“We are who we choose to be, Spider-Man. Now, choose!”
Spider-Man as a character has always been about choice. Peter choosing to let the bank robber escape the wrestling match made him responsible for his Uncle’s death. After his high during the discovery of his new abilities, it’s beyond sobering to have a kid screw up so monumentally. It’s world-altering and will always drive the character. If he has the ability to help people, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t. Actions have consequences. With great power, comes great responsibility. The abilities imbue him with confidence but put everyone he loves in danger.
Peter loves being Spider-Man but doesn’t love what comes with it. In Spider-Man 2, Peter’s struggle is less external than the other films. Criminals are handled with fantastical ease, the public mostly loves him but he’s just so tired. Spider-Man is an all consuming entity. He’s saving lives and lowering the crime rate in New York, but he can’t catch a break in his personal life. The opening shows us his last delivery as a pizza boy before he gets fired. He’s arriving to classes after they’ve ended. He forgets about his own birthday. He’s at war with himself. Peter ponders “Can’t I have what I want? What I need?” His choice to stop being Spider-Man is one of breaking point. It’s a choice the audience can universally relate to: What do you want in life?
Spider-Man is the most compelling superhero because his ordinary dilemmas. What good is a final swing if it isn’t enriched by Peter’s journey up to that point? What Sam Raimi was able to capture in the original trilogy is a sense of purpose in nearly every aspect of Peter’s worldview. Each person has their own wants and needs. Their desires build foundations for conflict or compatibility. What drives them and what they earn determines who they will become. For my money, there’s nothing better in the genre.
In a world filled with super-powered heroes and villains, sometimes the most heroic thing is just being there for someone. What moment better encapsulates casual heroism than Aunt May’s speech to Peter after he quits being Spider-Man? Peter’s just told Aunt May that he lied about the night Uncle Ben died and how he was responsible for letting the mugger get away. She knows her nephew is a good person who has made mistakes. Good enough that he still did the right thing. He might stumble along the way, but there an inherent goodness to Peter Parker. Selfish doesn’t suit the kid. There is a hero in all of us, and we all have the potential to save someone in our own way.
While the character is short shifted in Spider-Man 3 (who wasn’t?), MJ consistently has her own agency. While Peter is the one who pines after her, she is the one who, on all accounts, initiates the romance. All the while, MJ goes through life just like the rest of us: on her own. She escapes an abusive home environment, doesn’t wait for Peter to wise up and begins dating someone else, pursues her dream of acting. Yet to reduce her to anything less than essentially the co-lead for at least Spider-Man 2 and 3 would be a misjudgment. While Spider-Man is the one who saves MJ, she’s the one who saves Peter Parker, simply by accepting Peter for who he is and facing whatever life has in store for them, together. That’s a romance right there. Go get ‘em tiger, indeed.
On the other side of the inter-personal relationship spectrum is Harry Osborn. Pete’s best pal and a great loser in his own right. Like his father, Harry constantly feels he deserves more. He’s whiny and pathetic in the first film, only seeking approval without recognizing a life of his own. Without his father in Spider-Man 2, the only thing he becomes passionate about is getting revenge on Spider-Man. The ghost of his father haunting him to the point where he fully embraces the Osborn legacy, which now includes the Green Goblin. His father’s legacy is one of pain and suffering, but Harry ends it on his own terms by sacrificing himself for the only people who ever cared about him. Or so he thought. It’s not a big moment in Spider-Man 3, but there are more than just a handful of people at his funeral. It’s a small but nice sentiment.
There’s an air of tragedy to Spider-Man and that carries over into his villains as well. The only one who is happy being an evil doppelganger is Eddie Brock and even then, he’s more pathetic than anything. Just a creation of pure evil to the point where everything he does is the opposite of good. It’s like if Donald Trump was a photographer.
Norman Osborn grasps angrily at success. He’s a wealthy capitalist, constantly clawing to become more successful so he can capture what he really wants: respect. Like Spider-Man, the Goblin gives Norman an outlet of confidence. Where Peter has greatness thrust upon him, Norman forces his own potential to be manufactured. He’s also not too keen on the responsibility aspects. All he cares about is power. He’s excessively entitled and hardly ever shows authentic compassion, only asking Peter not to tell Harry after impaling himself on his own glider. A death of his own design, an apt thematic conclusion to the physical manifestation of the character. Peter, in all his good heart remains conflicted. Another father figure gone and now keeping a promise to a man who tried to take everything from him. Even in victory, Peter Parker remains defeated.
Otto Octavius discusses intellect as a gift or a privilege. After a miscalculation on an experiment causes the death of his wife, he’s consumed entirely by his work. Beyond obsessive, he resides in an abandoned warehouse in the Hudson River. His lair made of decrepit wood and metal, a total opposite to the glamorous lab in the heart of New York City. His intellect is a gift to use for the good of mankind. Unlike Norman who was drawn to Peter because of his own potential, Otto and Peter grow close through their shared moral perspective. They choose to do the right thing. Both fall astray from the path on their own personal journeys. Otto loses sight of what is right in light of losing the person most important to him. Their fight doesn’t climax with a punching contest, and not just because the train sequence is the action climax. Dear lord, how would anyone even top that? But their confrontation comes to a conclusion when Peter reminds Otto of who he was, not the man he became. “Sometimes, to do what’s right we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.” Spider-Man 2 essentially boils down to people learning that you can’t always get what you want. But you can, in fact, get what you need.
Flint Marko has something on the cusp of being a sympathetic villain in Spider-Man 3. We constantly hear about how his daughter is sick and how he seems to be another villain of circumstance. It’s not explored as deeply as it should have been but it’s definitely in there. The closing moments between Peter and Flint, whether or not they’ve been established inter-personally by this point, at least reach a thematic conclusion for the trilogy. Two people who should hate each other, crying bloody vengeance at one another throughout the film. But vengeance, like selfishness, doesn’t look good on Spider-Man. Their story is one of regret and forgiveness. In a retcon, it’s revealed Flint Marko killed Uncle Ben. What we don’t know initially is that Flint Marko is mournful of his decision and it was an accident during a spur of the moment heist. So while the use of the symbiote is haphazard at best, there’s a thematic richness to it with Peter seeing the very worst of himself on the big screen and being able to understand a criminal like Flint Marko.
Raimi understood the human components of Spider-Man and his world were the most vital elements to telling a Spider-Man story. Granted, the execution in Spider-Man 3 is muddled but the ideas are there for a rousing emotional climax to threads continued from the first two movies. Peter’s final monologue mirrors his first, only now he is discussing what he’s learned more openly. He isn’t just looking at the choices he make, he’s looking at the choices of others and how the impact they made. “Whatever battle raging inside us, we always have a choice. My friend Harry taught me that. He chose to be the best of himself. It’s the choices that make us who we are. And we can always choose to do what’s right.”
Raimi’s trilogy closes out not with a final swing, but with two people willing to love one another again. After all the hurt they’ve caused one another, all the mistakes and broken dreams, Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson join one another on the dance floor. They embrace, knowing this is where their lives are, with one another. Choosing to love after so much suffering? Damn it if that isn’t its own form of heroism.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures