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Complex webs

Movies | Director Sam Raimi creates a patriotic, morally serious superhero in Spider-Man 3

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

LOS ANGELES-Compared to the other superheros populating the big screen, Spider-Man has always seemed something of an anachronism. From his first late-night rendezvous with Vicki Vale, the billionaire Batman invited his love interests to stay the night. Along with Lex Luthor, the most recent incarnation of Superman had to grapple with his relationship with his illegitimate child and baby's-mama (to use the street vernacular). Even the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles featured a couple sharing an apartment without sharing a last name.

Then there is Spidey. He may be out of high school and in a relationship with the girl of his dreams, but his chaste, gee-whiz ethos remains firmly in place. As in the previous two films, he and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) never share more than a kiss in Spider-Man 3 (rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence). And the will-they-or-won't-they tension between them is predicated solely on the ring hidden in the pocket of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire).

Yet, if the box office is to be believed, the Web Slinger is also our most popular hero. He bested not only the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, but also a whole lineup of sexy mutant X-Men by more than $100 million.

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Spider-Man's preeminence, at least in part, no doubt resides in the audience's ability to see themselves in his adventures. Living in the real New York as opposed to the fictional locales of Metropolis or Gotham, young Peter has neither a trust fund nor a fortress of solitude to fall back on. In his own shuffling, insecure way he must reconcile everything he wants from the world with everything his genetically altered abilities allow him to offer it in return.

For all his innocence, in many ways this makes Spider-Man the most complex character in the superhero pantheon. As actor Tobey Maguire says about the part he has reprised three times now, unlike his fictional brothers, "Spider-Man isn't [Peter Parker's] true identity and it isn't something he chooses. It's something life hands him and he has to decide what to do with that power."

The same could be said for Sam Raimi, who in 2000 was given the power to bring Marvel's most beloved comic book character to life.

Few directors could ask for a franchise with more profit potential than Spider-Man. And given Sony's immense expectations, Raimi might easily have gone the way of his predecessors by making the classic hero more modern-that is, by making him more corrupt. Instead, Raimi chose to do something far more interesting. He chose to focus on Peter Parker's commonness.

"What I've always been interested in is that Peter is a flawed person," says Raimi. "He's broke and the girls aren't particularly attracted to him. Basically he's a geek. Then suddenly he has all this power. . . . It's an awesome situation for a character, and it's filled with drama if it's played right."

It is certainly filled with drama in this latest addition to the series in which Peter-after a mysterious substance turns his suit black and increases his power-starts to fall to the twin temptations of pride and vengeance. Raimi points out that this fallibility is the biggest difference between Spider-Man and other superheros: "Superman knows what he's doing and Peter Parker doesn't. . . . So the most interesting aspect of the Spider-Man story is that instead of the hero against the villain, it's also the hero trying to do the right thing within himself."

Raimi extends this preoccupation with moral choices to his antagonists as well. Topher Grace says about his character, Venom, "He's like Peter Parker's doppelganger, except that he chooses the dark side, so to speak. And Sam made it clear that he wanted that as part of my performance-that it makes a bad guy worse when you understand his motivations, when he's made evil his choice."

Still, all these elements could be ascribed more to Stan Lee, the comic's creator, than to Raimi (though the director deserves credit for leaving that vision in place). But at least one conspicuous scene falls on Raimi's shoulders alone.

Last year the filmmaking team behind Superman Returns created quite a firestorm in the op-ed pages by choosing to downplay the caped crusader's history as an American icon. Calling him an international superhero, the screenwriters, along with director Bryan Singer, intentionally omitted what they considered an inflammatory and outdated catchphrase. Thus "Truth, justice, and the American way" became "Truth, justice, and all that stuff."

In stark contrast, seconds before Spider-Man 3's climactic battle, swinging to the rescue in slow motion, Spidey is momentarily silhouetted against an American flag that fills the entire screen. Though Raimi claims the scene isn't a response to Singer and company's decision to "go global," his decision to include it can't help but enliven U.S. audiences who feel their patriotism is somehow an embarrassment to Hollywood.

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