Spider-Man is a duality.
You’d think an awkward, gangly wallflower of a science geek acquiring bullet-time reflexes, herculean strength, acrobatic agility, and a sixth sense from a radioactive spider instead of, say, cancer, would be the luckiest break ever. With these powers, he should be able to have fun all the time, and never worry about a thing.
Spider-Man, in theory, should be the amazing fantasy of a 15-year old kid doing whatever he wants.
Instead, Peter Parker’s life is as volatile as they come – relentlessly difficult and without prospect for permanent improvement. He has fun in the costume but doesn’t get to enjoy or indulge in much else. Life gets worse when you have those powers, not better.
This isn’t a revelation; every kid who picks up a Spider-Man comic for the action eventually says to himself, “boy I sure wouldn’t want to be him.” Spider-Man looks like a perfect escapist vehicle, but isn’t that at all. He’s a hero because he could always be something else.
When I watch Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, I am awash with dual emotions. I feel a lot like how Peter Parker feels when staring into Mary Jane’s eyes: empowered yet more vulnerable, excited yet terrified, and I know only what kind of integrity I want to have.
Very few modern blockbusters evoke such a response, and almost none do to such a degree. After ten years, two new actors, and three post-Raimi Spidey films I found to be sub-par at best, I think I now understand why.
For all the sunny optimism, live-action camp, and monster kitsch, Raimi’s trilogy is alarmingly dark. Maguire’s Parker is never the confident adult that we want him to be, and always in his own way. He takes the easy way out often and pays for it equally often. The first time he uses his powers free from responsibility, he gets Uncle Ben killed. When Goblin offers him a villainous partnership, even Peter doubts his lackluster “because it’s right!” answer to the “why bother” question. It’s only after he seeks out MJ, brutalizes her assailants, and experiences the kiss of a lifetime that he finds himself, which is why his next scene is a blazing firefighter rescue.
In Spider-Man 2, when being heroic is too hard, he quits. At first his reformed life is perfect, but the guilt won’t go away and Aunt May won’t shoulder it with him. She refuses his hand just as he refused Ben’s. Toward the end, he coldly refuses to address Harry’s grief and incredulity, leading Harry to Goblin 2.0. And when Doc Ock gives him the out by sacrificing himself, and MJ at last learns the truth, Peter gets everything he wants, only for the final shot of the film to gloom dark over MJ’s face, as if to signal an impending doom.
Yet the films don’t indict him for these things either. They understand, as we do, that a human being can only do so much. How can you be Spider-Man if you keep getting fired or shortchanged at work? Or when you’re failing classes? Or are living without love? Can a hero take a break to come back with twice the fortitude? Raimi posits questions without clear answers because that’s the nature of Spider-Man’s duality.
We see Peter genuinely trying his hardest. At heart, he’s a good person, burdened by the guilt of his failure to be a better one, and always in an effort to make the best of the lemons the superhero adult life keeps throwing at him.
And so are his nemeses. Raimi proves Spider-Man’s heroism by demonstrating his ability to do what his opponents tragically cannot. He can embrace the moral struggle and persevere through it. The train rescue remains the greatest, most thrilling, and emotionally rewarding highlight of the superhero genre bar none because it shows us, after a steady dramatic arc, what a character like that is capable of. He tries, fails, tries again, fails, and tries again with sheer grit. Raimi’s fast camera keeps with him as Maguire, unmasked, puts his face through the motions in a sequence where his character is essentially letting himself be drawn and quartered to save everyone. And the passengers return the favor in kind, just as New York did on the bridge when he had to hold on to both MJ and the falling gondola.
This is his ultimate sacrifice, but it doesn’t last long or end the film because no one, neither Spider-Man nor his villains, is totally defined by one single moment in their lives.
Raimi’s trilogy doesn’t have conventionally irredeemable or cynical evildoers. Flint Marko and Eddie Brock aren’t evil, but flawed and desperate – facing hardships Peter and Aunt May are familiar with. Harry is confused and alone. Norman Osborne and Otto Octavius are good, brilliant, caring people at their core before they get carried away with their scientific obsessions whose side-effects amplified their qualities and ambitions, but switched off their moral inhibitors.
That, by the way, is exactly what happens to Spider-Man himself in the gravely misunderstood Spider-Man 3. But not before making a major personal choice. Spider-Man, as Leah Schnelbach observed in her TOR article cited above, is the only person in the trilogy who intentionally and deliberately, without any insanity excuse whatsoever, chooses to kill someone.
The symbiote is its own “performance” enhancer, like the Goblin serum or Ock’s robotic arms – amplifying violence and aggression in the service of personal ambition and suppressing the human conscience. But unlike Goblin and Ock, who merely get stuck with their inner demons, Peter willingly embraces evil by making the conscious choice to don the black suit instead of the classic one. He knows it will enable him to kill, and thus believes that it will empower him.
The Editor’s Cut of Spider-Man 3 better reveals the authorial intent regarding Peter’s moral compromise. After drowning Sandman he first seeks validation from Aunt May, who gives none of it. Then, once MJ “breaks up” with him, he puts on the suit again to get his life back. The cut shows him in and out of the suit, and constantly tempted by it – much more of an Act 4 spiral Raimi was going for. First he blows the whistle on Brock, then puts the suit away, then learns about Harry, then dons black again to bully him. Here, Peter is at his cruelest, not only in refusing to care about the truth but also in needlessly lying to Harry, and dishonoring his father’s memory just to hurt him.
And then… he cruelly turns his wrath upon the audience in what has to be one of the greatest power-drunken parody sequences in history.
If you didn’t appreciate the extent to which Raimi was making fun of Peter Parker in that socially-criminal James Brown performance, I have to question if you’ve watched these movies.
When Peter’s original pajama sweats costume was revealed at the wrestling match, were you not cackling with glee both at how stupid he looked as well as the irony of how much he butchered the coolness of his own sketch? Or how about earlier when he tests out his powers, trying to come up with cool catchphrases for web slinging? When he tried to leap back into being Spider-Man only to hilariously crash into the street, were you not laughing at the folly of his thinking that it would be that easy?
Raimi spends the trilogy humanizing Peter Parker by mocking him because Peter Parker is not cool. He’s the dweebiest, most socially off-putting and romantically cringe-worthy weirdo ever, and almost everything he thinks is badass is actually horrendous. Spider-Man’s mask, costume, and powers take care of the coolness for him, so he just adds wise cracks. But when out of the costume, Peter’s idea of bold assertions and telling people off looks and sounds exactly as lame as… well, you do when you’re arguing on the internet.
The purpose of that emo dance, then, was not just to show how ridiculous he acts in his little self-stylized celebration, but also to stop the audience from delighting too heavily in it. Don’t shoot the messenger; the movie agreed with you that you were seeing something atrocious.
And it’s thematically in line with the greater moral complexity of the Spider-Man Trilogy. Peter’s worst enemy is himself. You should not want him to debase or embarrass himself like that. The rest of Spider-Man 3, save the last dance with Mary Jane, can’t fully come together. But in the end, I don’t just find emotional solace in the first two because they avoid the third’s many flaws. I appreciate them more because the greatness buried within that over-handled mess of a threequel conveys real perspective on heroism. Spider-Man is a hero because he is truly and authentically capable of greater evil than anyone else in his vicinity. When haunted by the image of him at his lowest, his fleeting high points become all the more glorious.
The Raimi trilogy is more than just the ultimate post-9/11 catharsis blockbuster. It is the story of a flawed person moving and operating within a darker moral haze than the world around him appears to be. His Peter Parker is real enough to us as a struggling dorky adult that we are always rooting for him to be his best self, and cheer when he lives up to it, just as we do for ourselves.
You will never, in the modern-day Marvel Cinematic Universe, see anything close to this trilogy’s comical yet deeply serious commitment to the humane characterization of a superhero, unless those stories are written and directed by Shane Black or James Gunn. You won’t find it in Homecoming and you certainly won’t find it in the Andrew Garfield desecrations. What they lacked, among so much else, was the multidimensional emotion stemming from that duality at the heart of Spider-Man.
Sam Raimi didn’t just get it. He ventured deep, unafraid to showcase its ugliness, moral and visceral. For once you see how bad it might look on you, that’s when you know what kind of person you want to be.