We’re back in the MCU after the Endgame – and where better to start over than with Spidey? Everyone has their favourite Spider-Man, but Tom Holland’s iteration will certainly go down as one of the best – offering the perfect balance of dorky teen Peter Parker and his acrobatic alter-ego. Holland’s webslinger is goofy, kind, and, in the eyes of fandom, a perfect cinnamon roll who can do no wrong. He’s very watchable as the spider – but not exactly venomous.
Using a recipe of great casting and tightly engineered scripts, Marvel have offered us a slew of lovable heroes and roguish villains over the last decade – but no one has really come along with any bite. Heavier storylines that show the ugly side of heroism are watered down (Demon in a Bottle became Prat in a Pint Glass for Iron Man 2) while the great turns to the dark side are laughable – I mean, is killing people with a sword really that different to killing them with a bow? On the flipside, a villain like Loki has been tempered down from genocidal maniac to goofy anti-villain whose biggest crime is putting their dad in a retirement home.
That’s not to say this recipe hasn’t been effective – Marvel have built a tonally consistent franchise while competitors have struggled to find their feet. Homecoming is arguably the best application of the Marvel recipe – approachable lead, solid villain, an even balance of cameos and worldbuilding, bright and shiny palette – and while early reactions to Far From Home are great, it’s fair to assume the formula hasn’t changed after the snap(s). But maybe it should. Maybe we should move past the golden age of superheroes, and start to acknowledge their flaws.
But before we do that, we should first acknowledge our own flaws, and pay respect to the movie that tried to bring a hero crashing back to earth – Spider-Man 3.
In Spider-Man 3, Peter Parker is barely a hero. He’s self-obsessed, petty, and alienating his loved ones with his desperate need to be loved by the public. He brings every conversation back around to how much the people love Spider-Man, and as he fawns over his new-found fame he doesn’t even realise what a tough time MJ is having. No matter which way you cut it, “I’ve become something of an icon” isn’t something a balanced person says during their proposal dinner. It’s genuinely hard to watch – and this is before he starts dancing in the street.
Peter’s descent into vanity – and creepy, violent self-interest with the symbiote suit – is the natural progression from the dorky zero who missed the bus back in the first film. With great power comes great responsibility, and Peter was never prepared for the fame that would come with both. To go from unassuming kid to receiving the key to the greatest city in the world – we’d all lose ourselves. Peter’s behaviour in Spider-Man 3 is hard to watch because it’s cringy, and incredibly relatable. And for a certain privileged male subset of the audience, his petty and even toxic behaviour with the symbiote suit should strike a particular chord.
If Spider-Man 3 has a throughline, it’s toxic masculinity. The film pivots around three men – Peter, Harry Osborn and Eddie Brock – all of whom find themselves spurned or rejected, and lose themselves to jealousy and hatred as a result, abusing their power to take what they believe they’re owed. Their arcs are mirrored in each other, and rooted in entitlement, privilege and misogyny. They see their new power as a gift to give them what they deserve – Eddie Brock becomes Venom in a church for goodness’ sake – while women like Mary Jane and Gwen Stacey are status symbols to be desired, owned and stolen from each other.
Now, to frame Spider-Man 3 as a definitive statement on privilege is a stretch. The fact that these three characters are all white men isn’t necessarily a point in itself, as pretty much everyone of importance is a white man in Superhero America. But all three men use women as props in their schemes against the other. All three truly believe they deserve more than what they’re getting out of life. They all play the “victim” and excuse abusive and violent behaviour as a result. Raimi may not have intended to theme the film like this, but he deliberately set these characters up as parallels of each other – even reshaping Eddie/Venom as a dark mirror of Peter, a hint at the path narrowly avoided when he ditches the symbiote.
Spider-Man 3 offers another angle on the Power-Responsibility equation, about how those with power treat those without. The symbiote is a catalyst for Peter’s abuses of his power, from the attempted murder of Sandman to his casual cruelty towards MJ and Gwen; but it’s not the cause. Nor is the cause some specific character flaw like vanity; it’s general white male entitlement, and it’s hideous. All of this serves to make the film a tough watch – and this might be one reason Spider-Man 3 opened to mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. Another might be that the largely white, largely male superhero fanbase didn’t like having a mirror held up to their shittery – who’s to say?
As the MCU looks past Endgame and Far From Home, the symbiote is raising its head once more. It’s the ‘Yesterday’ of storylines – everyone has to cover it – and when it starts crawling towards Holland’s Peter Parker, hopefully Marvel won’t file down its fangs. By pushing our heroes to new depths, they can rise to greater heights; Spider-Man 3 is far from perfect, but with its redemption arc it actually gives its hero something to redeem himself for.