Emo Spider-Man's Defense: How 'Spider-Man 3' Dared Make Power Uncool
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Spider-Man 3 is remembered today as a template on how not to do a superhero film. It was so bad that it killed a franchise, we tell ourselves (it actually sold more tickets than any other Spider-Man film before or since). The trailer was better than the movie—it didn't just promise a better movie, the trailer was a better movie, and it managed to tell the entire story in just two minutes.
The largest chunk of the criticism fell on the character of Spider-Man when he was wearing that black suit. Emo Peter Parker, also known as Venom Spider-Man or Bully Maguire, was a disaster, a character the movie tried and utterly failed to make cool. At least, that's what a lot of people said. But that's really unfair.
The Cringe Was Intentional
Now, just because something's intentional doesn't mean it's good. If you make a bad movie and afterward reveal you were trolling, don't expect applause. But I'll say it anyway—the cringe in this movie was intentional—because many critics of Spider-Man 3 blame it for failing at something it never sought to do.
"Emo Spider-Man was lame," people claimed. "Therefore, the movie failed and was bad." That's a very limited way of appreciating stories. It's not so different from writing a thinkpiece called "10 Ways Tony Soprano Was Problematic," saying these were points the writers overlooked, and declaring that this is proof The Sopranos was bad. Characters can have all kinds of flaws, and when you dislike how a character acts, that may well be the desired response.
I can't easily show that Peter's various antics were purposely cringeworthy, other than to describe a bunch of scenes and say, "This had to be on purpose. C'mon!" Luckily, one scene goes further than the rest. I'm talking about Peter dancing down the street, finger-gunning women around him and changing into some groovy threads.
We see the reactions of everyone around him. They're confused or disturbed. The movie says Peter is not cool here, even though he thinks he is.
The following video, which replaces the music with normal streets sounds, shows people's disgusted reactions even more clearly. And yet when this video's shared, I've seen people act like it's The Big Bang Theory without the laugh track, act like it reveals some weakness the movie wanted to bury. Nope: It just emphasizes the truth you were supposed to see all along.
The street scene is very useful in that it tells you to distance yourself from Emo Spider-Man. It's also a bit of a cheat. Because Spider-Man 3 is not the story of someone who considers himself cool but who everyone else spurns. Other than in this scene, nearly every character finds Emo Peter just as enchanting as he finds himself. And yet the movie wants the audience to consider him ridiculous. That's hard to pull off, but the movie manages it.
Bully Maguire Is Powerful And Yet We Don't Admire Him
A little while back, I wrote about how when main characters turn evil, they're cool. If your character breaks bad, that gives us vicarious thrills, and the story becomes a wish fulfillment fantasy. You could make your character do something so very bad that we stop rooting for them, but that's tough. More bad usually just means more badass.
It's especially tough in a superhero movie. Sure, your hero can do bad stuff, but this is also a world with literal supervillains—supervillains who often manage to be even more cool than the hero. A supervillain is strong like a superhero but may well be more confident, cares even less about rules, and they actually do stuff (while the hero merely reacts to what villains do). Turning a superhero into a supervillain probably won't make them less cool. It'll probably make them more cool.
So to make Peter contemptible, instead of overwhelming us with evil, Spider-Man 3 underwhelms us. Like I said, I don't want this whole article to be me pointing at clips and saying "look at how lame Peter is, c'mon," but let me pick out just two that manage this masterfully. First, what fans call the “fix this damn door” scene:
If the movie wanted newly confident Peter to rise up against his landlord, this could easily be a scene of victory. We've all had dickish landlords, and we remember greedy Mr. Ditkovich from the last movie. Symbiote Spider-Man could even grab the landlord with a web and throw him out a window, breaking both his legs, and we'd be too busy cheering to worry what path Peter's heading down.
Instead, Peter blows up at his landlord by giving an entirely reasonable demand—fix the broken door, a bit of maintenance that the law actually mandates the landlord perform. In the process, Pete raises his voice and mildly swears, and this alone is enough to send him into guilty introspection about everything else he's been doing. To further keep this comically modest outburst from being triumph, the movie shows Mr. Ditkovich concerned for Peter instead of defeated, and we later see he's been close to Peter all along.
Or take this scene with Ditkovich's daughter:
With Peter temporarily single and Spider-Man being a nerd fantasy, we might cheer Peter for flirting with someone new, and we get a taste of that with Elizabeth Banks' character. But the film doesn't dwell on Betty Brant, or show him asking out Gwen Stacy (not even to set up the pivotal date with Gwen later on).
Instead we get this scene with Ursula. His new boldness manifests itself as Peter gobbling up Ursula's cookies. His feat does not impress us, particularly since Ursula was always willing to bring him baked goods and did so already in the last movie. He demands she bake a new batch with nuts, which is bossy and petty, and Ursula being perfectly fine with it makes the scene all the more absurd. Meanwhile, Dr. Connors is on the phone, explaining the nature of the symbiote—the main conflict, which we care about—and Peter is too drunk on his own new charisma to care.
Spider-Man 3 is having a bit of a renaissance right now, judging by online chatter, and I've seen these scenes mined for memes and praised. But at least some of the people delighting in these scenes say they're doing so ironically, like when they quote Anakin from Attack of the Clones. There's no need for irony here. When you laugh at Peter Parker trying to be cool, you're not mocking Spider-Man 3. You're celebrating it.
Now Think Of The Cool Stuff They Didn't Show Him Doing
Peter gets a black suit, grows more powerful, then regrets how power changes him. Given that plot outline, you'd think we'd see a whole lot of him wielding this new power. We'd get action scenes more intense than any we've seen before, and if he's turning evil, the climactic fight should end with him going too far and totally pulverizing his opponent.
We kind of get that fight when he faces Sandman (literally pulverizes him, thanks to some convenient water). Weird thing, though: The action doesn't escalate from there. That scene happens before the street dancing, the landlord, or the cookies. Peter gets only one action scene in the black suit after that Sandman one, and it too comes before the street dancing because it's not a climax:
It's not a bad scene—I like it, anyway—but it's kind of the most grounded, low-key villain fight of the entire trilogy. Despite somehow anticipating Peter's arrival, Harry doesn't have his arsenal ready and doesn't use any Goblin gadgets till the final minute, and Peter doesn't use his webs till the absolute last second. Much of the scene is just two guys trading punches and throwing each other around.
For comparison, the two also fought earlier in film, pre-symbiote. It's twenty minutes in, and it's the most exciting action scene of the whole movie (and is also completely visible despite being shot at night, which is an art blockbusters have forgotten):
Peter must struggle to win this fight, so we can see Emo Spider-Man in control against Harry later, but let's say the movie only cared about being as awesome as possible. The wildest fight should close act 2, like in the last movie. So, in this imaginary alternate cut, we'd combine the two fights, Harry fighting Emo Spider-Man through alleys with bombs and webs. Like in the deleted street fight, Peter would severely injure Harry, but we'd make it villainously on purpose like in the deleted mansion fight, and he'd then abandon the body.
Makes sense, and might even help the film's pacing. One problem, though: It would be too cool. Seriously—symbiote Spider-Man winning a fight like that would make him too cool in our eyes, and the film does not want us to fall in love with symbiote Spider-Man.
Besides climactic fights, the movie also denies us scenes of Peter doing regular Spidey duties in the black suit. You know, webbing muggers, grabbing people out of traffic. He still does those things, off-screen (Peter sells photos of this stuff to the Bugle), but we don't see him in action. The film gives him one exciting fight, right after the symbiote bonds with Peter, and it deliberately spends the rest of their time together skipping action scenes and instead just showing Peter being a jerk.
He's Portrayed As Responsible For His Sins
A lot of stories show a hero magically turn evil for a bit. Usually, it's an excuse to fight other heroes without any moral consequence.
Superman briefly tries to kill his friends in Justice League, but none of us hold that against him (instead, this pointless sequence is the best part of the movie). Hawkeye leads an attack in The Avengers that kills Phil Coulson, and we don't condemn him for that, even though mocking Hawkeye is a national pastime. The Winter Soldier has multiple movies plus a TV series about atoning for all his crimes, but we don't blame him for those crimes—we pity him, because he was mind-controlled so they weren't his fault.
Then we have Peter's evil turn. The symbiote doesn't seize control. Dr. Connors explains that it merely amplifies his own characteristics—and, crucially for keeping him culpable, it doesn't amplify those all that much. As a result, he's even more responsible for his actions than a fair number of villains, who magically turn evil when they get powers and magically become good again as soon as they're cured. To show us that, the movie spends an entire hour before the black goo climbs over Peter, to paint him as already self-centered, attention-hungry, and vengeful.
It would take too long to detail all these moments (go watch the movie), but let's look at one:
The crowd yells at Spider-Man to kiss Gwen, they do kiss, and this later causes problems with Mary Jane. We could easily write such a scene as a comical misunderstanding that keeps our hero blameless.
Crowd: "Kiss her!"
Gwen: "Come on. Let's give the people what they want."
Peter: "Uh, I don't know. That sounds like a bad idea."
Gwen: (kisses him anyway)
MJ: (later) "How could you kiss her?!"
Vulture: (bursts in and interrupts before Peter can explain himself)
Instead, Gwen is doubtful, and it's Peter who says to go for it. And MJ is disgusted, but she brushes it off and doesn't actually confront Peter about this when they next meet—until she learns he also knows Gwen as Peter Parker and is close to her, and now, Peter can't explain himself because he really did do something wrong.
Again, imagining our straightforward, well-paced alternate Venom story, we might picture a script where Peter hooks up with the symbiote early on, gets newly confident enough to propose to Mary Jane, and then turns so evil that he later loses her, convincing him the suit is bad. Instead, the movie makes Peter at fault for his actions. His relationship falls apart thanks to his own ego before the symbiote joins him. (And also before, um, MJ dumps him a second time as part of Harry's scheme. This film really is overstuffed with subplots.)
As you might have heard, Sam Raimi never wanted to include Venom in Spider-Man 3. The studio forced him. We assume this means he wanted a film without Emo Spider-Man. But really, he could have given us the exact same story, of Peter giving in to his impulses and doing bad stuff before reforming, without including Venom at all. That's how true Emo Spider-Man is to Peter's character.
Secondhand Embarrassment Was Always A Part Of These Stories
Everything I've been talking about culminates with the film's most memorable, most meme-able scene: the jazz club showdown.
Unlike when Peter first strutted down the street, the crowd thinks he's amazing. But we do not. We watch his dance in absolute horror, which is the way Mary Jane watches it. And who would think, seeing the first two movies, that we'd end up relating more to MJ than to Peter?
Before, I said symbiote Spider-Man's last fight was the one with Harry, but I guess I lied. His final fight is knocking around this bouncer and club owner, who are trying to deal with him, an unruly customer. If the Harry fight was mundane and beneath Spider-Man, this one's much more so. Oh, and it ends with him knocking MJ to the ground. So when he discards the symbiote suit in the next scene, not one of us is muttering, "Aw. You should have kept it a little longer. That thing's pretty cool!"
Looking at how purposely painful this scene is, it's so strange thinking of the critics who called this movie flawed because the music scenes "don't work." Movies are allowed to induce emotions other than joy. Peter's dance is supposed to be smooth and confident and skilled and well choreographed and also harrowing to watch, and it succeeds.
Same goes for the film's other musical bits. The movie opens with Mary Jane singing, and it's so awkward, watching Peter's reaction to the performance, that we aren't sure what to feel. Turns out every critic in the city hates her singing, so phew, we were right about not liking it. Later, MJ and Harry dance and cook to “The Twist.” It's an upbeat song and the two seem likeable, what with Harry having amnesia and not currently wanting to murder anyone. But you're not supposed to want MJ getting together with Goblin Jr., so of course the film wants you feeling uncomfortable.
These feelings shouldn't surprise us. The series has always used cringe as a tool. We've always winced in secondhand embarrassment when Peter's broke or broken, when he stumbles over his words or stumbles and hurts his back. Often, this was in service of a power fantasy. Peter's an embarrassment, until he's Spider-Man.
Emo Spider-Man deflates that power fantasy. Which is appropriate. The message of these films was never supposed to be "With great power, comes great coolness."
Top image: Sony Pictures
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