Here’s the thing about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies: they never let me down. Yes, there are always a few pieces I would have done differently if it were up to me. (HA! Yeah, easy to say.) Yes, they pick, choose, and rearrange bits of the mythos, and they leave out some important character pieces (like Spidey being funny). However, I think it would be a huge mistake to try to be stickler-faithful to the comics, and the translations that these movies do are full of great choices. Mainly, what they do is choose excellent actors, give the characters emotional depth, and allow them to move through arcs that aren’t just about who punches the hardest, but who can summon the most inner strength, and what it costs to do so. By focusing on emotion, they faithfully render the spirit of the best Spider-Man comics. I hoped that Spider-Man 3 would continue this trend. It didn’t let me down.
I think superhero movies may be an exception to the rule of diminishing returns that normally plagues movie sequels. For one thing, subsequent movies have a big advantage over the first one in that they’re not lumbered with telling the origin of the character’s powers. Spider-Man 2, Superman 2, and X-Men 2 were all loads better than their predecessors because they were allowed to start with a bunch of information already understood, allowing them to really cut loose with a long-form story about the character as a superhero rather than somebody becoming a superhero. But what about the next step? This movie demonstrates how to do the next step properly. Like the comics, it draws on the power of continuity, picking up (in terms of emotion and character development) pretty much where the second movie left off. It feels almost as episodic as a television show, leveraging what we already know about the characters in order to continue each one of their stories and deepen their development.
Responsibility is, of course, a major theme in the Spider-Man saga, and each film has addressed it. In the first, we saw great power conferred, and were shown how great responsibility accompanied it. In that first movie, responsibility was a form of penance, a weight to be carried out of duty, and one which often brought with it terrible consequences. Spider-Man 2 broadened the idea and introduced the notion of balance, that we in fact have plural responsibilities — to our communities, to our loved ones, to ourselves. Bringing in that balance lightened the rather dour picture painted by the first movie. It had to, because guilt can’t be the sole driver of behaving responsibly. That’s not a sustainable way to live. So we get Peter Parker swinging out of balance, first one way and then the other, finding a middle ground by the end once he accepted support from someone close to him. This third movie explores the responsibility concept further by adding the notion of consistency over time. Responsibility and balance, in this story, aren’t just things we find and keep, but things we must continue to find in ourselves over and over, even as the challenges of life keep knocking them out of whack. It’s like what Laura and I say about marriage sometimes, that it’s a verb, not a noun. It’s a choice you keep making again and again, and the moment you take for granted that you’ve somehow finished that process is when it becomes brittle and vulnerable. Several of the major characters in this movie must make ongoing choices about what it means to do the right thing, Peter most of all, and the movie does an excellent job of providing big, bold metaphors for this internal battle.
Venom, the way it’s portrayed in this movie, is a perfect emblem for that fight, and the script beautifully streamlines loads of wacky comic continuity (and painful Secret Wars memories) into a core concept: what happens when something amplifies the worst parts of someone? Quite often in real life, that something is an addiction; the movie doesn’t ignore the seductive, powerful quality of giving free rein to one’s dark side. Peter gets a taste of it, and it feels good. Then, after a reality check, he tries to go cold turkey, but when things get too hard, he relapses, as people do. After he hits bottom, in his own way, we get a great rehab symbol — deafening chaos, struggle, and rending, rending, rending. He succeeds in separating himself from his addiction, but Eddie is different. We already know that he’s someone who looks for the quick fix, and it’s less of a surprise to see him embracing the feeling of power that the suit gives him. Like Peter, he gets a chance to separate from it, but he needs it too much, and is finally consumed by it. For anyone who has lost someone to an addiction, the parallel is unmistakable.
I was talking with some friends after the movie ended, and one said that the part he could have done without was the bit where Spidey lands in front of a giant American flag and pauses for a moment before swinging away, cheered on by cops, firefighters, and the general crowd. That scene didn’t bother me, though. In fact, I quite appreciated it, because although each the Spider-Man movies have included and emphasized the flag and other American iconography, this one actually felt politically relevant. We, as a country, are also faced with the challenge of balancing our responsibilities consistently over time. There are times when our addiction to power gets the best of us, when we, as a nation, are lost in the blackness. (It probably surprises no one to hear that I think the last 5 years have been a particularly painful example of this.) To see the flag flying in front of a symbol of true responsibility, of overcoming that urge for power and protecting rather than attacking, felt welcome to me. Given the story this movie was telling, I felt like that flag carried an entirely different message than the one for which it’s usually deployed in the world of “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers.
Personally, the place I would have gone a different direction was in the way the movie portrayed Dark Peter. The black-suited Spider-Man was somber and menacing, but apparently the way that darkness manifested in Peter’s civilian identity was a lot of emo bangs and disco walking. I remember, in Spider-Man 2, that just after he decided to leave his superhero identity behind, Peter got to have a jaunty walk down the New York streets, I think to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” That scene lasted about 30 seconds too long for me. This movie took that same feeling, extended it by about eight minutes, and in the process got laughs from the audience every time it tried to show Peter giving in to his dark side. Venomized Peter should be angry, sinister, frightening. Instead, he was mostly campy and ridiculous. It was as if somehow those scenes took their cue from the 1960s Batman TV show rather than the much darker 1960s Spider-Man comics. (I should add here that I love the 1960s Batman show — I just didn’t like being jarred by that tone in this movie.) I recognize that the goofiness worked to add impact to the moment where Peter hits MJ, and (to a lesser extent) the moment where Gwen apologizes to her. I also acknowledge its part in the addiction metaphor, where he’s having fun and thinks he’s popular, but is out of control without knowing it. And, as one of my friends pointed out, his behavior in the club is quite hostile towards MJ, though not in a violent way (until the last moment, and even that can read as an accident.) Still, it felt like a misstep to me. Somebody who had those powers and was out of control with aggression shouldn’t have spent so much time looking and acting like a goofball.
Still, although that choice didn’t work well for me, it certainly wasn’t enough to ruin the movie for me. I suppose, in a way, scenes like that may be a way for Raimi to inject some laughs, which is important since humor is a major part of Spider-Man as a character. It has always made sense to me that the movie Spidey can’t be funny in the same way as the comic Spidey. The wit of Spider-Man in the comics is quite verbal, and of course it’s one of comics’ great strengths that they can be visual and verbal simultaneously. Action movies have a much harder time at this. In order to give fights the impact they need on screen, movies tend to make their fight scenes rather noisy — clever repartee would get swallowed in this sea of sound. So the laughs have to come from somewhere else, which is too bad, since Peter joking through his fear is a key part of his persona. Still, I’d rather see him played for laughs outside his fights than have the movie try to overlay dialogue in a way that would sound stilted or forced.
Okay, I’ve been writing this review for about two hours now, and I haven’t even begun to lay out all my thoughts about the movie. Suffice it to say that I left feeling thrilled and sated. There’s so much more to address — I could write for hours more, but I think I’ll leave it at this and go to bed. Or, in the words of Stan Lee’s cameo character (a speaking part at last!): ’nuff said.