Spider-Man Gets Sensitive

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Sony Pictures

A scene from the film Spider-Man 3.

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Spider-Man 3 isn't very up-to-date either; indeed, it's defiantly anachronistic. Black-Peter is fond of 40s jive talk ("Now dig this") and antique hipster choreography. Mary Jane, who harbors the outmoded ambition to be a Broadway musical star, sings a ballad ("They Say It's Wonderful") from Irving Berlin's 1946 show Annie Get Your Gun. The film's main emotional points are loyalty to your parents, or parent figures, and fidelity to your friends — the lessons of the uber-square Andy Hardy movies from the 40s. And Spidey 3, like the first film in the series, is a kind of remake of the mid-50s Rebel Without a Cause, in which a mixed-up kid must leave home to create a more satisfying surrogate family, with a pretty girl and another lonely boy.

Mary Jane — M.J. — is the ostensible focus of Peter's yearnings. But except for her showbiz career (which suggests she wants the kind of public recognition that's showered on him), her worries don't mirror his. For M.J. has a crush on herself. When she asks Peter, "Do you love me?" the implied tag is "...as much as I love me?" An action film needs a love interest, if only for the hero to untie her from the railroad tracks, but not one who's a narcissist. And M.J. is way more self-absorbed than the movie is M.J.-absorbed.

Fact is, the Spider-Man love story has grown older without maturing. In their early 20s, Peter and M.J. are like a middle-aged couple; he's too consumed by work to pay attention to her hopes for a career. The pair's attraction is assumed rather than displayed. That's why the film's one slice of heterosexual sizzle is the kiss between M.J. and the smitten Harry — the girl's mouth tastes like strawberries to her erstwhile beau. Peter's dilemmas may be internalized; but Harry's love, like his rancor, is volcanic.


There's one villain who enjoys the job: Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a.k.a. Venom. "I like being bad," he exults. "It makes me happy." The third of Peter's rivals, Eddie-Venom is the reckless spirit of what teens would do if they dared, if there were no consequences, no censorious adult monitoring them. His tone of impish hell-raising seems out of place amid all the agonizing analysands — Peter-Spider, Flint-Sandman and Harry-Goblin — seeking to purge their inner demons, receive absolution for their sins. In this very serious movie, only Grace and Raimi regular Bruce Campbell, in a nice cameo as a varry Franch maitre d', seem to be having the outsize fun normally associated with comic-book capers.

Raimi made his cult rep with the two Evil Dead horror films and the comix-inspired Darkman. But he's gone sensitive before, as in the Kevin Costner baseball drama For Love of the Game. In the last two Spidey films he's teamed with screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who in a 40-year career has scripted such weepies as The Sterile Cuckoo, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Bobby Deerfield, Julia, Ordinary People, Dominick and Eugene, White Palace, Anywhere But Here and Unfaithful. The rules for Spider-Man 3 are closer to the ones for those wayward domestic romances than to action-movie guidelines. Except for one thing: the love and friendship drama is about the men.

That sounds out of synch with the prevailing tone of pop culture, where sentiment has been largely banished, in favor of the male attitudes of cool, tough and ironic rule. Where can mass-moviegoers find release for their tenderer feelings? Only at dozens of inspirational sports movies, where guys (on screen and in the audience) get to cry and cheer and win. And, this weekend, at Spider-Man 3.

I've often complained on this site about how Hollywood movies ignore women, or turn them into figures of fem-machismo. Now I see that, in the burliest genres, men's roles are being feminized. Peter Parker may be affianced to M.J., but their love seems pretty shallow and perfunctory. His most intense relationship is with Harry, his friend and surrogate brother — someone to try to talk sense to, to banter and battle with, to caress lovingly when he's hurt.

Science tells us that, within the next few decades, women will be able to reproduce without men; guys will be obsolete. It'll be different at the plexes, though. You can bet that, years from now, Spider-Man 13 will be tracking a mid-life Peter through more rocky relationships with other difficult males, and being stalwartly sensitive about it all. If movie men are getting in touch with their female side, who needs movie women?

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