When Spider-Man 3 was released in the summer of 2007, it was greeted with a groan from fanboys and critics alike. The film was a shambles, it was commonly thought – too many villains, too many stories, too little logic. Sam Raimi had done a Batman Forever. He’d overstretched himself, he’d ruined the franchise, he’d killed Spider-Man. Among these over-the-top criticisms, one piece of analysis stood out. It was published in The Guardian and written by Kelly Nestruck, who argued (with tongue slightly in cheek) that Spider-Man 3 had much greater things than narrative logic on its mind. The film, he said, was an allegory for the end of the George Bush presidency and changing attitudes to the War on Terror.
“[Spider-Man 3 suggests] we need to understand the root causes behind our enemies’ misdoings,” Nestruck wrote. “We learn that Sandman isn’t really that sinister; he’s just an ordinary fella who needs money to save his sick child…[The film also argues that] not only should you understand your enemies, you should make peace with, forgive and even unite with them. How many times did the Goblin Jr try to kill Spider-Man? How many times did he harass MJ? And yet Spidey never stopped trying to be his friend and, in the end, the only way they defeated the evil alien goop was through teamwork. (So get Iran and Syria to help stabilise Iraq, already!).”
Nestruck’s article was inspired by another piece from 2004, which covered Spider-Man 2. Writing in the year of Fahrenheit 9/11‘s release, Republican speechwriter David Frum said that he loved Raimi’s film and declared it “the great pro-Bush movie of the summer”, arguing that our hero, like Bush, is “ridiculed by almost everyone who knows him” but is ultimately a hero. Of course, Frum’s article is total nonsense (if Spider-Man is symbolic of Bush because he’s ridiculed and disliked, then so too is Batman or any other superhero), but Nestruck’s piece hits successfully upon the key theme of Spider-Man 3 – forgiveness – even if it uses it rather flippantly to suggest political leanings. It has nothing to do with ideology. Spider-Man 3 has something much more interesting in its sights; it’s gunning for comic book mythology.
It’s an interesting quirk of comic book lore that for all their power, the one thing superheroes don’t seem capable of is forgiveness. They can’t forgive – there’d be no story if they did. Bruce Wayne can’t forgive the crook who killed his parents or Batman would have no motivation, equally Spider-Man can’t assuage his own guilt for his role in Uncle Ben’s murder, otherwise he’d be able to settle down, get married and have kids with Mary Jane. All superheroes, and especially those created by Stan Lee in the ‘60s, need guilt or some kind of past trauma to justify their actions and keep them fighting. What other reason would you offer for dressing in a bright costume and obsessively beating up crims every night for no pay and very few perks?
Raimi tackles these issues head-on in Spider-Man 3. Forgiveness permeates every aspect of the film and almost every character needs to forgive or be forgiven. Harry needs to forgive Peter for his role in his father’s death, Peter needs to forgive Mary Jane for kissing Harry and Mary Jane needs to forgive Peter for his Spider-Man-fuelled egotism. Outside of the heroes, the villains are also troubled. Eddie Brock only has the anger necessary to transform into Venom because he wants revenge on Peter for getting him sacked, and Flint Marko is only using his Sandman powers to get money to save his sick daughter and make up for past familial problems. Even early ideas for the film emphasized the theme, with Raimi initially planning on casting the Vulture as a secondary villain so bent on getting revenge on Spider-Man that he plunges to his death while trying to kill the hero. A studio mandate to include the immensely popular Venom put paid to that idea.
Though the jumbled mess of characters means the film is riddled with narrative flaws, these thematic threads are constant and perfectly expressed throughout, and they make Spider-Man 3 arguably the most interesting and ambitious superhero film yet made. What is forgiveness, the film asks. Can, and should we forgive, and what effect does it have on our personal lives if we do (or don’t). In the first two films, Peter clearly doesn’t forgive either the man who killed Uncle Ben (who he emotionlessly watches fall to his death) or himself, as he puts himself through emotional and physical hell to atone for his mistake. But he‘s not the only one. Across the first two films, Aunt May and Mary Jane are either attacked or kidnapped twice apiece and the only time Parker considered the most obvious solution to this problem (hanging up his Spidey suit in Spider-Man 2) comes more out of an attempt to untangle his cluttered personal life than a bid to forgive and forget.
The arrival of the black symbiote suit forces his hand in Spider-Man 3 though, turning him into an egomaniac who costs Brock his job, hits out at MJ and, in one of Raimi’s boldest moves, seemingly succeeds in killing the Sandman, who, we’ve now been told, was actually the man who pulled the trigger on Uncle Ben. Telling Aunt May about the news, a proud Peter is surprised to see that his Aunt isn’t pleased to hear about the death of the man who killed her husband. In fact, she‘s disappointed that Spider-Man would do such a thing and that Peter would take pleasure from it. She, unlike Peter, has moved on.
This highlights the film‘s secondary theme – the need of even the strongest of men to rely on others. It’s an idea uttered by MJ in the first act of the film, when she implores Peter to let her help him after he’s heard the news about Marko and his Uncle, and she’s the one who brings him back around when his outburst of violence towards her finally inspires him to do away with the black suit. Back in the red-and-blue for the film‘s closing act, Spider-Man battles Venom and Sandman and witnesses acts forgiveness from Harry (who joins him in the fight) and MJ (who does what she can to help out). He also sees what a refusal to forgive can do to a person when Eddie, now removed from black suit, becomes so consumed by its power to exact revenge upon Peter that he jumps back into it and, ultimately, dies.
Venom defeated, Peter now has to tackle Sandman, who has turned from his monstrous sand form back into a human being. He begs forgiveness for killing Uncle Ben, telling Peter that the shooting was an accident and that his life of crime was borne out of a need to raise money to help his daughter. Raimi repeats the black-and-white murder flashback we’d seen when Peter first learned of Marko‘s involvement, only now the scene casts Sandman as a victim, someone who, as he told his estranged wife earlier in the film, “isn‘t a bad guy” but has just “had bad luck”. Peter forgives him and, in a wonderful visual flourish from Raimi, we see Marko return to his sand form and drift away in the breeze. It’s a perfect moment that wonderfully captures the sense of clarity Peter has achieved. By being forgiven and forgiving others, Peter has finally learned to do what he never could before: forgive himself.
The film concludes with another bold scene that’s unique for both Raimi’s Spider-Man films and comic book films as a whole. Unlike the first two films, there is no triumphant swing through New York at the end of Spider-Man 3. Peter does not nobly ride off on a Spider-Cycle, taking a criminal rap for a greater good like Bruce Wayne at the end of The Dark Knight, nor does he take off into the cosmos like Clark Kent at the end of every Superman film. Instead, he simply visits Mary Jane at her work, the place he’d previously struck out at her, in the hope that they can get back together. He offers her his hand, she accepts and the pair embrace. It’s Raimi’s most brilliant coup. He’s abandoned the spider and focused on the man. Peter’s finally embraced forgiveness and now, rather than dwelling on the past in a desperate search for atonement, he can finally look to a brighter, guilt-free, future and maybe even consider leaving the suit behind. The fanboys were right about one thing then. Spider-Man 3 may not be the shambles they suggested, but Sam Raimi did indeed kill Spider-Man.