Writing this column nearly every week, I continually notice things that relate to installments I’ve already written, or to ones I’m planning to write.
For example, in the June 20 issue of The New York Times, columnist Thomas J. Friedman wrote about the masked members of Hamas, and about how masks can be both empowering and intimidating. Friedman also included a quotation by Oscar Wilde about masks that I found applicable to secret identities in the superhero genre. Here’s a longer version of Wilde’s characteristically paradoxical observation: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Hence the Batman is more “real” than Bruce Wayne, and through their costumed personas, Clark Kent and Peter Parker can express aspects of their personalities that are concealed in their everyday lives.
This week I also watched Fritz Lang’s RKO film While the City Sleeps (1956) on Turner Classic Movies. The villain is a serial killer (played by Drew Barrymore’s dad) who turns out to be a fan of “so-called comic books,” a phrase used in the movie twice. It is one thing to be informed by books and documentaries about the attacks on comic books in the 1950s (see “Comics in Context” #95, 180). It is quite another to be ambushed unexpectedly with a slander against comics readers while watching a movie from that period. In the same year that DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz launched comics’ Silver Age, RKO Radio Pictures was instructing the moviegoing public that reading crime comics could turn you into a serial killer.
This seems a wee bit hypocritical of RKO and Mr. Lang. It is explained in the film that “comic books” are bad because they show readers how to commit crimes. The movie repeatedly demonstrates how one can surreptitiously adjust the “button lock” on an apartment door in order to break into the apartment later and kill the lady who lives there.
It’s also ironic that Fritz Lang, the director of this anti-comics movie, was the pioneer of the supervillain (as defined by Dr. Peter Coogan) in cinema (see “Comics in Context” #165) and his most celebrated film, Metropolis (1927), apparently inspired the name of Superman’s home city. (And would the name of Superboy’s leading lady have been devised by combining the names of Fritz Lang and 1940s movie star Lana Turner?)
It turns out that Paul Dini was right (see “Comics in Context” #180): Boomerang has stopped showing even the pre-1948 Warner Brothers animated cartoons that the network’s parent Turner Broadcasting bought years ago, and has replaced its nightly Looney Tunes show with an MGM cartoon anthology. In the past I’ve praised Turner Classic Movies’ Cartoon Alley, which showcases classic Hollywood cartoons, including pre-1948 Warners shorts. I see from TCM’s online schedules that Cartoon Alley will cease at the end of July. Is this ominous?
Perhaps not. Recently on the Internet radio program Stu’s Show, animation historian Jerry Beck indicated that the classic Warners cartoons vanished from Boomerang because negotiations are afoot to show them Somewhere Else. But where?
In the season finale of NBC’s 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s character, Liz, has a cell phone that rings to the tune of the “Ride of the Valkyries.” Hearing this, another character, Phoebe, asks Liz if she likes Wagner. Liz says no, it’s a reference to Bugs Bunny, whereupon she and her friend Jenna merrily start chanting “Kill the wabbit!” I wonder, since the classic Warners cartoons are no longer on TV every day, if in twenty years a sitcom would portray two thirtysomething women knowing who Bugs Bunny is, much less quoting a specific Bugs Bunny cartoon (Chuck Jones’s 1957 What’s Opera, Doc?; see “Comics in Context” #102). At least these cartoons have been coming out on DVD, enabling parents to introduce them to their kids.
I am pleased that, after running the first two seasons of the animated Justice League series on a seemingly endless loop, Boomerang has finally begun showing its superior continuation, Justice League Unlimited. I hadn’t seen any of the “Cadmus” arc episodes before, in which the American government regards the Justice League as a possible menace. The episode I saw several days ago, “The Doomsday Sanction,” lived up to the arc’s high reputation. I was surprised and especially impressed by its conclusion, in which Batman agrees that the League could become a threat to the world, thus echoing the Batman of Kingdom Come and his counterpart, Nighthawk, in Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme (see “Comics in Context” #150), all of them wary of even well-intentioned individuals possessing near-absolute power.
This week I also realized I had forgotten to mention one of the celebrities I sighted at the premiere for Spider-Man 3 in Astoria, Queens (see “Comics in Context” #181): Micky Dolenz, who first came to fame in the same decade that Spider-Man did, the 1960s, as a member of the Monkees. (You can find pictures of Dolenz at the premiere at www.gettyimages.com). I suppose this supports J. Michael Straczynski’s theory in his run writing Amazing Spider-Man that Spider-Man keeps attracting other characters with animal totems.
The premiere was on Monday, April 30, as part of both the Tribeca Film Festival and “Spider-Man Week in New York,” as officially declared by New York Mayor (and possible presidential candidate) Michael Bloomberg. I resumed attending “Spider-Man Week” activities on Saturday.
The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library (the famed building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, guarded by the iconic lion statues) was displaying what was billed as “The Ultimate Spider-Man Comic Collection.” (No, there were no copies of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man on exhibit.) The building is visible in the first Spider-Man movie, when Uncle Ben drops Peter off in front of the library, but I was still surprised that the library was participating in this big public relations spectacular promoting Spider-Man 3.
It was even more of a surprise because back in the mid-1990s I did research into the number of American libraries that collected comic books, and there were relatively few, with only a few noteworthy collections such as those at Ohio State and Michigan State Universities. Back then the New York Public Library’s website conceded it had a few boxes of old comics, but otherwise discouraged people from researching comics there. Matters have radically changed at America’s libraries over the following years.
In the McGraw Rotunda, a few flights up and outside the main reading room stood a few glass cases holding seventeen vintage Spider-Man comic books, primarily copies of those written by Stan Lee during the Silver Age of the 1960s: Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 #32 (January, 1966) was the earliest, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (1987), featuring the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, was the most recent. You could easily see many of these comics in the dealer’s room in a large convention. I own copies of many of these comics. I again found myself reflecting that since nowadays museums and libraries display original printed comic books, why, I could turn my own comics collection into a museum exhibit! Moreover, the labels I’d write for my books would be more informative and analytical than the ones that the New York Public Library provided, which were content to credit the writer and artist, summarize the story, and quote some dialogue. As for literary or artistic analysis, there was none. In short, the New York Library’s exhibit was far from “ultimate.” I also found myself wishing that the people crowded around these glass cases knew about my Stan Lee retrospective exhibit down at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, which is far more enlightening about the cultural import of Marvel in the 1960s, if I do say so myself (www.moccany.org).
My visit to the Library and perusal of the “Ultimate” exhibit took maybe fifteen minutes tops, much of which was consumed going up and down staircases. But upon exiting the Library, I entered a nearby discount DVD store, where I found and bought The Jean Renoir Collector’s Edition, an inexpensive three-disc collection of seven of the great director’s lesser-known films. So, visiting the Library hadn’t been a waste of time, after all.
Then I headed up to the American Museum of Natural History, which was contributing to “Spider-Man Week” with an exhibit called “Spiders: Alive!” in what the museum now calls its “Grand Gallery” (it’s well designed, but hardly grand) on the first floor. On Tuesday the Beat, who always knows about such matters in advance, saw “Spiders: Alive!” when Tobey Maguire, Spidey himself, was making a personal appearance there. When I got there on Saturday afternoon, I had to content myself with the exhibit itself consisting of a row of glass cases holding rather large tarantulas. One of them was called the “Goliath birdeater tarantula,” which should give you some idea of its size.
A lengthy wall text asserted, among other things, that in endowing Spider-Man with the ability to shoot webbing, Spider-Man’s creators “must” have been inspired by a relatively little known kind of spider that can cast its webbing over a victim. Couldn’t the museum have contacted Stan Lee and asked him?
I rather think that if Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had been aware of this particular species of spider, Lee would have mentioned it in an interview, or even in “Secrets of Spider-Man” in the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual (1964).
Just because a scholar can find a real-world analogue to something in a creative writer’s work doesn’t mean that the writer “must” have been aware of the connection. Frank Miller put a scientist named Beaker in Elektra: Assassin. Years ago, I asked him if he named Elektra’s Beaker after Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s assistant Beaker on The Muppet Show: Miller replied he had never heard of the Muppet Beaker.
Unfortunately, as comics attract more interest from mainstream culture, we are probably going to see more of these unfounded scholarly assumptions.
For the magazine of Britain’s Tate art museums, academic John Carlin, co-curator of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition, wrote a mostly excellent essay about members of the high art canon whose work foreshadows that of twentieth century comics artists. Like Alan Moore, artist Bryan Talbot, and myself (see “Comics in Context” #72), Carlin has noticed the similarities between the godlike and heroic figures drawn by the British artist William Blake (1757-1827) and those of contemporary comics. Ignoring Joe Simon’s and Stan Lee’s roles as co-creators, Carlin writes that “Echoes of his [Blake’s] flattened muscular style reverberate throughout the comic’s heroic phase, particularly by artists such as Jack Kirby (1917-1994), creator of Captain America, The Hulk, X-Men and the overall look of Marvel Comics. . . .Kirby used techniques pioneered by Blake to create a realistic sense of epic action through the combination of muscular figures with exaggerated patterned backgrounds. . . .” Was Kirby aware of Blake’s work? If so, it hasn’t yet been revealed in print, to my knowledge. Read that passage carefully, and you’ll see that Carlin is saying that Kirby and Blake used the same “techniques,” and not necessarily that Kirby was aware that Blake had used them. But someone could easily misread this to draw the latter conclusion. Carlin also misses a major (if probably coincidental) similarity between Blake and Kirby: each created his own mythology of fictional deities and heroes.
On the other hand, Danny Fingeroth recently pointed out to me that the full name of the Sub-Mariner’s creator Bill Everett was William Blake Everett. It turns out he was William Blake’s descendant, so perhaps Blake influenced the creation of one of Marvel’s first superheroes. (See this).
Going through “Spiders: Alive!” likewise took no more than ten to fifteen minutes, much of which was spent waiting for people in front of each glass case to move aside so I could get a look. The big spiders were interesting for a short look, but not worth the long trip into Manhattan.
However, just off the Grand Gallery was the newly opened Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, a handsomely designed new exhibit of fossils of mankind’s prehistoric ancestors, which I visited for the first time. (Over the decades since I first visited the museum, this is the third version of this gallery, which was once devoted to human biology, but it is by the far the best.) Up on the fourth floor I visited for the first time the museum’s newly opened and restored Audubon Gallery, which retains the look of a museum hall from the 1930s. John James Audubon is famous as a painter of birds, but the gallery displayed his lesser known but remarkable portraits of North American mammals, and as an X-Men enthusiast, I was delighted to see a stuffed wolverine, mounted as if roaring at the visitors. So the trip to the Museum had been well worth it, after all.
I intended the high point of this particular Saturday to be my viewing Spider-Man 3 itself, which I saw at Manhattan’s enormous Ziegfeld Theatre, and this time I was not disappointed. Director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are by far the best of the early 21st century wave of superhero genre movies. Richard Donner’s Superman movies (including the excellent new Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut on DVD) and Tim Burton’s first Batman film give the Raimi Spider-Man movies heavy competition for the honor of the best live action movie based on superheroes that originated in comics. I’m tempted to name The Incredibles, an animated film which is not based on a comics series, as the most successful realization of the superhero genre in a feature film (see “Comics in Context” #62). But the Raimi Spider-Man has now maintained its high level of achievement for three films in a row, whereas Warners’ 1980s Superman and 1990s Batman live action film series plummeted into uninspired camp by their third installments.
Much as I loved the first two Spider-Man films, I had trepidations before seeing the third. Sam Raimi is clearly a devotee of the Spider-Man comics of the 1960s, when Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita., Sr. defined the character, his world, and the series’ themes. Perhaps Raimi is an enthusiast for the superhero comics of the Silver Age, the years from 1956 to 1970, in general. To me Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were standard bearers for what I have dubbed the neo-Silver movement in the genre, the effort to resurrect the heroic, inspiring, entertaining spirit of the Silver Age comics while updating it for a 21st century audience. But Spider-Man 3 was said to feature Venom, one of the iconic figures of the darker comics of the 1990s, when the genre, to my mind, was losing its way. With Spider-Man 3, it looked as if the movie series might be taking a leap from the Silver Age into the era of the Grim and the Gritty.
For readers who do not already know, in the comics Venom ultimately derives from the new black costume that Spider-Man acquired on an alien planet in the landmark 1984-1985 crossover series Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars. Whether or not the Powers That Be originally intended the black costume to replace Spider-Man’s traditional red and blue one permanently, I have no idea But it certainly seemed that way at the time, boosting sales of Amazing Spider-Man #252, in which it first appeared, as surely they had intended. The black costume was nevertheless a mistake: not only was it less interesting than Steve Ditko’s original design, but the wisecracking, web-slinging Spider-Man should be represented by brighter colors than a somber black. It was yet another instance in which the discerning superheroes aficionado had to wait patiently for the Rubber Band Theory of Cartoon Art (see “Comics in Context” #75) to take effect. Eventually, Spider-Man got his original costume design back.
The black costume was revealed to be a sentient alien creature which bonded to its host and was taking mental control of Peter Parker as he slept, though it did not affect his personality when he was awake. Parker finally rid himself of the alien symbiote, and eventually reassumed his red and blue costume whenever he went into action as Spider-Man. Hating Parker for rejecting it, the symbiote bonded with disgruntled reporter Eddie Brock, who also hated Parker, forming the menace called Venom.
Visually Venom was a new variation on that archetypal figure, the superhero’s evil twin. But in the comics Venom was more massive than Spider-Man, with the steroid-style musculature seen on so many superhero genre characters in the 1990s. Venom also had a long, lascivious tongue, and students of the subtext of the cover for Heroes for Hire #13 (see “Comics in Context” #179) should be able to work out what that means. Venom also used to fantasize about not only killing Spider-Man and other victims, but also devouring them. In short, Venom was an utterly repulsive villain, and such was the mindset of tens of thousands of Marvel readers in the 1990s that they therefore embraced him as a hero. Apparently readers identified with this vicious, insane, musclebound cannibal. (Would I want to associate with readers like this? I don’t think so.) Venom starred in one miniseries after another, and since Venom had become a hero of sorts, Marvel felt obliged to create a new, even nastier version of the character, Carnage, whose human host was a serial killer. Now, you may think that it was harmless for Venom to talk about cannibalism, since he didn’t actually practice it. But in retrospect we can see that Venom set the stage for The Ultimates’ version of the Hulk, who really does eat his enemies.
So you can see why I was not happy that Venom had found his way into Sam Raimi’s movie trilogy. It turns out that this wasn’t Raimi’s idea, either. According to Raimi’s interview at Comic Book Resources, he and his brother Ivan had already concocted a story for the third movie with the Sandman as the main villain. “When we were done, Avi Arad, my partner and president of Marvel at the time, came to me and said ‘Sam, you’re not paying attention to the fans enough.. . .You’ve made two movies now with your favorite villains and now you’re about to make another one with your favorite villains. The fans love Venom. He is the fan-favorite. All Spider-Man readers love Venom. Even though you came from ’70s Spider-Man, this is what the kids are thinking about. . . .’” Raimi told the Hall H crowd last year that “I had been objecting to the lack of humanity [in Venom].” But Arad and Alvin Sargent, a screenwriter on Spider-Man 2 and 3, educated Raimi in Venom lore, with the result that “’… in studying him I gained an appreciation for him,’ said Raimi. ‘Venom has always been a character that the fans love… that’s why he’s in here’”.
I’m a Spider-Man fan, and I don’t love Venom, and I believe I have company in this respect. Moreover, Venom debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #299 (April, 1988) and his heyday was in the 1990s, when most of his miniseries were published. Raimi has reported that he did see e-mails from fans who wanted Venom to have a big role in the movie. But although the character is still around in the comics, I notice that a 2000 attempt to relaunch him in a regular series lasted only eighteen issues. Venom is really a creature of the period of the comics speculator boom, which now seems long ago. In contrast, Raimi’s choices for the villains of the first two Spider-Man movies, the original Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, both Lee-Ditko creations, retain their hold on comics fans’ imaginations after over forty years.
Spider-Man 3 ends up with three major villains–the Sandman, presumably to satisfy Raimi’s fondness for the Lee-Ditko characters; Harry Osborn as “the New Goblin,” continuing Harry’s character arc from the first two movies (and echoing the 1970s Spider-Man comics, in which Harry succeeded his father as the Green Goblin); and Venom, whose presence keeps Avi Arad happy. Some reviewers thought this was too many villains for a single film, but I think that the screenplay makes them all fit, giving a part of satisfactory size to each. Then again, I’m not an admirer of Brock/Venom, and I can see that his fans might think that he got insufficient time and development onscreen: Eddie doesn’t become Venom until the film’s final act.
But had Arad not pushed Raimi to include Venom, Spider-Man 3 would have been a very different movie. The black costume–the symbiote–drives the plot. Peter Parker in the black costume plays a much more significant role in the story than Eddie Brock in the black costume does. Arguably Spider-Man 3 actually has four villains, and the foremost of these is Spider-Man himself in the black costume.
One of the principal themes of the superhero genre is the duality of the human personality. This duality can take the form of the division between the conventional introvert who blends into society (Clark Kent, Peter Parker) and his other identity, the heroic individualist who stands out from the society he protects (Superman, Spider-Man). Often the duality is that of the “good” and “evil” or violent sides within the same individual, as exemplified by characters like the Hulk and Two-Face. In other cases, a superhero’s “evil twin” or counterpart represents the hero’s own dark, evil or violent side. Thus, Venom, as noted above, is metaphorically Spider-Man’s “evil twin.”
Raimi makes the “evil twin” connection visually stronger by depicting his Venom without the exaggerated, gargantuan physique, making him look the same size as Spider-Man. (Though Raimi retains Venom’s sharp teeth, he omits Venom’s serpentine tongue and cannibalistic tendencies, probably out of good taste.) Moreover, Raimi cast Topher Grace, an actor who somewhat resembles Tobey Maguire, as Eddie Brock, further reinforcing the “evil twin” visual imagery. Did any of you see Maguire’s appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman on May 1 to promote Spider-Man 3? Initially Grace came out, pretending to be Maguire, until the real Maguire appeared, feigning anger, and supplanted him in Letterman’s guest chair. Whether or not they consciously intended it, the gag reinforced the “evil twin” imagery of the film.
For the middle section of Spider-Man 3, however, Spider-Man becomes his own evil twin when he dons the black costume. The black costume gives Raimi an opportunity that the Spider-Man comics writers did not take back in the 1980s: the sentient costume affects Peter Parker’s mind, drawing out the darker side of his personality.
This “Dark Spider-Man” storyline fits into Marvel tradition: it does not just resemble X-Men’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” from the 1980s, which was adapted into X-Men: The Last Stand (see “Comics in Context” #134-135), but also Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s own work from the Silver Age of the 1960s. The duality of Bruce Banner and the Hulk provide an obvious example. But I think especially of the two Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four storylines in which Ben Grimm, the Thing, temporarily went “bad” after his mind was tampered with (first by the Wizard in issues #41-43, and then by the Mad Thinker in #68-71).
The “Dark Spider-Man” storyline can also be seen as an extrapolation of an aspect of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man origin tale in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) that Raimi had omitted in adapting it in his first Spider-Man movie. In the movie when Peter Parker first encounters the Burglar (who will later be identified as the killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben), Peter has just been cheated out of the money due him from a wrestling promoter. After the Burglar robs the promoter, Peter lets him escape, as a petty act of vengeance against the promoter. In Lee and Ditko’s origin story, Spider-Man’s motivation for refusing to halt the Burglar is quite different. Having become a show business sensation in his masked identity, the formerly introverted, humble Peter Parker has let Spider-Man’s newfound fame go to his head. The egotistical Spider-Man simply can’t be bothered to (minimally) risk his neck by using his powers to try to stop a mundane robbery. In Lee and Ditko’s compact origin tale, this phase of Spider-Man’s personality lasts only a few pages: the murder of Uncle Ben, and the subsequent discovery that the same Burglar he let escape had killed him, shocks Peter out of his moral complacency. In Marvel’s What If. . .? Vol. 1 #46 (August,1984), Peter B. Gillis wrote a remarkable story, “What If Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben Had Lived?”, in which the swell-headed Spider-Man stays in show biz and evolves into a full-fledged, archetypal Hollywood asshole.
In effect, Raimi uses Spider-Man 3 to go back and explore the effects of fame’s temptations on Peter Parker. Raimi told one interviewer that “in this story, Peter Parker falls victim to his own pride. He starts to believe all the press clippings about himself, that he’s really this hero and someone great”. It’s interesting that Raimi characterizes Peter’s Achilles heel as pride. Pride was the sin that brought about the fall of Lucifer; overweening pride, or hubris, is the characteristic flaw of the protagonists of classical Greek tragedy.
In part because Spider-Man is now acclaimed as a hero in New York City (which rarely happens in the comics), Peter doesn’t sufficiently empathize with his girlfriend Mary Jane over the sudden downturn in her career. At first Peter seems touchingly overwhelmed at watching the enthusiastic crowds gathering for the city’s celebration of Spider-Man, hosted by Gwen Stacy, but once he’s in costume, he gets carried away by the occasion, letting Gwen kiss him as he hangs upside down, shocking Mary Jane, who considers that to be “their” kiss (from the first movie). At this point Raimi’s Peter/Spider-Man is not as self-centered as Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man was at the midpoint of his origin story, but he’s lost perspective enough to be oblivious to the serious damage he is wreaking on his relationship with Mary Jane.
The black costume’s psychological effect intensifies these egotistical tendencies in Peter/Spider-Man: it loosens his moral inhibitions, and reduces his empathy towards others, so much that in a subterranean battle with the Sandman, Spider-Man actually tries to kill him. The dialogue makes this explicit. Of course, the Sandman, whose body has been converted to a sand-like substance, is virtually indestructible, so Spider-Man’s effort is in vain. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the movie allowed Spider-Man to go that far: he would have succeeded in killing almost anyone else in the same situation. Raimi seems surprised, too, telling an interviewer that “I didn’t like watching Spider-Man go bad. It was unpleasant and I kept worrying, ‘Gee, do I really have to do this to show how rageful and vengeful he is? Do we really have to show how pride can destroy you?’ But, my brother kept telling me, ‘Yes, because he’s going to find himself again.’”.
Recently I rewatched portions of Ethan and Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), which they co-write with Sam Raimi. Set in the late 1950s, its protagonist is Norvell Barnes, an innocent young man (and something of a fool) who becomes the head of a major company and unexpectedly becomes a great success, thanks to his invention, the wildly popular hula hoop. Barnes gets carried away with his power and success, unwittingly distancing himself from the woman who loves him. Graduate students of the future, here is the link between Raimi the screenwriter of The Hudsucker Proxy and Sam Raimi the auteur of Spider-Man 3! And although Danny Fingeroth has cautioned me against quoting Wikipedia, I feel I should mention that its entry on The Hudsucker Proxy observes that “A scene in the Sam Raimi directed film Spider-Man in which Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) addresses his board members is shot in an almost identical fashion to a similar scene in The Hudsucker Proxy and even reuses the same dialogue from the film: ‘Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher.’”
After Peter angrily strikes Mary Jane (which drew a gasp from the audience when I saw the movie), the damage he has been doing to their relationship takes a physical form. Like his recognition of the captured Burglar in the Lee-Ditko origin story, this shocks Peter out of his previous pattern of behavior. In a church, Peter literally tears the black costume from his body, as church bells sound. This scene echoes a sequence from the original black costume storyline in the comics, in which the sound of church bells weakens the symbiote. In the movie, however, since the black costume represents Spider-Man’s own “dark side,” the church bells sequence comes off more as a metaphorical exorcism of evil.
But it’s only a partial exorcism. The evil that was within Peter Parker now takes physical form as something outside him when the black costume attaches itself to his rival and semi-lookalike Eddie Brock, becoming Venom. (I suppose that you could say that in the movie, Peter in the black costume was the first Venom, and Brock in black is the second.) Peter’s internal struggle against his dark side, which ended with his rearing off the costume, is succeeded by an external struggle against his dark side, as metaphorically incarnated by Brock as Venom. Separated from Peter, the “dark side” embodied by Venom is now free of his conscience. Brock, the symbiote’s new host, is portrayed throughout the film as having a shallower personality than Parker. This makes Brock less interesting and developed as a character, but it fits his role in the movie. Whether as Venom or as his normal human self, the movie’s Brock is less a person than a representation of Peter Parker without his strong moral sense.
Since Peter, in the black costume, wreaked emotional harm on Mary Jane and finally physically struck her, it makes sense that his dark side, now represented by Brock/Venom, endangers her very life. Ultimately, using the church bells’ sounds again, Spider-Man performs a further “exorcism,” this time utterly destroying Venom, who is literally blown into nothingness.
In the comics of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Venom became a hero of sorts, reflecting the depressed moral standards of the Grim and Gritty era. In contrast, Spider-Man 3 introduces Venom in order to exorcise him. Peter Parker descends into the hell within his own psyche, represented by the black costume, only to reemerge and win redemption. That potential for redemption is what keeps Spider-Man 3 firmly in the neo-Silver movement, just like the previous two Spider-films.
In the previously quoted interview, Raimi states that he and his brother Ivan, who collaborated on Spider-Man 3’s story, wanted their protagonist to learn that “he himself might have some sin within him and that other human beings, the ones he calls criminals, have some humanity within them”. In Spider-Man 3 the black costume brings out the “sin” within Peter Parker.
But why would this be a new discovery for Peter? In the comics Peter Parker has recognized the “sin” within himself since the end of Amazing Fantasy #15, as I shall explain next time.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF
I will be appearing at the Big Apple Con (www.bigapplecon.com) at Manhattan’s Penn Plaza Pavilion on Saturday, June 23, where I will be interviewing comics writer/artist Walter Simonson (Thor, Elric, Hawkgirl, Fantastic Four and more) and possibly artist Paul Gulacy (Master of Kung Fu, Catwoman, Sabre, Squadron Supreme, and others). Big Apple attendees will be able to take a shuttle bus down to the annual MoCCA Art Fest (www.moccany.org) at the Puck Building. Fest attendees, in turn, can walk two blocks to MOCCA itself, where the Fest’s panels will be held, and can look in on the exhibit I co-curated there, “Stan Lee: A Retrospective.” (I will probably drop in there myself!)
-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson
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