Spider-Man 3

[Beliefnet, May 3, 2007]

It’s just a guess, but the kind of person who hangs out on a website like this—a thoughtful person, intrigued by spiritual realities, seeking eternal truths–is probably not going to be the biggest fan of movies where stuff blows up. “Spider-Man 3,” the latest in the series from director Sam Raimi, is the action movie for them. It’s got pathos and ethical dilemmas and character complexity and romance and plot twists and church steeples and comedy and tragedy. And stuff that blows up.

The earlier “Spider-Man” movies (2002 and 2004) were better than the usual superhero fare in both style and substance. Plotline and characters were handled with a dash of quirky amusement, but the moral of the story was set forth with an irony-free straight face. That moral was not a square-headed cliché about Justice and Courage, but the more complicated truth that the super-powerful are particularly bound to humility and self-restraint: “With great power comes great responsibility.” There was an invitingly old-fashioned quality to these stories, with a chaste true-love angle, and kisses treated with more respect than complete nudity gets in other movies.

The third “Spider-Man” exceeds its predecessors mostly in quantity; there is an abundance of subplots and complications, and just when the film seems likely to unravel the strands come to a reasonable close (reasonable within superhero conventions, that is). This very complexity makes it impossible to talk about the movie without revealing some of the plot, at least the originating strands. If getting the biggest possible surprise is a priority for you, you might prefer to stop reading here.

The film gives us approximately twice as much of everything: two Bad Guys, two Pretty Girls, two boyish free-lance Newspaper Photographers, two Stolen Kisses, and two opportunities to rescue damsels who are helplessly suspended high above Manhattan’s skyscrapers. There’s one main Ambivalent Character, but he does make the full cycle between bad and good twice.

The film also gives us two kinds of Spider-Man: good and evil, redsuit and blacksuit. And that brings us to the movie’s central theme, the futility of vengeance. If you think about it, that’s an unusual theme for an action movie, because vengeance is very often the spur. Vengeance sells. Anger and resentment and a certainty they’ve been ill-treated lie just below the surface in most people. A plot that shows a good guy treated unfairly, and a smug and heartless bad guy, whips up quick and easy emotion. The worse the good guy’s treatment, the more extreme the bad guy’s payback can be. This is really a nasty kind of entertainment, a sort of emotional porn, nurturing self-righteousness and anger. The message seems to be: Might makes right; if you don’t have might, get it, and get even.

“Spider-Man 3” subverts all that. Early on we see a meteorite crash and something crawl out that is nearly indescribable; a splotch of rubbery black that slaps and flaps itself along, sticky and prehensile, a parasite seeking a host. Eventually it attaches itself to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the mild-mannered kid who, as crime-stopping Spider Man, has become New York’s hero. The creature weaves itself around him in a new black Spidey suit, and for young Parker this gives an exhilarating sensation of power. But this parasite feeds on the worst things inside its host, and Parker begins to behave in ways that frighten him. He hides the black suit in a trunk, but can’t quite resist trying it on again.

This motif will remind some viewers of Frodo the Hobbit in “The Lord of the Rings,” who was debilitated by the One Ring he carried; it inevitably infected its bearer’s mind with a desire for ownership and power. Spider-Man’s transformation under the effect of this sticky malevolence is compelling because it’s so believable; the same agile, nervous energy that marked nerdy Peter Parker morphs readily into vanity and cruelty.

In a forthrightly moralizing scene, Parker proudly tells another character that Spider-Man has killed a bad guy. His hearer objects that “Spider-Man doesn’t kill people.” Surprised, Parker asks, “But didn’t he deserve it?” Here comes the movie’s signature: “I don’t think it’s up to us to say who should live or die. …Vengeance is like a poison that can take you over, and turn you into something ugly.”

Parker doesn’t take this advice. He starts wearing the dark suit under his street clothes, and Dr. Jekyll lets Hyde slip the leash. The influence of Dark Spidey recreates Parker as a smooth hipster, arrogant and cold and sexually confident. Whether the confidence is justified I can’t say; I thought the women reacting to him on the street were repulsed, but the guy who attended the screening with me thought they were swooning. And there was another gender divide: when Parker has a falling out with his girlfriend Mary Jane, it seems that women think the passage is well-handled, but guys think she’s being a whiner. And another thing, the film stresses that, in order to marry, “A man has to be understanding and put his wife before himself.” Maybe there’ll be some disagreement there too.

Parker’s ugly behavior is seen when he reveals a co-worker’s mistake with showy contempt, and the man is fired. When he complains, “Why don’t you give a guy a break?,” Parker sneers, “You want forgiveness? Get religion.”

Religion and faith get a surprising nod, in fact. When Parker gets really worried about the dark suit’s effect, he notices the cross on top of a church steeple. He perches on it like a gargoyle then, under the shadow of the tolling church bell, he manages to peel away the clinging parasite. It falls and finds a new victim, and in a climactic scene Parker pleads with this character to give it up: “I know what it feels like, it feels good, that power—but you’ll lose yourself.” But the fronds of rubbery black caress and surround the character’s head, a good representation of the power of aggressive, distorting thoughts. As the darkness wraps over his eyes, the lost character grins and says, “I like being bad. It makes me happy.”

The film’s closing words recall the overarching theme of responsibility. Parker intones: “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle is raging inside us, we always have a choice. It’s the choices that make us what we are, and we can always choose to do the right thing.” In other words, choice does not, by itself, confer moral neutrality. Some choices are bad choices (“I like being bad”). And even small choices shape the chooser, bit by bit, perhaps into something he would not choose to be.

Having said all that, there’s still much more I’d like to say about this film. There’s a whole other Bad Guy, a monumental tragic figure, who stumbles into a “particle physics” experiment and is whirled into molecules. (Well, sand. I guess it would tax a comic-book illustrator to try to draw individual molecules.) Even if you’ve seen more CGI special effects than you want to, the sight of this melancholy hulk (Thomas Hayden Church, with a lost blue stare and a sagging lower lip) being eaten away by wind and turned into whirling sand is extraordinary. It’s no less so when the being attempts to re-form as a man, but keeps flowing and melting away. He labors to lift himself and reaches toward the locket that holds a photo of his daughter—but the hand that falls upon it shatters into a million grains of sand. It’s terrific.

There’s only one real clunker, a moment toward the end of the film, when an extremely minor character steps forward and reveals information that dramatically changes everything a major character knows. So, he couldn’t have done that earlier, before all the whiz-bang fighting and flying around?

I haven’t mentioned the fight scenes, which is where most of the special effects come in. Being of the girl persuasion, I’m not the best judge of high-quality stuff-blowing-up, but there did seem to be a lot of people and things flying through the air and slamming into other things and catching fire and so forth. Mostly it was too fast-paced to follow, and I wasn’t sure just who was colliding with what. And it seemed strangely irrelevant to the interaction and dialogue that came between the noisy sequences—sort of like the moments in old-fashioned musicals where characters who had, till now, behaved normally, suddenly face the camera and sing. In the “Spider-Man” movies, they start hitting each other. I don’t get it, but I know for some viewers that will be the “best part.” Yet even for them the other stuff, the dialogue and characters and underlying themes, are all richer than the usual action movie fare – it’s a banquet of a movie.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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