony’s Spidey sequel was originally slated to begin production in January, but was pushed to April so that Maguire could complete “Seabiscuit” for Universal and Spyglass Entertainment. Given its copious special effects, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is now on a tight schedule to make its May 7, 2004 release.

Even if the “Spider-Man” sequel had leeway next summer, this summer would remain a problem. After Kirsten Dunst reprises her role as distressed damsel Mary Jane Watson, she will proceed immediately to Working Title’s “Wimbledon.” The U release is expected to make history as the first production to shoot during the hallowed tennis tournament. However, the 2003 Wimbledon Championships run June 23-July 6; that hardly gives Dunst enough time to warm up.

Before Maguire was fitted for the red and blue suit, Gyllenhaal was on the short list of “Spider-Man” candidates. He can seem only more attractive now that he’s also dating Dunst.

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