Spider-Man 3 has shouldered quite a bit of abuse over the years. Widely mocked for its tonal shifts and surplus of plot threads, it is often regarded as an unsatisfying failure to conclude Sam Raimi’s trilogy about the titular wall-crawler. Coming off the heels of Spider-Man 2, easily the greatest superhero movie of all time, this is perhaps unsurprising, though perhaps it’s equally unsurprising, given my track record, that I find myself wishing to defend the film’s honor. While it is not without flaws, Spider-Man 3 is rooted in the same classically moral and psychological framework that makes its two predecessors such weighty entries in a genre that is so often weightless. Raimi’s films take place in a robust moral universe where human beings are always torn between good and evil, selfishness and selflessness. Indeed, I’d argue that Spider-Man 3 is one of the best blockbusters in recent memory to capture the banality of evil, and people who complain about Peter Parker dancing in jazz clubs are missing the point. It is true that evil often seems attractive, and there is a certain truth about the human condition to be found in the fact that Darth Vader is the favorite Star Wars character of so many children. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is rather underrepresented in popular films of our time, and there’s a valuable corrective in how Spider-Man 3 allows “Evil Peter” to be little more than a petty, selfish, and simply unattractive human being.
The film’s moral vision reaches its highest point as Peter reaches his lowest. He has cruelly humiliated the woman he loves at the club where she works, and in the ensuing altercation, he has physically struck her. Though he is currently under the influence of a black goopy alien substance that came out of a meteorite (this is, lest we forget, a comic book movie), the film does not let Peter off the hook for his moral failings: we are told that the symbiotic substance “amplifies characteristics of its host,” and indeed, his behavior towards Mary Jane was casually, obliviously selfish long before he began to wear it. Moreover, though the evil influence here is positioned as an external entity, distinct from Peter, it is unambiguously his choice to bond with it, and the film’s most striking scene comes when he chooses to separate himself from it.
The scene begins as Peter emerges from the club into the rain, looking sorrowful and downcast. However, when a church bell begins to ring, he looks up, and Raimi’s camera floats heavenward to reveal a cross atop the steeple of a church. Such overtly religious imagery is rare in big-budget entertainments, and the way Raimi calls our attention to it suggests something momentous is about to transpire. Spider-Man, perched atop the cathedral like a gargoyle, considers himself. This moment recalls his first encounter with the symbiote (L), when he admired his own reflection like Narcissus and remarked, “This feels good.” Here, in contrast, his body language is regretful; Raimi borrows a bit of visual language from Return of the Jedi as Spider-Man looks guiltily at his hand, the hand that struck Mary Jane (R). Spider-Man clenches his fist, perhaps communicating resolve, and jumps down to enter the bell tower.
Raimi cuts away to show Eddie Brock entering the church below. Throughout the film, Eddie has been positioned as a dark reflection of Peter. This parallelism is first and most clearly established in an early scene where both characters, young men who work as photographers at the Daily Bugle, almost simultaneously ask their girlfriends to pose for pictures. In the church scene, these parallels reach their culmination. Indeed, Eddie first appears as a reflection in a pool of holy water. Visually, he is upside-down. After crossing himself, Eddie sits down in a pew and says:
“It’s Brock, sir, Edward Brock, Jr. … I come before you today, humbled and humiliated, to ask you for one thing. I want you to kill Peter Parker.”
In an earlier scene, Peter exposed one of Eddie’s photographs as a fake, costing him his job, and taunted, “You want forgiveness? Get religion.” But Eddie is not coming to church for forgiveness; he has been humiliated, but is not truly humbled, and rather than admitting his faults, he displaces the blame onto Peter. The psychology of these films is quite Freudian/Jungian, and the symbiote, like Norman Osborn’s Green Goblin personality in the first film and Doctor Octopus’ robotic tentacles in the second, reads rather neatly as a symbol of the repressed or unconscious shadow self (after all, it first takes over Peter in his sleep). Because Peter acknowledges his evil impulses when confronted with their consequences, he is able to bring them into the light and fight them, but because Eddie refuses to acknowledge his, he is entirely unprepared to defend himself.
In the bell tower, Peter tries to tear off the symbiote suit. Though Raimi’s Spider-Man films lean heavily on humanity’s inherent capacity for good, here, their moral universe takes on a new, distinctly Christian dimension, for Peter cannot free himself from evil with his own strength: instead, he must be aided, quite literally, by the tolling of the church bells. Though the film offers a material, scientific explanation for this, a bit of comic booky nonsense involving sound waves, the moral (I daresay theological) implications of the sequence are clear. The sound of the bells prompts Eddie, in the church below, to look upward, just as Peter did at the beginning of the scene – but with very different intentions, and very different results. Where Peter went to the bell tower for repentance and reform, Eddie goes for curiosity, perhaps expecting his desire to be gratified.
Looking up to see Peter screaming as he strains to remove the symbiote, Eddie may think his prayer that God would kill Peter Parker is being answered. Evocatively, in a certain sense, the Almighty is obliging Eddie’s request, putting to death Peter’s old self so he can rise again to new life. However, the evil, once exorcised from Peter, must be imputed somewhere, and it is Eddie, standing on a tile cross, who ends up being the sacrificial lamb, though he is hardly a sinless one. When the first drop of black goop falls on Eddie’s jacket, he pulls it off and throws it away, but his continued attempts to displace blame from himself are unsuccessful.
As the scene concludes, Peter lies on the floor, half in light and half in shadow, as the symbiote retreats into the darkness, driven away by the tolling of the bells (a device that recalls the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria sequence of Disney’s Fantasia). Peter resists and the devil flees from him, but like the demons entering the unclean pigs, the symbiote makes its descent to Eddie. While the scene initially plays out as if the screaming Eddie is being taken over against his will by an external, hostile force, one notices that he begins to smile evilly almost immediately. The symbiote only amplifies the selfishness and malice already present within him. Peter Parker’s selfish actions in Spider-Man 3 are tragic because he is acting inconsistently with the virtues that we have seen him practice. The mundane horror of Eddie Brock is that he is not a nobly-intentioned man overpowered by misdirected impulses, like Doctor Octopus, but neither is he strikingly vicious. He is only a banal, self-interested person who has done nothing to cultivate a capacity or desire for goodness. When he enters a place of reverence, all he can think to do is wish vengeance on those who have slighted him. When he becomes a supervillain, he acts not like one possessed, but in a manner entirely consistent with his lack of character.