Spoiler alert: This essay reveals plot points in "Spider-Man 3."

"Spider-Man 3," the latest in the series from director Sam Raimi, is an action movie for people who usually hate action movies:  It's got the pathos, ethical dilemmas, character complexity, romance, plot twists, spiritual realities, comedy, and tragedy that most action movies lack. It's also got the sine qua non of action movies: stuff that blows up.


The two earlier "Spider-Man" movies (2002 and 2004) were themselves better than the usual superhero fare in both style and substance. Plotline and characters--especially the hero, the sweetly naive Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) 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, however, was not a square-headed comic-book 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.


Raimi's latest movie also uses the action-film genre to drive home subtle but powerful moral truths. Its central theme is the futility of vengeance. If you think about it, that's an unusual theme for an action movie, because in those films vengeance is very often the whole point of the story. Vengeance sells. 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. Thus, an action film can be a sort of emotional pornography, nurturing self-righteousness and anger. The message seems to be: Might makes right, and if you don't have might, get it, and get even.


"Spider-Man 3" subverts all that. 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 Parker, the mild-mannered college student who, as crime-stopping Spider-Man, has become New York's hero. The creature weaves itself around him in a new, all-black Spidey suit, and this gives young Parker an exhilarating sensation of power. But the 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?" The character responds with 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 eventually his Dr. Jekyll lets his Mr. Hyde slip the leash. The influence of Dark Spidey recreates Parker as a smooth hipster, arrogant, cold, and sexually confident. In one of these incarnations or the other Parker is kept busy maneuvering through an extraordinarily complex plot with villains galore. His best friend/vengeful enemy Harry Osborn (James Franco) reappears, and there is a host of new bad guys, ranging from the parasite alien who constitutes the evil suit to Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), those last two familiar as the villains Sandman and Venom from Spider-Man's Marvel Comics origins.

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