Is Spider-Man a Hero? Revisiting Raimi’s Trilogy

In the midst of the cacophony of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I rewatched Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy to see how it stood up a decade-ish later. Taken as a whole (and with any bad memories of Spider-Man 3 checked at the door), the trilogy is a revolutionary take on a superhero. While the current Amazing universe trades complexity for cartoonishness, Sam Raimi’s trilogy is even darker and more interesting than I remembered, and asks some pretty profound questions about heroism and morality.

I should state that I like my superhero movies dark. Batman Returns is probably my favorite superhero movie ever, mostly because Catwoman kills Max Schreck in the end. I think Dark Knight should have won all the Oscars for everything. Even The Incredibles has a dark edge; most people are really jazzed about the moment when Dash realizes he can run on water, but for me the best part is when Mr. Incredible thinks his family is dead, and he looks at Syndrome with gloriously animated murder in his eyes.

It’s possible I should explore this in a more clinical supportive space than a blog post… but for right now, I’d prefer to talk about how deeply twisted Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is.

Raimi’s Peter is never the morally confident young man choosing the life of a superhero for the good of all. Everything that Peter does is out of a sense of guilt and obligation. He is always conflicted, and spends all three films in a moral grey area that makes him fascinating to watch. In the first film he selfishly allows a criminal to get away, resulting in Uncle Ben’s death—the event that starts Peter on the road to superhero-dom.

But before we even get to Ben’s murder, Raimi dwells on the evil, jubilant expression on Peter’s face when he realizes his new powers have given him freedom from consequence. Even better than that is the look of grudging admiration he gets from the wrestling promoter. Later, he allows Ben’s killer to fall to his death, rather than rescuing him with a web. It is only after he thinks he achieved vengeance that Peter turns to non-violent, Batman-style superhero-ing. Raimi seems to be pushing the idea that living as Spider-Man is Peter’s self-prescribed penance, both for Ben’s death, and for allowing his killer to die rather than capturing him for the cops.

Raimi’s first Spider-Man is kind of a mess. Actually, upon rewatching, it’s a huge mess, rivaling only Tim Burton’s original Batman for superheroic sloppiness. Despite that, Raimi and the writers manage some great thematic heavy lifting that sets the tone of the entire trilogy. In a quiet moment in Ben’s car, Raimi chooses to edit one of Stan Lee’s most famous lines. Rather than saying “With great power, must come great responsibility,” Ben tells Peter that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” A tiny change, yes, but it means everything: Peter isn’t given an option here. He already has the great power, which means he also already has the responsibility. They’re a package deal in this version of the story, rather than a burden, like the One Ring, that one can take up or reject.

Later, most of Spider-Man’s fights with Goblin are framed as arguments rather than battles. (Spidey even tells J.J. to “be quiet while the grown-ups are talking.”) In between all the punching and grenade explosions they have an ongoing discussion about power, strength, weakness, mercy—basically a more action-oriented version of the conversation Ben tried to have. It’s Goblin who forces Peter to think about the dichotomy between good and evil, strength and weakness, even more than Ben does. Peter insists that he’ll die before he’ll go over to the dark side.

Unfortunately, he lives.

In Spider-Man 2, the catalyst for the “Spider-Man No More!” scenes is a meditation on Ben. They’re back in the car, and Ben encourages Peter, reaching his hand out to him. But Peter, resolved to life without great responsibility, turns away from this offering of love. When he later confesses to May, he reaches out to her and is rejected, mirroring the earlier scene. She refuses his attempt at reconciliation, standing and leaving him at the kitchen table. Watching the film again I had to wonder: who benefits from this confession? Is it to give May closure, or is this just Peter refusing to shoulder his grief and guilt alone, and instead reopening May’s wound? When they eventually reconcile, May does the heavy lifting—she tells Peter she’s forgiven him, points out that children need heroes to look up to, and even says, “I believe there’s a hero in all of us who keeps us honest… and then, when the time comes, helps us to die with dignity.” Hint, hint, Peter.

When he steals his suit back, Peter seems to be stating that he’s ready to take on his responsibility again, but then he agrees to a relationship with MJ, despite knowing she’ll be in constant danger. He won’t fully deal with Harry’s grief, attempting to pacify his friend with hollow words, never recognizing how torn up his friend is. Finally, he allows Ock to take the fall with the fusion reactor. Peter comes right up to the edge of becoming the self-sacrificing hero the city needs, but then backs away, leaving room for Harry to nurture his hatred, leaving room for MJ to be at risk. Do I as a viewer want Peter to die? No. But by the time Spider-Man 2 ends, I’m noticing a trend of Peter Parker talking (and crying…) about the responsible life he must lead, while never fully committing to it.

I think this is an intentional part of Raimi’s examination of heroism, and it brings us to Spider-Man 3, in which Peter Parker lives long enough to become the villain. The most terrifying villain in the trilogy, in fact, because out of the whole ridiculous rogues gallery, Spider-Man is the only one who chooses to kill.

Norman Osborne seemingly only kills (at first) because the super-strength gas drives him mad – he doesn’t remember the first two attacks, and by the time he comes after the World Unity Festival his madness has taken him over. While I know there’s an argument to be made that Norman is a cold-blooded killer, we see him fighting the power of Goblin mask. Even late in the film, when he finally realizes that Peter is Spider-Man, he briefly resurfaces from his insanity, insisting that he doesn’t want to hurt his son’s friend. Finally, as he’s dying, he begs Peter not to tell Harry. His voice has shifted into his higher, non-batshit register, implying that he’s finally sane again.

Octavius (who is also pretty crazy after the fusion accident kills his wife) tries to rebuild the fusion reactor because he still believes it will be for the greater good—he robs a bank, but doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone. Even on the train, rather than destroying the car, he tosses passengers out and allows Spider-Man to rescue them. He delivers Spider-Man to Harry alive. Once he realizes that Peter is the one inside the Spidey suit, he listens to him and chooses to take the reactor into the river, sacrificing his own life to save the city.

Venom…well, all right, Venom seems pretty much evil. We only see it kill in self-defense, and we’re never given any indication that it has reason, or even knows why or how it ended up on Earth, but it does take over Peter’s Spidey suit, and later Brock’s body, with no concern for the wishes of its host. But that doesn’t change the fact that even before Venom has taken him over, Peter chooses to keep it in his apartment despite Dr. Conners’ warning, and it really doesn’t change Peter’s choice of the black suit when he goes to face Sandman.

Flint Marko is trying to steal enough money to help his daughter, but goes out of his way, again, not to kill, and even asks Spider-Man to walk away from a fight with him. It is finally revealed that his whole life of crime was instigated by his daughter’s needs—because Spider-Man 3 is infamously overstuffed we never learn more of his backstory, but given the apartment he runs to after his jailbreak, I think we can assume that he’s too poor to afford her treatment. After the films’ serious treatment of Aunt May’s financial problems, it’s unlikely that we’re being asked to vilify a man who is going to terrible lengths to save his child’s life.

Harry is seeking vengeance for his father, but even after he knows Spider-Man’s identity, he holds back. In their one real fight it’s Spider-Man who becomes cruel, decisively defeating New Goblin on the street and then later at Harry’s house. Harry, in contrast, sets his anger aside to help save MJ when Peter asks him to.

Peter (as Peter) chooses to expose Brock’s photo manipulation, even when Brock begs him to let it slide. As slimy as Brock is, it’s also really clear that he’s poor and desperate, just as Peter himself was in the first and second films. Most chillingly, when Peter prepares to face Marko the second time he chooses the black suit. Where earlier we saw Norman fighting his Goblin self, and Octavius fighting Doc Ock, here we see Peter put his red suit aside, and wear the one that he knows will allow him to kill. For all that the third film has become a byword for overstuffed superhero movies, this moment alone makes the film worth watching. Peter thinks he’s about to battle Ben’s real killer, and after all of the real and imagined conversations about vengeance, honor, and duty that pepper the trilogy, after his guilt over the other carjacker’s death, even after rejecting Goblin’s offers, Peter decides to seek vengeance rather than justice. He murders Sandman. As soon as he recognizes that water causes him to disintegrate, he breaks a pipe open. Even as Sandman turns back into Flint Marko, and screams for help, Spidey washes him away.

Then, arguably under greater influence of the symbiot-suit, Peter does some grand mal shit to his closest friends. First he confronts Harry in his home to say that his father despised him. “You were an embarrassment to him.” Not only is he lying, he also dishonoring the last decent thing Norman Osborne ever did. He provokes Harry to lob a grenade at him and deflects it, standing to watch as his friend is crushed under a collapsing wall, and leaves him trapped under the wreckage. Next he uses Gwen Stacey, taking her out on a date for the sole purpose of humiliating MJ at her new job. Only after Gwen has run out in tears and MJ is lying on the floor, asking “Who are you?” does Peter regain control and reject the suit.

After that, the film has to sort through each of the villains and give everyone an ending, while making sure to put MJ in terrible danger one last time. Raimi kills two climactic-battle-birds with one stone by pairing Sandman and Venom (in a scene that feels weirdly reminiscent of Batman Returns) and they plot to take Spider-Man out, but it’s pretty clear that they see this as retaliation for his attacks against them. Harry comes out to help save MJ and earn redemption. Brock chooses to go full Smeagol and die with Venom. So far, so neat. But then we get to the last confrontation with Sandman, where he tells Peter the story of his uncle’s death in a flashback that is either “an interesting storytelling decision” or “rage-inducing” depending on your dedication to the original comics. According to Flint, Ben’s shooting was unintentional. This completely undercuts Peter’s obsessive guilt. It also turns this catalytic event into an accident. Spider-Man has spent the last few years of his life striking out against evil, and yet…in that first real taste of evil, Flint was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and Ben’s death was an accident. Does this negate Peter’s superhero career? All the sacrifices he made to honor Ben’s life?

Finally, Flint and Harry both, like Doc Ock before them, sacrifice their own lives rather than succumbing to full villainy. Also, and I cannot state this enough: they never intentionally kill anyone. Flint is consistently in the wrong place at the wrong time but has noble intentions. Harry’s just an angry, confused kid who’s all messed up inside. Both times he confronts Spider-Man he gets his ass handed to him, and he dies for his friends, just like he said he would. This guy, though?

Is he a hero, if he’s capable of coldly taking life? Does his rescue of the kids in Spider-Man and the subway passengers in Spider-Man 2 balance out his acts of vigilantism? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? Rather than Marc Webb’s current Peter Parker, Raimi’s is consistently morally grey. Rather than the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s heroes, who never let their snarkiness get in the way of their true hearts of gold, Peter is capable of real evil. Rather than the phoned-in messianism of Man of Steel or Superman Returns, we get complicated films that confront the questions they ask, repeatedly, and never give us an easy answer.

Leah Schnelbach does love Spider-Man, but she refuses to allow that love to stand in the way of questioning hero mythology. It is her burdern. Her sacrifice. Yell at her on Twitter!


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