Money talks, but it doesn’t write all that well, and it can scarcely direct a movie at all. Spider-Man 3, which we are told is the most successful new film release in history, beating even Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and prompting Sony Pictures to offer three more sequels straight off, is more of a mess than you can quite believe. Pieces of plot float in from nowhere, supernatural characters develop new sets of powers in mid-scene, all the most soppy and obvious scenes are played as if they were Ibsen and all the jokes have been replaced by weary memories of what the movies used to be like – what the two previous Spider-Man movies were like, I mean. American critics have more or less universally panned the new film, but someone is laughing all the way to the bank, and probably laughing even more in the bank as they actually count the money. Spider-Man performed well at the box office, but Spider-Man 2, by far the most interesting of the three, did poorly. Why do I wish the critical lessons of history were not so obvious? And is anyone looking forward to the rest of the season’s ‘threequels’, as they are now called: Shrek the Third and the third Pirates of the Caribbean?
Still, the Spider-Man film franchise is so strange that it’s not unpleasant to watch it earn money even while idling. Like the new movie itself, we have our memories, and Tobey Maguire is still with us as Peter Parker, the goofiness wearing a little thin, but the earnestness holding up (in Spider-Man 2 the woman Peter loves appears in a Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest), and he does something very few actors can do: deliver portentous and self-pitying lines (‘Spider-Man will always have enemies’) not as if he believes in them but as if he knows that everything means something to somebody. Jonathan Lethem, writing about Spider-Man in these pages, reported on the child in the cinema who murmured, as Peter misses the school bus in the opening scene, ‘It’s always like that for him,’ and this catches precisely the feeling Maguire projects.He is a nerd with supernatural powers but that makes him more nerdy rather than less. We might feel sorry for him if he weren’t so jovially expert at feeling sorry for himself, and we don’t really connect the athletic figure swinging through the city streets at great heights with the abstracted and uncertain Peter Parker on his underpowered motorbike. I mean, we know it’s the same person, but when the second self is so different from the first, it’s definitely more alter than ego. Not a compensation but a kind of joke. It’s always like that for him. Flying through the sky won’t stop you missing the bus.
One of the great pleasures of Spider-Man and the first sequel was their string of clunky and/or almost psychotic double-entendres. ‘I’m seeing someone,’ Kirsten Dunst says as Peter’s friend Mary Jane. Peter looks a little surprised, but only because he thinks she’s in such good mental shape. He says: ‘You mean, therapy?’ She doesn’t. ‘Work was murder,’ Willem Dafoe says as he stops by for dinner. Everyone takes him to be saying he had a rough day at the corporation, but he literally means he’s been busy killing people. ‘Just be careful what you turn into,’ Uncle Ben warns the orphaned Peter, not suspecting for a moment that Peter’s options are not restricted to being one kind of ordinary human or another. ‘He never doubted the man you would grow into,’ Aunt May says, reinforcing the point. A little later she delivers the film’s best-known line: ‘You’re not Superman, you know.’ Indeed he’s not, but he’s closer to being Superman than Aunt May can possibly think; a superhero queered by everyone else’s arachnophobia.
Did anyone ever imagine Superman was an enemy of the people? This is what many folks want to believe about Spider-Man, in spite of his relentless good deeds. He is always having to prove his virtue, because like some other creatures from the Marvel Comics nursery, he is the superhero not as ultrahuman but as freak. When he thinks of his mission, as he repeatedly does, adopting a saintly look probably borrowed from some version of Joan of Arc, the people around him are trying to deal with his freakishness. Pretty much the only ones he doesn’t make nervous are those whose life he literally saves – catching them as they drop from a high building, for example.
There is an exception to this response, and it appears in Spider-Man 2, a genuinely affecting and complex moment. Peter is unconscious on the floor of a subway train, having been knocked out in his battle with the wonderful Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius, a mad scientist who has managed to transform himself into a monster with four huge flailing metal arms in addition to his ordinary complement of limbs. Peter is wearing his Spider-Man suit but not his mask, and the train travellers look down at him in amazement. They already know what Spider-Man does, but now they are seeing who he is. ‘He’s just a kid,’ one of them says. Then two boys appear having found the mask. Peter puts it on, and the boys say they will never tell anybody what they have seen. The rest of the crowd assents, effectively taking an oath of silence on this subject. This is loyal of them, and they think they are being loyal to the boy. In reality they are being loyal to the myth. Spider-Man has to be nobody. That’s why he is no real help to Peter Parker.
Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man was the Green Goblin, got up in a demon suit and riding the air standing on a sort of missile-bearing boomerang. He dies in a fight with Spider-Man at the end of the movie, but keeps making guest/ghost appearances in the other two; in the latest film, his son Harry, played by James Franco, now knowing who Spider-Man is, becomes the imaginatively named New Goblin, and follows in his father’s flight-pattern, riding an airborne missile-bearing skateboard, and duelling with Peter high about the Manhattan streets. Peter wins, needless to say, and Harry almost dies, conveniently losing his short-term memory in the process. Now he doesn’t know who Spider-Man is, and this part of the movie can go to sleep, until Harry is needed for a redemptive real death at the end. Meanwhile a dollop of self-generating black plastic seaweed has fallen from another planet and taken up residence in Peter’s grotty little flat. This is a symbiotic substance, we learn from a handy scientist who analyses it, which enhances the natural characteristics of anyone it attaches itself to. One day when the plot is getting tired the substance encases Peter while he is asleep, and his natural characteristics, already faintly glimmering in this movie, though invisible in the other two, turn out to be arrogance, vanity and total indifference to the lives of others. He struts the streets in a new suit, getting looks from the girls, as if he were a mean, all-conquering dude. Maguire is about as convincing in this role as Donald Duck would be in Die Hard, but I take it this is one of the film’s mild attempts at a joke. In this avatar he kills a villain, or would have killed him if the villain were not immortal and made only of sand, and Peter is ashamed when Aunt May, always charged with delivering the larger ironies, says: ‘Spider-Man doesn’t kill people.’
The Sandman is a robber on the run who climbed the fence into a physics facility and fell into a pit where he was ‘demolecularised’. His return to life as sand is visually very impressive, but it’s not at all clear why he is suddenly able to change his size when he feels like it, at times looking like a sandcastle version of Frankenstein’s monster, at others like the whole beach invading the city as a grainy King Kong. Nor is it clear why the film needs another villain, in the shape of an ambitious photographer exposed as a plagiarist by Peter, and now keen to see Peter dead. He gets transformed by a bit of the black stuff too, although it’s hard to see what enhancement his obnoxiousness needed.
All ends well. Peter’s nasty natural characteristics turn out to have been only temporary, the Sandman has vanished and all the unpleasant people are dead. Sam Raimi, the director of all three Spider-Man movies, can rest on his financial laurels, especially since in this case he and his writers did scarcely any work to earn them.