"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
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.
Parker’s longtime sweetheart, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is back, but the road to true love runs pretty bumpy for the couple, and he is distracted by a rival love-interest, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), also from Marvel Comics. In a telling newsroom incident that reveals Parker's new ugly side he reveals, with showy contempt, a mistake made by a photographer at the Daily Globe where Parker also works, to the boss and other employees. The man is instantly fired, and complains to Parker, "Why don't you give a guy a break?" Parker sneers, "You want forgiveness? Get religion."
Yet like its predecessors, "Spider-Man 3" is surprisingly respectful of religion and faith. Parker eventually gets really worried about the dark suit's effect--and just at that moment he notices the cross on top of a church steeple. He perches on the steeple like a gargoyle and then, under the shadow of the tolling church bell, he manages to peel away the clinging parasite that had enclosed him in the powerful black suit. The rubbery alien falls and finds a new victim to encase: Eddie Brock, the news photographer Parker had earlier humiliated and gotten fired.
In a climactic scene, Parker pleads with Brock to give up the poisonous black suit: "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 Brock's head, a good representation of the power of aggressive, distorting thoughts. As the darkness wraps over his eyes, Brock grins and says, "I like being bad. It makes me happy."
Parker's last words in the film reiterate the overarching theme of the "Spider-Man" series, that power must be governed by responsibility. He 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, 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.
I haven't mentioned the fight scenes, which is where most of the action-movie special effects come in. 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, slamming into other things, catching fire, and so forth. It seemed strangely irrelevant to the morally serious interaction and dialogue that came between the noisy sequences--sort of like the moments in old-fashioned musicals where characters would suddenly step out of character to face the camera and sing. In the "Spider-Man" movies, they suddenly start hitting each other.
I don't get it, but I know for some viewers that will be the "best part" of "Spider-Man 3." Yet even they may find that 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.