I recently re-watched Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy with my family. It had been at least 5 years since I had watched any of them, yet I still considered Spiderman 2 to be my favorite superhero film. The recent onslaught of subpar superhero flicks (with the notable exception of X-Men: First Class and The Dark Knight, although neither of them are great), had left a bitter taste in my mouth for this particular genre, so I wanted to see if this franchise held up. I’m happy to report that not only did they hold up, but that I really enjoyed them – yes, even part 3. Before I talk about Spiderman 3, though, let me make a few quick comments about the first two films. Oh, and these movies are over 5 years old, so I’m going to talk about them as if you’ve already seen them, and there may be spoilers.
Most critics consider these to be good films, so the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed myself while watching them is not that big of a surprise. What I was (pleasantly) surprised with, though, was how well the CGI held up. One of my biggest complaints with the current superhero films is their poor camera work. Given that this genre normally includes a hefty number of fights and action scenes, you would think that the filmmakers would have figured out a way to film these scenes so that the viewer could actually see what is happening. After watching Spiderman 1&2, I’m beginning to think that this has less to do with technology limitations and more to do the direction. I don’t know enough about making films to know how difficult filming action scenes are (especially ones involving CGI), but perhaps it is fairly difficult and directors can be forgiven for overly editing and jump-cutting their action scenes (I’m especially looking at you, Christopher Nolan). However, is it really the case that Sam Raimi and his team are really that much more skilled than everyone else? Who knows? All I know is that I was able to easily track the movements of every character in every action scene and never got lost in the midst of a fight or chase. Raimi’s use of spacing is superb and his blending of CGI and live action was really good (obviously not perfect, but I don’t think this has ever been the case in any movie).
The second comment I want to make is in regards to story. Raimi gets the perfect mix of realism and comic book action… which is I’m looking for in my comic book films. The recent move toward ultra-realism has been interesting, but ends up making for a duller movie. Frankly, I like my villians to have crazy powers resulting from lab experiments gone wrong. Of course, the problem is that often these sort of comic book movies end up looking like the Joel Schumacher Batman films – really cheesy and cartoony. The problem with going too far in the other direction, though, is that your superhero movie no longer looks like a superhero movie (I’m still looking at you, Christopher Nolan). I’m still of the opinion that the best “realistic” superhero film is Unbreakable – which is not even part of an actual comic book franchise. The key to having the right mix of realism is making the real aspects the heart of the story. Spiderman, at it’s heart, is about a young man learning to use his powers wisely, and maturing into adulthood. The biggest battle that Peter Parker has to fight is not with Doc Ock or Sandman, but with his pride and understanding of responsibility. The villains in most superhero films (The Avenger franchise, The Dark Knight franchise, etc…) are the penultimate fight. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. The story is about the battle of good vs. evil, and the personal issues only serve to move the story along. The reverse is true in Spiderman. The villains are the catalyst for moving Peter Parker from an immature, prideful boy to a heroic man who learns what is most important in his life, given his extraordinary powers.
This film was widely panned by critics, and honestly, not without some cause. From the start, let me state that while I have a lot of good things to say about this film, this is still a clunky film from time to time and has some serious story issues. This is also the least effective CGI of the three films. Perhaps this has to do with there being 3 villains and fight scenes involving up to 5 characters at some points (including one that turns to sand – very hard to make that look realistic!), but Raimi’s sense of spacing is still evident and I was never lost in the battles. For many, the largest problem with this film involved Peter Parker’s descent into depravity – not so much that he descended into depravity, but that he did so in such a cheesy fashion (his strut down the street, lamely pointing at all the pretty girls and especially his big dance number in the jazz club). Frankly, I thought this was fantastic. Not only was Tobey Maguire clearly having a lot of fun with these scenes, but they ultimately have an important point in the story… I’ll get to that in a bit.
Here’s what I think is fantastic about the film:
1) The character arc of Peter Parker – In Spiderman 3, Spiderman is a beloved figure. Everyone loves him. He is known as a hero and inspires the city (New York). Peter Parker, after dealing with his doubts and frustrations in Spiderman 2, has figured out how to live as a Superhero. His life is not without struggles (mainly financial), but he has learned to balance his academic life, his work like, his personal life and his faithfulness to his “calling.” In fact, he’s ready to take the next step with MJ and propose. Aunt May tells him that this is a big responsibility (he should be used to that, right?) and that a husband must always put his wife first. I think the ramifications of this bit of wisdom probably went over a lot of people’s heads, and they just shook their heads and said “of course, a husband puts his wife before himself.” This is certainly true, but I think the bigger implication (and one Aunt May is getting at… I think she knows who Peter is) is that Peter must put MJ before the city as well. The ring on his finger will symbolize a higher priority than the costume. Peter, of course, thinks he’s ready, but immediately shows he is not because of his narcissism. Let’s face it, being universally loved could do that to a person, but that is no excuse. He hurts MJ – and this is long before he comes under the influence of the symbiote.
2) The character arc of Mary Jane – most love interests appear in superhero films to simply be the reason for the hero to do what he does. They rarely get to have development. MJ’s character starts out as a young woman verbally abused by her father. Kirsten Dunst does a superb job of always letting that insecurity and fear of being abused/rejected always have a place on her face. There’s always a twinge of doubt and a little emotional bruising evident in her expressions. While MJ certainly exhibits all the qualities that a superhero’s love interest is supposed to have (beauty, smarts, a good screaming voice…), MJ goes through something that no other love interests get to do – to have her life torn apart, not by a villain, but by her own lack of talent. MJ always wanted to be a stage actress. She headlines in Spiderman 3, but is torn apart by critics the next day. Frankly, her voice is just not good enough. To add insult to injury, her directors fire her, but forget to tell her, so she shows up to her next practice, only to see another girl in her place. Humiliating. On top of that, Peter is so self-obsessed, that he fails to see her pain. Dunst plays this so well, that despite the fact that she is held hostage in each of the 3 films by the main villain, this moment of pain is clearly the worst moment for her. She mistakenly runs into the arms of another man (she quickly realizes her mistake and runs away), despite knowing that the love of her life is Spiderman.
3) The clear Christian themes – first off, let me say that I have no idea whether Sam Raimi is a Christian or not. I do not think an artist has to be a Christian in order to portray Christian themes in a piece of art. In fact, since the best of art is epitomized in the Christian story, a good artist will simply be true to his art, tell a truthful story, and any Christian themes will flow naturally out of this. This is certainly not always the case, but it often is. In the case of Spiderman 3, the symbolism is a little too prominent, though, to be accidental. Raimi was doing something here. After Peter Parker has let the love of his life down, his life goes into a bit of tailspin. He finds out that the man who killed his uncle in the first movie is still at large. To make matters worse, this means that the man he let die in the first movie was innocent of the murder. Rather than this information causing him reevaluate his desire for revenge, he becomes obsessed with it. He immediately finds the guilty party and exacts revenge… even finding pleasure in the fact that he killed him (he’s mistaken, of course, as the guilty party is The Sandman). Enter the symbiote – a black, alien substance that attaches itself to a host. Apparently, it is attracted to those who exude negative traits, making Peter Parker a perfect host. This amplifies the sinful side of Peter, and he embraces this sin. This is why Peter is ridiculous – sin is ridiculous. Spiderman was a beloved character by everyone because he was heroic… he was good. But now, Peter is strutting down the street, looking silly, thinking he’s The Man, and flirting with every pretty girl out there (they all role their eyes at him and move to the other side of the street). The world sees how ridiculous he is and they scoff, but he can’t see it himself. He’s blinded by sin. In fact, while I’ve never seen anyone mention this before, it is readily apparent to me that Raimi has Peter act out all 7 Deadly Sins: Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy, Gluttony. Even more brilliant, as I’ve stated, is the fact that he makes Peter look ridiculous as he commits these acts… this isn’t like Seven, where the crimes are calculated, dark, and intelligent – Peter is a dolt… he’s regressing. Eventually this culminates in Peter hurting MJ even more. He immediately realizes he has gone too far and something is wrong with him… he needs help. Where does he go? The church. On top of the church, Peter battles the symbiote. He struggles to rid himself of the black stuff. He perseveres. He wins. The very next scene? A symbolic baptism – Peter taking a shower. Of course, pre-”baptism,” Peter is consumed with anger for the man who killed his uncle and is obsessed with seeking revenge. Post-”baptism” he forgives him, and in the process, is forgiven as well (by Harry). Do unto others…
This, ultimately, is what the Spiderman series was building toward. It wasn’t about keeping New York safe, or about Peter Parker learning how to use all of his skills in order to be the best superhero. It wasn’t about overcoming bad guys, but overcoming himself. Spiderman doesn’t have the “perfect ending.” Tragedy has struck and our hero is mourning. It seems he gets the girl, but it remains to be seen what the future holds. There was a parade in the middle of film, but not at the end… Spiderman receives no accolades for this fight. Yet it is a happy ending, and the film ends with a sense of victory because Spiderman has overcome adversity and has done what is right. Smashing the enemy’s face is easy (relatively speaking)… forgiving them? That’s gospel.