Film: Spider-Man 3

The release of Spider-Man 3 set several box-office records, including the highest domestic opening ($151.1 million) and the highest worldwide opening ($382 million). The film will soon join Spider-Man (number seven) and Spider-Man 2 (number ten) in the top-ten list for all-time highest grossing films—maybe even topping it. Although Columbia Pictures maintains that Spider-Man 3 cost $270 million to produce, industry analyst Kim Masters claims that the film is the most expensive motion picture ever made, surpassing the Soviet’s epic version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1968) in inflation-adjusted dollars. Masters contends that Spider-Man 3 actually cost $350 million, and even the film’s producer, Laura Ziskin, doesn’t dispute the charge, admitting, “I refuse to say the [actual] number because it makes me choke.” Masters goes on to combine this production estimate with the additional $150 million spent for the film’s relentless promotion and marketing, resulting in an unprecedented half-billion-dollar total. Spider-Man 3 is clearly a film that can’t be ignored.

The new film is jam-packed with dazzling effects, dull conversations, and muddled story lines; and yet, surprisingly enough, it also has a highly moral message. Overall, the film is visually entertaining, but overlong and disappointing, certainly the weakest of the three-part Spider-Man series. The original Spider-Man (2002) had the difficulty of rehashing the superhero’s backstory, which was already well-known to many of its viewers. This left no room for surprises, but the film still had heart, and its computer graphics, although somewhat cartoonish, were state-of-the-art at the time and compelling for younger audiences. The sequel, Spider-Man 2 (2004), was a much better film, as it was able to build on the original story line. It also had better pacing, more depth, and was quite entertaining. Unfortunately, the creators of Spider-Man 3 chose to complete their “Green Goblin” trilogy with an emphasis on scope: more villains (Green Goblin Jr., the Sandman, and Venom), more graphics, and a number of disparate story lines. As a result, the fight scenes are spectacular but redundant; the action is often too fast to follow; the dialogue is familiar and tiresome; and none of the villains is truly compelling.

Surprisingly, the new film also fails on the all-important characterization level, despite the fact that Tobey Maguire is well-cast as Peter Parker (alias Spider-Man) and Kirsten Dunst is adequate as his love interest, Mary Jane Watson. This failing is all the more unexpected because the original comic was renowned for its character development. In 1962, Marvel comics, after its initial success with The Fantastic Four, was looking for something new to compete with the industry leader, D.C. Comics (which produced Superman, Batman, and Flash, among others). Stan Lee, Marvel’s founding editor, wanted to create a comic specifically geared to his adolescent audience— something that teenagers (especially boys) could identify with. In conjunction with Steve Ditko, Lee conceived the story of a shy, lonely, ordinary teenager from Queens who is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers. In truth, Peter Parker was a scientific genius and ordinary only min his social life, but his day-to-day existence was full of all the traumas, challenges, and temptations of modern American youth: self-absorption, peer-pressure, romance, drugs, etc. The resulting comic was a huge success, and it greatly affected its initial generation of readers.

Spider-Man made his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962, and he soon had his own comic, The Amazing Spider-Man, in March 1963. With astonishing speed, Spider-Man became an icon for the Sixties generation, and his comics were read by young people in high schools, colleges, and even at war in Vietnam. Up until that time, teenagers had always been the sidekicks in comics (like Batman’s Robin), but now a teenager, with all his insecurities, was suddenly at the forefront, and he quickly became Marvel’s franchise character.

From the beginning, Lee and his collaborators worked hard to create a leading character with substance who was, at the same time, entangled in a number of extraordinary plot lines that could have been effectively employed in the recent films. One of the most famous and influential story lines ever written took place in the two-part sequence of The Amazing Spider-Man in June and July of 1973, which culminated with “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Gwen Stacy was Peter’s first love, the pair having met as science majors at Empire State University. But by 1973, Marvel didn’t know what to do with the Peter-Gwen love story, since it was clearly headed for a marriage that would have matured Peter too much for his adolescent audience. So the writers broke with comic-book tradition and decided to let a major character die. In July 1973, Peter’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, took Gwen to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge and threw her off. Spider-Man, in a desperate effort to save her, managed to catch her leg with a strand of his webbing, but the sudden deceleration snapped her neck. In the aftermath, Parker was overcome with vengeance and guilt—did he kill her? Would she have survived the fall into the East River? The death also greatly affected Gwen’s best friend, Mary Jane, a frivolous party girl who soon matured and gradually developed a romantic relationship with Peter as they commiserated over their mutual loss.

This is just one example of the original comic’s ability to create character depth and meaningful tragedy through an effective narrative. Unfortunately, the three-part film sequence chose instead to turn Mary Jane into Peter’s sole love interest, only bringing in Gwen as a minor character in the third installment. The first Spider-Man did offer a modified version of the bridge incident, with Mary Jane serving in the role of Gwen, but the film took the easy way out and Spider-Man was triumphant. Director-writer Sam Raimi, along with his co-writers, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, chose to concoct a mishmash of poorly integrated story lines that, particularly in Spider-Man 3, resulted in embarrassing exposition, ludicrous coincidences, and deus ex machina resolutions.

Nevertheless, like the original Spider-Man comics, the current film promotes a highly moral message. Spider-Man 3 was clearly marketed as the superhero’s “dark” film—the one in which he confronts the darkness within himself. Unfortunately, this inner conflict is simplistically represented through a meteor that inexplicably crashes in Central Park next to Spider-Man, releasing a black goo that soon attaches itself to Peter and accelerates his tendencies to vanity, insensitivity, outright cruelty, and vengeance. The symbiote even turns Peter’s classic red and blue uniform black, as Spider-Man submits to his darkest temptations. He ignores his aunt’s counsel, alienates Mary Jane, and swears vengeance on the man who killed his uncle. Parts of this sequence are perfectly laughable, as when Peter cockily struts down the city streets like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977), or when, like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (1963), he does an embarrassing, campy, jazz-and-dance routine to humiliate his girlfriend.

Afterward, however, when Peter realizes how much he’s hurt the girl he loves, he goes out into the city night, desperately looks up at a cathedral spire and its cross, and decides to fight against his darker impulses. In the upper chambers of the cathedral, he courageously exerts his free will and struggles to tear away his clinging black uniform and all it represents. When he finally succeeds, he goes home and takes a shower, symbolically washing away his sins. Later, the redeemed Peter is able to do what his aunt wants when he tells the Sandman, who killed his uncle, “I forgive you.” At the end of the movie, in a reflective narration, Spider-Man points out that in life, “We always have a choice,” and he concludes by saying, “We can always choose to do what’s right.” Whatever its many mistakes and inadequacies, Spider-Man 3 is an oddly moral film in the current wasteland of American cinema.

  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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