Long wait for 3D Spider-Man after Maguire quits

He can spin a web, any size, and catches thieves just like flies. But the arsenal of secret powers celebrated by Spider-Man’s famous theme tune is next-to-useless when it comes to negotiating the choppy waters of Hollywood studio politics.

Tobey Maguire, the actor who has played the super-hero throughout his extraordinarily-lucrative modern incarnation, has decided to hang up his spandex suit, just weeks before filming on a fourth instalment of the franchise was due to commence.

Also quitting, in the fallout from what appears to be an epic creative dispute, are Sam Raimi, the director behind all three of the recent Spider-Man films, and Kirsten Dunst, who plays Mary Jane Watson, love interest of the web-throwing crime fighter’s alter ego, Peter Parker.

Sony Pictures, the entertainment giant which owns the franchise, said on Monday that a new director and stars will eventually be hired to “re-boot” Spider-Man 4 as a story about the teenage Parker: "grappling with contemporary human problems and amazing super-human crises.”

Filming on the old film had originally been due to commence in February. The new one is now unlikely to get underway until next year, meaning that the project will miss its original release date in May 2011. Instead, Sony hopes that it will hit cinemas some time in the middle of 2012.

That will have repercussions far beyond the circles of “fan-boy” cinema-goers who have contributed to Spider-Man’s extraordinary success. The superhero is one of Hollywood’s major cash cows, and in the past eight years has generated $2.5 billion [£1.56b] at the box office alone.

Sony, which makes the films through its Columbia Pictures, is now left without a “tent-pole” to underpin its finances next summer. Cinema owners have lost perhaps the year’s biggest potential source of bums on seats. DVD and TV sales are on hold. And Marvel Comics must do without the $150m [£95m] it makes from merchandise each time a Spider-man film comes out.

The dispute that led to Raimi, Maguire and Dunst’s departure involved an appropriately large clash of egos. The famously exacting director was apparently unwilling to accept both the script, and financial conditions, being foisted upon him by be-suited Sony executives.

At least three of Hollywood’s top writers - Jamie Vanderbilt, David Lindsay-Abaire, and Gary Ross – had already attempted, in the past year, to come up with a screenplay he found acceptable. Their various efforts were in the process of being “reconciled” into a fourth version by Alvin Sargent, who wrote the previous two Spider-Man films.

Another bone of contention involved the film’s budget. Mr Raimi was reportedly adamant that he needed at least $300 million [£188m] to realise intricate sets and battle scenes. Sony would only let him have $230m. A plan to hire Anne Hathaway to play one of the female leads fell through during financial negotiations.

The departures happened at the weekend, and news of them leaked out on Monday afternoon. Raimi did not comment yesterday, except in a statement released by Sony: “while we were looking forward to doing a fourth one together, the studio and Marvel have a unique opportunity to take the franchise in a new direction, and I know they will do a terrific job."

Maguire also released a prepared statement saying: “I am so proud of what we accomplished with the Spider-Man franchise over the last decade. Beyond the films themselves I have formed some deep and lasting friendships. I am excited to see the next chapter unfold in this incredible story.”

Sony, for its part, must hope that “re-booting” will extend the eventual lifespan of the Spider-Man franchise. The delay also gives it a chance to shoot the next film in 3D, which makes it virtually impossible to pirate and means the film will command higher ticket-prices when it does eventually hit cinemas.