film

A disingenuous trip to the dark side

Hollywood spins a steroid sermon against its core values—ego, envy, ambition and power

BRIAN D. JOHNSON May 14 2007
film

A disingenuous trip to the dark side

Hollywood spins a steroid sermon against its core values—ego, envy, ambition and power

BRIAN D. JOHNSON May 14 2007

A disingenuous trip to the dark side

Hollywood spins a steroid sermon against its core values—ego, envy, ambition and power

film

BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON • Spider-Man has always been the nerdy, nice-guy superhero. At least that’s the persona of his modest alter ego, Peter Parker—appropriately played by an actor who’s a superstar only when he puts on the suit. Tobey Maguire is the homely human ingredient in what has become the most successful comic-book franchise in movie history—the first two instalments have grossed a total of US$1.6 billion. Now director Sam Raimi ratchets up the stakes with a sequel that dishes up a hypocritical lesson in hubris. In Spider-Man 3, Manhattan’s “friendly neighbourhood superhero” gets overly enchanted with his own celebrity, neglects his girlfriend, and gets contaminated with black viral space goo that sticks to his soul like original sin. Possessed by a Faustian infection of power and vanity, Spidey turns into the superhero equivalent of a Hollywood star hopped up on cocaine.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, it’s wildly disingenuous. We’re being asked to swallow a pious sermon on the evils of ego, ambition and performance-enhancing aids that comes packaged as a blockbuster exercise in ego, ambition—and the performanceenhancing aid of special effects. With a production and marketing budget reported to be close to US$300 million, Spider-Man 3 may be the most expensive movie in Hollywood history. It would be hard to find a more extravagant monument to modesty.

The story unfolds as a showbiz fable of professional jealousy and romantic rivalry. Peter and his actress girlfriend, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst)—who now knows his secret identity—are in love, and Peter is planning to pop the question. But their careers are on opposite tracks. Mary Jane makes her big Broadway debut only to get trashed by the critics. As Spider-Man, meanwhile, Peter is getting all too comfy with his status as a celebrity folk hero. With the sensitivity of Charlie Sheen in a strip bar, he stages a photo-op kiss with a blonder, shallower babe (Bryce Dallas Howard), after saving her life. Then he’s consumed by a frisky, bat-black parasite from space that envelops his Spider-Man suit like a Kevlar web—making him stronger and faster, but also aggressive, vain and idiotic.

In a Jekyll-Hyde transformation, the dweeb science student becomes a strutting Lothario with rock-star hair and the manners of a slut. The novelty is amusing at first—until Maguire uncorks a virtuoso dance routine that sends the movie into shark-jumping overdrive. The appeal of Spider-Man, compared to other superhero blockbusters, has been its dexterity and grace. But here the franchise surrenders to the dark side of excess.

As Peter fights the devil within, he fends off a clutter of villains—from filthy-rich Harry Osborn (James Franco) on a flying skateboard, to weaselly Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who mutates into Venom. “Where do all these guys come from?” Peter asks, voicing an exasperation we’re inclined to share. (This movie is no place for a woman, as Dunst is left to anguish as a bystander among the boys.)

The most beguiling villain is Flint Marko/ Sandman, a gentle giant played with a lyrical pathos by Thomas Haden Church. There’s an insidious beauty to this Ozymandian hulk of sifting sand. And when it morphs into a whirlwind, a desert storm nimbly weaving through Manhattan’s skyscrapers, it’s hard not to be reminded of terrorism and the Middle East—even though Sandman was created by Marvel Comics back in 1963. Faithful to its classic pedigree, Spider-Man avoids references to current geopolitics, despite a contemporary setting. But in a post-9/ll world, you can’t have a local superhero rescuing New York City from airborne catastrophes without a whiff of subtext. And that whiff becomes pungent when our hero finally sheds the black parasite, dons the old red costume and flies past a huge American flag—a banner of patriotic product placement.

Spider-Man 3 is a morality tale that wears its homilies on its sleeve. America is good, if only we can get rid of that darkness from beyond. And we must defend decent folk from evildoers. But as Peter’s saintly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) warns us, revenge is “a poison that takes you over—before you know it, it turns into something ugly.” She could be talking about the war on terror. Or the Frankenstein monster of a movie biz trying to win hearts and minds with brute force. As Spider-Man 3 launches the battle for the spring/summer box office—this first tent pole in a circus of sequels—it offers a glimpse of a Hollywood at war with itself. M