Last weekend I took two 10 year olds to see Spider-Man 3. It was an enlightening experience. For one thing, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it is a sheer marvel that it can hold the attention of squirmy, distractible children for what would normally be a wasteland of time for them. And it does. For another, in this age of "Playstation As Life", it offers a lot more than just one long video game-induced chase scene.
Maybe it's because I once owned the complete set of "Conan The Barbarian." Maybe it's because I still count She Hulk, even with her green complexion problems, as the last bastion of ERA. (Remember that?) Even for the Marvel Comics-ignorant (and I despair for you), the latest Spidey flick reveals enough about Peter Parker and his spinning, soaring, fighting-for-justice alter-persona (Spider-man) that, watching him, I was turned into a mesmerized 4th grader. Along with the other 10 year olds in the audience.
Spider-man 3 has it going on. It's deep. Really. Central to every subplot are the classically misunderstood heroes and villains that Marvel has made its cornerstone comic pathology. The good guys are not all good; the bad guys are not all bad. Instead of handing us the usual stark choice between good and evil, Spider-man 3 serves up the gray areas, the self-doubts of the powerful, the fury of the weak, the going on that we all must do – even after loss.
There's the son of Green Goblin, who is so haunted by memories of his abusive father that he can't touch the love and friendship within his grasp -- until it is too late. There's Peter Parker, who (like most invincible twenty-somethings) is brought low by his own cocky bravado. There's the budding relationship between Peter and Mary Ann that stalls and sputters when both halves of that couple can't embrace each other’s raw, unpolished feelings -- or cope with each other’s career problems. There's the girl who can't see her intrinsic worth beyond how others see her. There's the father, driven to desperation, who will do anything, and I mean anything, for his sick and disabled daughter. There's that boss you had once who fired you for taking weekends off. And there's the preening media machine fueled by newscasters who run off to shoot detailed coverage of disaster that only make us feel even more helpless than before.
There is all of us who, at some point or another, are our own worst enemies.
And there are exploding round things. Everywhere. In probably Marvel's most inventive morph-creature moment ever, a runaway convict is transformed by a mysterious process (having to do with physics and molecules) into a creature that can fly like a dust storm or pound like a jackhammer. And then, of course, there's Spider-man's ingenious and iron-strong webbing -- good for a cozy moment with Mary Ann or for swinging out of the range of bloodthirsty villains and exploding round things.
And the deeper side of Spider-man 3 didn't just get to me; it got to the real 10 year olds.
The next morning my son and his buddy talked over waffles about Venom's really weird pointy teeth and the super-neato flying skateboard thing. And the exploding round things. Then the conversation took a surprising turn.
"So, when Peter Parker was getting like really famous, he kind of got to be a jerk. Huh?" my son says. "How come he didn't see how dumb he was acting?" I look up from my coffee.
"Yeah," his friend, Josh, chimes in, "he didn’t' even TRY to understand Mary Ann."
Score one for Spider-man. And even for the exploding round things.