The point of Spider-Man 3, underscored by all the posters, trailers, and buzz, is black Spidey. The opposite of the terminally naïve, perennially optimistic Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his buoyant, eager red-suited alter-ego, the black Spider-Man is pretty much what you expect: angsty, angry, and aggressive. The two selves make visible the split Peter endures as he faces adulthood, especially as he means to marry Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) while maintaining his secret career as much-ballyhooed superhero.
It’s a struggle, this growing up business. You know that from the first two Sam Raimi films, and now you’re going to know it again. Here it’s complicated by Spider-Man’s recent elevation to rock-stardom. Now the cityscape is lit up with billboards and headlines proclaiming Spidey love. Black Spider-Man (and we needn’t underline the tediousness of this color for evil) has no love, but that’s because he’s something like a void, producing and consuming all Peter’s insecurities, his fear of rejection, his need for acclaim, his forever guilt over Ben’s death and his own selfishness. Craven and intense, black Spider-Man is as he indulges all that.
It helps that the film includes yet another black Spider-Man, a blacker black Spider-Man named Venom, whose raging and fretting finds a point of departure in Eddie (Topher Grace). That Eddie happens to be Peter’s rival for the Daily Bugle staff photographer’s job only exacerbates the multiplying of personae in 3. Eddie’s blackness surfaces as Peter’s recedes, but they serve as mirror images, reflecting each other’s pain and desire. Eddie’s blackness is also marked by a fiercely fangy face, not so cool and mysterious as Peter’s mouthless incarnation, but more upfront about its deviltry and psychosis.
It’s no accident that black Spidey is inaugurated during a romantic evening with MJ. They lie back gazing at perfect CGIed stars, resting on a perfect CGIed web he’s spread between trees in Central Park, gushing how much they love each other. When they leave, a skritchy, webby black goo from outer space—it arrives in some burning, crashing meteor—crawls up onto Peter’s motorbike and rides home with him, skulking in his one room apartment until one evening when he’s alone and worrying. Then the goo crawls into his bed, over and into him, a parasite that “amplifies the characteristics of its host.” Given Peter’s current state, this is bad.
Black Spidey is possessed of all the red one’s skills, focused through a combination of depression and weird cockiness. This after MJ breaks off with Peter, who’s so upswept by his fame and fans that he’s unable to see that her career has stalled. Though he’s entranced by her Broadway debut—she sings Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful”—the critics rip her weak vocals. “They’re just critics,” assures Peter, placidly self-obsessing while wondering when to spring the engagement ring (supplied by patient Aunt May [Rosemary Harris]) he imagines will thrill MJ beyond her wildest dreams. The melodrama is contrived: because Peter can’t sympathize, she turns to his other rival, Harry (James Franco), who has lost his own edgy fury at Peter and by extension MJ, following a memory-blotting head injury. Now he’s sweet and sunny Harry again, all understanding and infinitely more appealing for a girl in need of loving than the vengeance-minded former Harry. At least for a minute.
Peter’s monumental lack of understanding is a function of his celebrity. A parade honoring Spider-Man (red) provides all the adulation he might want, from swarming citizens and screaming girlies (and even a pop-in nod from Stan Lee, who observes on cue, “I guess one person can make a difference!”). Spider-Man is now The Man, no longer the outsider, but beloved and thronged by autograph seekers.
Among the fans is police chief’s daughter Gwen (a brightly blond Bryce Dallas Howard), lately saved by Spider-Man and flirty with Peter (they’re classmates at the university). When she hands him the key to the city, Peter suggests she kiss him while he hangs upside down, his own effort to juice the celebration. “It’ll be really cool,” he encourages her, while spectator MJ’s face falls: this is her special secret Spidey moment, now reduced to camera-ready kitsch. Such recycling and self-awareness, on the film’s part, nearly saves it from the careening disconnectedness that mostly pulls it apart—too many plots, too many motivations, too many gimmicks.
Among the too-muchness is the third villain—after Harry and Fanged-Up Eddie—Sandman, a.k.a. Flint (Thomas Haden Church). An escaped convict trying to get together money for his sick child, he’s rejected by his aggrieved wife (played by the wonderful Theresa Russell in a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo). Sent into the cold night to fume and fret, Flint is zapped like Peter two films ago with a science-fictiony plot device. In Flint’s case, a particle-parsing desert facility remakes him so he’s literally made of sand, alternately pounding and porous, his literal ambiguity uncontainable, his Peter-like neediness gargantuan. Vulnerable and goofy in his cartoonishly out-of-date striped shirt, Flint’s is motivation crassly sentimental, his villainy almost accidental.
The same might be said for the goo-infected Spider-Man, except that he appears to calculate. Just what he wants and how he’s measuring success remain unclear, pretty delightfully in one sequence, where black Peter materializes, his hair shocked over his face like Hitler’s, his very gait changed from tentative to brash. Mad at MJ, he descends into a grim sort of “cool,” like a Jet from West Side Story, snapping his fingers and shooting his hands like guns at passing girls. They make faces and scurry away, but he’s a complete treat, all nerdy self-love. Cut up into close shots of his swaggering torso and scheming eyes, the transformation has nothing to do with anything, except it’s fun, the kind of madcap move-busting usually conjured by Bruce Campbell (who appears briefly as a faux French maître d’).
In an utterly show-stopping moment, the too-cool-for-school Peter takes Gwen to the dingy club where MJ is singing: exploding into a demented, dancing-on-the-tables one-man-show, he suddenly finds an athletic grace on his feet he usually only displays in his web-slinging. But his impulse is all dark and desperate: willful and urgent, he means to devastate MJ at the expense of Gwen’s sweet affection. He’s a bully leaping like Gene Kelly, Peter punishing and unleashed and so unlike himself you share MJ’s horror even as you delight in his lunacy.
But the fun is soon tamped down again, when Peter realizes his affront and the movie gets back to its moralizing intensity. It’s no surprise that Spider-Man 3 means to comment on the world we know, that it’s ruinous to pursue vengeance and trumped up causes, that forgiveness is not only much nobler but also healthier.
It’s an obvious message (which doesn’t mean it’s heeded, as throwdowns remain more exciting than ethical educations). Still, that message does go on and on, with deaths protracted and wounds metaphorical, the super-expensive special effects upping no antes. After 139 minutes, Spider-Man’s onslaughty spectacles are less memorable than Peter’s loopily incongruous dance number. Deftly expressive and insistent, black Peter’s vigor is surprising even to him.