Director Sam Raimi, a self-professed comic book geek when it comes to Spider-Man, was clearly the right man for the job when it came to making movies about the wall-crawling superhero.
More than just a Spidey fan, Raimi was particularly interested in developing the character of Peter Parker, the web slinger's very human—and very flawed—alter ego.
Sony Pictures knew they had the right man when they hired Raimi, now 47, seven years ago for the job. And it's paid off—earning the studio a whopping $1.6 billion worldwide through the first two films.
That figure is sure to soar—possibly to as much as $3 billion when it's all said and done—as Spider-Man 3, which cost a reported $250 millions to make, swings into theaters this week (late Thursday night in some markets, Friday everywhere else).
A huge part of the franchise's popularity has been Raimi's treatment not just of the action hero in the spider suit, but of the young man underneath. Raimi's direction and Tobey Maguire's acting have made Peter/Spidey arguably the most popular comic book icon in film history.
Christians have been among those embracing the protagonist, in part because Raimi has been unafraid to clearly include biblical themes and spiritual imagery in the films.
Spidey 2 (2004) might well have been subtitled The Passion of Peter Parker, as the hero wrestled with whether or not he wanted to be a "savior" of sorts. And when he saves the runaway train near the movie's end—in a crucifixion pose, with a wound in his side and holes in his wrists, no less—and then goes through a symbolic death, burial and resurrection … well, let's just say it's quite a spiritual moment.
Raimi doesn't hold back from the spiritual imagery in Spider-Man 3, either, as the main character wrestles with a dark side he never knew he had. The movie's tagline is "The Battle Within," and the story is reminiscent of Paul's struggle with his sinful nature in Romans 7: "I do not understand what I do," the apostle writes. "For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do."
Biblical themes galore
The film is rife with themes of love, friendship, pride, vengeance, confession, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. No kidding—it's all there … not to mention a critical scene in a church that I won't say much about here.
In the studio's official press kit, Raimi sounds like a Sunday school teacher when he says that in this story, "Peter has to put aside his prideful self. He must put aside his desire for vengeance. He has to learn that we are all sinners. He has to learn forgiveness."
Two weeks ago, I flew to Los Angeles for a press screening and to interview Raimi and members of the Spidey cast. I didn't get to talk with any of them one-on-one, but in roundtable discussions, I was able to ask Raimi and others about the spiritual themes explored in the film, as well as the development of the protagonist's character.
"This story was pretty much set up by the first two pictures," Raimi said. "It was about sorting out how best to conclude these storylines and where our character, Peter Parker, had to grow next to as a human being.
"Peter learns different life lessons in each of these films. We felt that the most important thing that he has to learn now is about this whole concept of him as the avenger. He feels he's the hero who, with each criminal he brings to justice, he's paying down this debt of guilt he feels about the death of Uncle Ben."
Raimi went on to say that Peter needed to be humbled.
"Peter considers himself a sinless person compared to these villains," he said. "We felt it would be great for him to learn a less black-and-white view of life—that's he's not above these people, that he's not just the hero, that they're not just the villains, but we're all human beings. He had to learn that he himself might have some sin within him, and that other human beings—the ones he calls the criminals—have humanity within them. And that the best we can do in this world is to not strive for vengeance, but for forgiveness."
Watching Spider-Man go bad
Raimi says he had a hard time filming the scenes of the "dark" Peter/Spidey.
"Working on those sequences with Tobey Maguire and the dark Spider-Man, that was difficult for me," he said. "It wasn't fun for me, because I don't like watching Spider-Man go bad. I kept wondering, Do we really have to show how vengeful he is? Do we really have to show how pride can destroy you? But my brother (co-writer Ivan Raimi) kept telling me yes, because Peter's going to find himself again after he loses himself."
Maguire wasn't buying Raimi's complaint.
"I've heard Sam say that," he said, "but I'm not quite sure I believe him. I think he's attracted to it and repulsed by it at the same time. I think it's hard for him to see Peter behave in those ways, because it's the treasured character of Peter. But it's where his character had to go in this film."
Maguire, who has been very involved in the development of the character and tweaking of the film's scripts, said he enjoyed delving into a more complex Peter/Spidey.
"We were exploring new territory for the character, and that's exciting for me," he said. "It's not a new character. It's a new side to Peter Parker, something I think is kind of unexpected to see, Peter behaving in some of the ways he behaves. It was a lot of work for Sam and I to go over it, and really think about and discuss the right tone for that part of the movie."
Another sympathetic villain
Thomas Haden Church, an Oscar nominee for Sideways, plays one of the villains—Flint Marko, an escaped convict who, through an accident in a particle physics testing facility, becomes Sandman. Much like Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, he's a villain who earns your empathy and sympathy. He's basically a good guy who went "bad" through a series of unfortunate circumstances—in some ways similar to Peter's journey in this film.
"Sandman's character and Marko are intrinsically woven together," Church said. "The character was always about Flint Marko. It was about the man. But like Frankenstein, Sandman is just the darker monstrosity and malevolence that he can't control—not unlike the black suit that Spider-Man can't control."
Ah, the black suit. Anyone who's seen the trailer—or read the comic books—knows that Church isn't giving anything away here. When a meteorite crashes to earth, a living black substance crawls out—and right into Peter's life. When it covers his Spidey suit while Peter is sleeping one night, the new "black suit" not only gives him greater power and agility, but begins to tap the darker side within.
The trailer shows Peter trying to tear himself free of the black suit at one point, but will he succeed? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.
Church agreed that his character was a "sympathetic" villain, but went on to say, "That's the thing: There's no bad guys in these movies. They're just people. They come into these stories with their value systems intact, but they're corrupted by ambition or lust—or, in the case of Sandman, by the ferocity of his own intentions."
That's the lesson Peter must learn: That there's "no bad guys"—that we all, as Raimi noted, have sin within ourselves. That, in part, is where the church comes into one of the scenes.
Raimi said that scene was "true to the comic book; it's very similar to how it was depicted with those classic Marvel comic books of the '80s. There are a lot of literary and spiritual concepts in the comic books, and they reverberate and work for me and for the writers."
Maguire, meanwhile, didn't want to read too much into it.
"For me," he said, "I wasn't thinking about it in terms of spiritual imagery, really, although there is definitely deep remorse on Peter's part. He feels like he's lost his way; he feels really humbled and wants to stop behaving in that way. It's difficult for him; it's emotional. But I think about it from the character's perspective and not really in religious terms; it's more about psychological and emotional terms that I'm thinking."
Indeed, it's a study in psychological and emotional character development. But the spiritual ramifications and imagery are unmistakable. Peter Parker's Passion continues to play out, on the big screen, right before our eyes.
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