This review is part straight review, part response to the grumblings of critics, fans, and anyone who saw the film and didn’t like it. I think it makes for great discussion. So, let’s talk.
SM3: A Review
The Spider Man film franchise has, thankfully, become to modern American culture what the Greek myths were to their culture, or the Nordic folk-tales were to theirs. Ripe with the elements of good story telling and rich with symbolism and imagery, the newest installment of Director Sam Raimi’s trilogy one-up’s the other two films and places itself near the forefront of the genre’s best. Finally, American film has a folk- hero who unabashedly confronts moral issues with thought provoking sincerity, all the while engaging with fervent fans by way of fast paced, exhilarating action sequences and lots of explosions.
Indeed, the film is an incredible example of the marvels of modern CG. And yes, it is a collection of Hollywood star power. And yes, it is the product of one of the most successful film franchises ever. But even so, Spider Man 3 has the qualities to stand alone as a great film. Granted, without an understanding of the evolution of the Spider Man character and the previous films this movie would not make a lot of sense; but, that is the case with any trilogy. The Return of the King would make little sense to someone who doesn’t understand the first two films; the same with Return of the Jedi.
The film is the latest in the adventures of boy-wonder Peter Parker, again played by Tobey Maguire, the college student who was, in the first film, bitten by a spider and who subsequently was granted superpowers. But if you are reading this, you likely know that already.
In “3” Peter is forced to face his old friend Harry, who still hopes to avenge his father’s death. Harry’s character, played by James Franco is one of the more engaging characters in the film. Franco seems to have a confidence and energy about him that was lacking in the previous films, likely due to his recent success in other films. Unfortunately, Spider Man must also fight the villainous energies of the Sandman, played adequately by a glossy eyed Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways), and Eddie Brock, played by a humorous but oddly cast Topher Grace (That 70’s Show, In Good Company), who is transformed into a villain called Venom, Peter Parker clearly has his work cut out for him.
Many critics have warned that the numerous villains cause the film to get bogged down in the middle act. This is true only as long as viewers allow themselves to lose sight of what the film is truly about: the character of Peter Parker/Spider Man. It has rightly been observed that there simply isn’t enough time in the film (even though it is 139 minutes long) to fully develop so many characters with the preferred intensity, (particularly the character of Venom who, as a longtime favorite of Spider Man fans, was apparently an addition to the script that Raimi didn’t want but was included to appease fans in case this is the final film). However, that is not the goal of the film-makers.
In Parker we see a character who is faced with the continued ramifications of his lifestyle, ramifications more serious even than those in the second film, and who is faced with having to grow up when he seems unready to do so. Thus when Mary Jane is forced into hurting him he breaks down and becomes emotionally unstable, even hurtful and violent. Viewers cannot lose sight of the fact that in the two young leads we are watching characters who are college students. They are young and will often act accordingly.
Critics and fans alike have condemned Raimi’s decision to make Parker into what appears to be an “emo-kid” in the middle of the film (for the sake of not spoiling the plot too much I won’t go into details)- in fact, looking surprisingly like Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes- who struts arrogantly around the streets and bars of New York City, surmising that all the women want him. This little jab at American sub-culture is utterly good natured and certainly should not be taken too seriously. And yet, it makes sense. Go to a local university or college, go to a local club or bar, go to a sporting event even, and you will see that this is exactly how young people often act. Sure, it is a bit over the top for humor’s sake, but not much; surely, being the geek that he is Parker would have considered such behavior “cool“ or socially becoming. College students: look around, don’t kid yourselves. I am one of you, after all.
This change occurs while Parker is forced to struggle with an evil symbiote from space which has fixed itself to him and caused him to transform into something slightly dark: as I mentioned, he becomes arrogant and loses sight of what his purpose is. This is the same creature which later transforms Brock into Venom. This new Spider Man begins to seek revenge of his own when he learns that his uncle’s murderer is still alive. Angrily our hero pursues his enemy in hopes of destroying him, in so doing losing the battle with his inner demons, finally giving in to his impulses he had long kept at bay. While under the influence of this symbiotic creature Spidey finally forgets what his uncle reminded him in the first film: “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
It is through this mini anti-aristeia mid film that Parker learns about himself, that we learn about him, and by which he takes one more step in his understanding of good and evil. And it is a moment not native only to this film. Heroes in many tales have had similar moments of self inflation: Beowulf as he stands upon his fallen foe, Robin Hood and King Arthur in numerous instances, and consider the myriad of characters in the Lord of the Rings who for a moment think too highly of themselves, or even Turin in Tolkien‘s latest published work. Indeed, the climax of most tales’ lies in these moments of self absorption. The good guys come out of the moment understanding their fallen nature, as Parker does, or Samson, Saul/Paul, and King David did, and with a newfound vendetta against that which bound them. The bad guy is held by his own pride, and so cares not for others, but instead acts upon some impulse like anger or a desire for revenge and is thus in opposition with the forces of good– generally made up of the majority of the other characters. It is as ancient a formula in story telling as Romeo and Juliet’s dreaded double suicide. And that is because it works.
Spider Man 3 is a movie about the powers of good vs. the power of evil. That being said, there are profound instances of imagery in the film.
At one point we see a humbled and dejected Spider Man perched atop a cathedral overlooking the city as a brilliant sun sets behind him in shades of orange and red. He proceeds, amidst the clangs and chimes of the cathedral bell to attempt to shed the black suit in which he had been living. It was a scene reminiscent for me of the “Voyage of the Dawn Treador” where Aslan helps Eustace shed his dragon’s skin, a scene also ripe with imagery and which also deals profoundly with themes like forgiveness.
There are also several moments of choice, both for Parker and other characters which are, in many ways, similar to scenes in Peter Jackson’s aforementioned epic trilogy. Again, we see Parker, as Frodo did, grappling with the theme of responsibility, a theme which seems to be eternally present in such films. In the end, it is a decision of mercy and grace which Parker makes that carries the most moral weight in the film. Because he understands the depravity of man, as he experienced in himself (this time), Parker is able to forgive someone, and to make a moral statement absolutely necessary in our modern times. By way of comparison, it is not unlike the mercy Frodo shows to Gollum.
But my favorite piece of imagery in the film is one that many viewers found implausible and even ridiculous. Early in the film the symbiote which overtakes Parker, and later Brock, causing them to change for the worse and with which Parker is forced to struggle, crashes onto earth by way of a falling star near where Parker is star-gazing with Mary Jane. We see a black, sticky looking creature ooze out of a whole and attach itself to Peter’s motor bike.
I have head many people complain at the nonsense of this. However, I saw it as a wonderful piece of imagery, even metaphor, for the way evil pursues good. We see this dark creature seeking out the greatest example of good the story knows, hoping to extinguish his light, hoping to wreak his good work. And, as evil does in all of our lives at times, it works. For a while.
In the spiritual world there are few explanations for such things except that evil and good are at war. Spider Man, like any good tale of it’s kind, whether Nordic folk tale, Greek Myth, or cinematic epic, exposes this battle and confronts it. That is why movies like the Spider Man franchise must continue to be made.
Though it does have problems here and there– yes, the acting isn’t always great, the villains are under developed, and the script borders on cheesy several times– these are the kind of films our theaters need. Whether young or old, athletic or couch potato, nerdy or suave, comic book fan or not, we can all learn something from this film. But we must learn to watch with our eyes open.
I give Spider Man 3 *** out of 4.
If this is the Big Three’s ( Maguire, Dunst, and Raimi) last hoorah, then I thank them for several years of great fun, great stories, and great lessons. We forgive you for the few shortcomings. After all, isn’t that what Spidey taught us to do?