Review of Spiderman 3
(Directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent)
Copyright 2006 By Erin O'Riordan
First, a confession: When I was three years old, I carried a Spiderman doll around with me
everywhere I went. When I ate, Spidey had to sit at the table with me. When I took a bath,
Spidey had to take off his clothes and get a bath, too.
I haven’t had much interest in Spiderman since then. I didn’t plan on seeing the first film, and
did so only thanks to the enthusiasm of my comic-book-crazed younger brother. I was a bit
more willing to sit down and watch the second one, if only because of Alfred Molina. (I’ve had
a slight crush on him ever since watching him try to seduce his wife by eating yogurt on the
sitcom Ladies’ Man. Chocolat only sealed the deal.) To get me to the theater to see
Spiderman 3 once again took the intervention of my brother.
And I didn’t even space out in the middle. Spiderman 3 has some good messages to convey.
Messages about the importance of respecting one’s elders, respecting life generally, and
adhering to moral values because moral relativism does not work. Stereotypical male
behavior– macho, aggressive, disrespectful to women, revenge-seeking over perceived
slights- is shown to be destructive as well as morally wrong. Actually, it’s a surprisingly
feminist film for a movie written by three guys.
Look at Aunt May. Played by Rosemary Harris, she is (or should be) the face of elderly
feminine beauty, with her flawless skin and pretty hazel eyes. She gives her nephew Peter
Parker (Tobey Maguire) two important clues as his makes his way through the maze of his
life. First, she tells him that if he wants to get married, he has to be willing to put his wife
before himself. Again and again, we watch Parker do stupid, selfish things to his girlfriend
Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). He turns down her offer of help. He kisses another woman in
front of her. Each time, he pushes away the one person he wants to be with most.
Parker does the same stupid, selfish things to his “best friend” Harry Osborn (James
Franco). When Osborn loses his memory, Parker withholds the truth. Later, under the
influence of a mysterious black suit that makes him more aggressive, Parker delights in
attacking and seriously wounding Osborn. We watch as Aunt May’s truth about marriage
stretches to include friendship: to be a friend, Parker must learn to put his friend first.
When Parker reports (wrongly) that the man who killed Aunt May’s husband Ben has been
killed by Spiderman, he expects Aunt May to be happy, or at least to feel relieved. She
doesn’t. Instead, she dispenses her second clue to the maze: revenge is destructive. Power
is to be used to protect the innocent, not to punish the guilty.
With these insights, Aunt May Parker fits either of these definitions of the archetypal crone:
“ As the crone, the woman represents the Goddess of wisdom and prophecy . . . [and]
contribute invaluable insight and the perspective of age.” (Naomi R. Goldenberg, Changing
of the Gods)
“ . . . The modern female elder is often a beautiful, savvy woman who uses the knowledge
she has gained through the years, and the inherent spiritual wisdom of interrelatedness that
continues to grow throughout the years, to impart values that support and encourage the
growth of others and the preservation of life.” (Joan Borysenko, A Woman’s Book of Life)
That’s a strikingly feminist image for a movie aimed at adolescent boys. Now, to be fair, the
message of friendship, not revenge, is also repeated by the film’s male elder, Osborn’s man-
servant Bernard (John Paxton). And in the voice-over narration in one of the final scenes,
Parker states that Osborn, not Aunt May, taught him which moral values to uphold. Parker is
wrong. Aunt May is the film’s preacher, its moral compass, its crone-goddess of wisdom.
Osborn and Parker are friends at times. At other times, Osborn seeks revenge against
Parker because he thinks that Parker killed his (Osborn’s) father. Osborn thinks this justifies
attacking and trying to kill his best friend; this is just one of the film’s examples of moral
relativism. Another is the character of Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church). “I’m not a bad
man,” he tells his wife and young daughter in one scene, in which he’s returned home after
escaping from prison. And he believes his isn’t; he’s justified the theft (and shooting of Uncle
Ben Parker) that landed him in jail as being necessary to provide for his sick daughter. But
we’re clearly shown that Marko is a bad man. Once he decides to do one wrong thing, he
becomes an inhuman monster.
The same thing happens to Parker himself. He happens upon an alien substance, a
symbiote that gives him extra strength and stamina in the form of a black suit. He likes the
feeling of power, and quickly begins to abuse it. Parker can only save himself by shedding
the black suit and returning to the person he was before he put it on . . . the person guided
by Aunt May’s wisdom. We learn that it is not up to us to make our own morality, that there
are rules that must be followed.
The black suit also turns Parker into a walking male stereotype. It makes him use the extra
power it gives him to bully ever other male who crosses his path. Whenever a strange
woman crosses his path, he does a smarmy, repellent kind of mating dance for her. He
blatantly uses his flirtations with other women to hurt Mary Jane’s feelings. And in the midst
of all his aggressive and sexual energy, Parker shoves Mary Jane to the ground. The
audience’s sympathy resides with Mary Jane; throughout none of this has Parker been
presented as anything but a jerk. Spiderman 3's moral path is clearly a feminine one; if you
can’t be a stereotypical male, what other choice do you have?
In one scene, both Parker/Spiderman and a rival photographer, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace)
go to the same church. Parker is seeking forgiveness for allowing the black suit to take him
over. Brock seems at first to be seeking forgiveness as well. He looks up a the life-size
crucifix and speaks of being humbled. He then requests one thing: “Kill Peter Parker.”
(Parker has exposed a fraudulent photo that Brock sold to the Daily Bugle.) He’s allowed the
spirit of revenge to overtake him, and soon the black suit will overtake him, too.
There are two ways to read this scene. One is to equate the morality of the crucified Jesus
with the morality of Aunt May. That way, when Brock requests of God that Parker die, Brock
is placing himself firmly outside the church, sinning, and surrendering to evil. The other way
to read that scene would be to see a contrast, an opposition, between the goddess-wisdom
of Aunt May and the morality of Jesus’s church. In that scenario, “Kill Peter Parker” is a
reasonable request to make of Jesus, and the church is an accomplice to Brock’s evil. The
scene could then be read as a criticism of the church as being outside of true morality. I
suppose that different feminist women will read this scene differently, depending on how one
has come to terms with the sexist and violent aspects of traditional male-centered religions.
(I refer you back to Naomi Goldenberg and Joan Borysenko for discussion of this thorny
In any case, there is more to Spiderman 3 than Kirsten Dunst playing the damsel in distress
while the male characters get all the good lines. The film places value on elder wisdom,
specifically on female elder wisdom, on respect for life, and on friendship. Only one aspect
of the production troubled me. There are several African-American actresses in this film,
and few (if any) have any spoken lines. They are there to be noticed, to be looked at, to be
admired for their beauty. I felt uncomfortable with this use of African-American women as
human props. It seems that the film’s producers have yet to internalize the movie’s message
of caring about the feelings of others.