A Film Study Guide to Spider-Man 3
By Sr. Rose Pacatte, fsp
The 2007 summer movie season will be known as a season of “threes”: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Rush Hour 3, and films that are third in their franchises: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ocean’s Thirteen and The Bourne Ultimatum. Spider-Man 3 launches the summer box office with a bang. This essay explores what makes Spider-Man 3 interesting to believers and people of good will and offers some thoughts and questions for reflection and conversation with your students, friends, and families.
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) was a mythologist whose seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) proposed a multi-stage theory that the archetypical hero in world myths must embark on a journey that will transform him (alas, most myths revolve around a male hero). At first, life is ordinary or normal, then something happens to change the status quo or the hero experiences a call and sets off on an odyssey or epic journey where he learns truths about himself, his community, or the universe. He encounters obstacles, overcomes them, and is transformed. He receives gifts that he shares with others. Often he is called to give his life for someone or the community. Sometimes the hero dies and comes back as in last summer’s Superman Returns. At other times, the hero’s willingness to sacrifice all for others is what ultimately saves the day – and his life. Campbell called myths that followed this structure monomyths.
Comic books often use this pattern of storytelling because it is universal and mirrors the stories told by the world’s major religions. Just as all world myths are universal and seem to share a common narrative, comic books exist in most cultures as well (and have morphed into graphic novels and Japanese manga.) Comic books seem to have first originated in England in the 1830’s and were stories about adventure, no doubt mirroring the expansion of the British Empire. But it was the Golden Age of comic books that began in 1938 with the debut of Superman (and lasted through the early 1950’s) when the super hero emerged and doubled as an action hero. A superhero – or now super heroine - though human and flawed, is noble and courageous and has powers beyond those of other mortals. These characters have distinctive names and costumes that appeal to the audience’s imagination; their mortal journeys and conflicts mirror interior and spiritual trials and passages as well.
The Hollywood superhero myth, however, has come to mean a battle between good and evil. Some people think that because good always wins, that this means the story is Christian. I think, however, that this dichotomy reflects Gnosticism more than anything else, where the forces of good and evil battle it out and the good wins because the audience won’t accept another ending. And everybody loves a hero.
The monomyth is with us still as Hollywood turns out one comic book-into-a-movie after another. These stories transcend cultures and are embellished with audio and visual special effects. And because they are seeded with moral dilemmas that engage the audiences’ imagination on many levels and are often influenced by Christianity spiritually and visually, it is easy to see why believers would respond to films such as the Spider-Man franchise.
But what makes Spider-Man 3 stand out from the two previous films and other superhero stories, is that this film explores the vitality of the spiritual life in more depth than others. It considers what makes temptations so enticing, how they seem good when in fact they are not and why we choose evil that often masquerades as good. The film looks at what it means to actually think about the moral choices we make and the consequences of our choices for ourselves and others.
The human struggle to choose what is good and do what is right is not so simple and absolute as most superhero tales make it out to be. Spidey 3 actually sets up the zone between good and evil, vice and virtue, to show us how the moral imagination, the wisdom of our elders, prayer, and grace, enter into that space to help us figure out the good thing to choose and the right thing to do, the upright, moral person to be – why to choose to live a good life, and that living a good life is possible. Thus, the film invites us to consider the consequences of our choices by letting us witnessthe third part, but not necessarily the end, of Peter’s epic journey even though as yet he never travels beyond the city. The heroes’ journey, like the Christian journey, is ongoing.
Questions for reflection and conversation about Spider-Man 3
In Spider-Man 1, Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) is bitten by a spider and discovers he has powers that surpass nature. He also believes he is responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), is challenged in the classroom, struggles with his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and his best friend Harry (James Franco.) Peter decides to make use of his powers to fight injustice and he puts on the Spider-Man costume as a symbol of his new identity. He gets a job taking pictures of himself as a superhero.
What wisdom does Uncle Ben share with Peter before he dies? That “with great power comes great responsibility.” What does this mean? How does Peter learn about freedom and responsibility in each of these films?
In Spider-Man 2 (2004), Peter is discouraged in his quest. He acknowledges to his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) about his role in his uncle’s death. Then Aunt May encourages Peter not to give up when he has decided to “try something else for awhile” because “there’s a hero in all of us”. What are the characteristics of a hero that Aunt May describes to Peter? What virtues or gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit does she refer to? What sacraments come to mind at various moments in the film? How does Peter discern his vocation?
Consequences of Revenge
Now, in Spider-Man 3, Aunt May has much to teach Peter, not least of which is “Uncle Ben wouldn't want us living with revenge in our hearts, it's like a poison. It can take you over and turn us into something ugly.” Is revenge ever a virtue? Is it ever justified? What does Jesus teach us about revenge in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew or Luke)?
Seven Deadly Sins
There is much that is ugly in Spider-Man 3 as Peter, Harry, Marko/Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), new-comer Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace) duke it out over who gets what or who, how and why. How many of the seven deadly sins did you notice in the film (pride, avarice, gluttony, lust, envy, anger, sloth or laziness)? What temptation does each character struggle with? Which of these vices does the newspaper publisher, Mr. Jameson (J.K. Simmons)struggle with?
There is also much violence in the film and sometimes we see the effects of it such as what happens to Harry’s face. Does violence ever resolve tensions and difficulties? How do Spidey and Harry ultimately resolve their differences? What is the best way to resolve conflict? What role does justice/injustice play in the film?
Sacramental Signs and Religious Symbols
What sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Holy Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, Matrimony) are evoked by the images or actions of the characters in the film? (I counted at least four.) What symbols are used? What do they mean? (Symbols can be words, things, or actions.)
What is there about the religious imagery in the film makes it distinctly Catholic? As the final scenes play out, how do the relationships between Spidey, Harry, Mary Jane, Marko, and Eddie remind us of Christ’s willingness to give his life for others? Did you see a scene in the film that reminded you of the Pieta’? What led up to that scene?
Virtue in Public Life
How the person of virtue acts in public life is one of the main themes in Spider-Man 3. Towards the end, Spider-Man flies majestically across a gigantic American flag, our most powerful national symbol. Why do you think the filmmakers choose to do this? (Remember, the American flag appears in every Hollywood film whether it is part of the story or not.) Do you think it is to impress audiences in other countries about how great America is? Or is it a challenge for us to do the right thing in the world today by the way the film juxtaposed themes of revenge and virtue?
Making a Difference
What do the Beatitudes (Matthew 5 or Luke 6) say to us about living as followers of Jesus in our everyday lives whether at home, school, the workplace, at church or in public life and service (politics)? What does the man in Times Square mean when he tells Peter that even small and seemingly insignificant actions can make a difference?
Another strong theme in the film is human relationships. What characteristics does Aunt May tell Peter a man needs before he gets married? How does Peter learn what Aunt May really means?
What does the film tell us about friendship as relationship? What makes a true friend? How important are friends to you? What do the friends in the film do to and for one another?
Empathy is the foundation of a good character. How do the various characters learn empathy? How do they practice walking in the shoes of another? Does Marko deserve our empathy? Why or why not? What do you think will happen to his daughter? Marko’s molecules are transformed from flesh and bone into sand. What might his becoming a sandman mean in this tale about the struggle to do the right thing? What do you think will happen to Marko?
What did Eddie do that was wrong? Did he think he actually had done anything wrong? Do you think what he did was wrong? Why or why not? How did the black spider costume make him feel? Why did he like it? How did Spidey “try on” the black spider costume? Why he finally decide to reject it? How did the black costume tempt both Eddie and Spidey? What did Spidey’s professor, Dr. Connors (Dylan Baker), warn him about the black substance?
What obstacles did Mary Jane have in the film? How did she overcome them? Do you think she was a strong woman of virtue, like many of the women in the Scriptures? Which one did she most remind you of? Which woman of the Bible, or person from your own life, did Aunt May remind you of? Why? What was Gwen’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) function in the film? Do you agree with how she acted when she realized Peter was using her to make Mary Jane jealous?
Ask each member of your family to tell the “after story” or what happens next to each of the characters. What do you think will happen in Spider-Man 4 if you could write it?