Since I first read Parzival as a senior at Williams, it has become one of my favorite books. This Middle High German epic tells of how an innocent and naif boy, raised far from the courts and castles of his medieval peers, comes to become the greatest knight of his age — as he fulfills his destiny by becoming Grail King.
On the way to that destiny, Parzival makes many mistakes, wronging several ladies and embarrassing himself before Arthur’s court. Not only that. He fails to accomplish his destined mission when he first comes to the Grail Castle. And has to undergo a series of trials, endure much suffering and learn humility and compassion before he gets a chance to right his wrongs.
So much did I like this story that it inspired my ideas of the life Beowulf-poet for use in my screen adaptation of that classic English tale of the greatest monster-slayer in our language.
And while Sam Raimi may not have had Parzival in mind when he wrote the script for Spider-Man 3 (which he also directed), he did develop a character not too different from his medieval German forebear — the flawed hero. Perhaps he was just being true to the comic book hero created by Stan Lee whose characters resonated with numerous kids (including yours truly who was a huge Spider-Man fan as a kid) because he gave them qualities similar to those of heroes of myth and legend.
That’s why, I believe, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films have struck a chord with the American people — indeed moviegoers across the globe. He has been true to the comic book legends which themselves develop in their heroes qualities which recur in stories throughout human history — in a variety of diverse cultures.
In this latest film, Raimi shows how Spider-man is (to use borrow the expression I used in my review of Spider-Man 2) a “very human superhero.” This time, instead of developing Peter Parker’s longing for a normal life (as he did in the second Spider-Man flick), he focuses on the eponymous hero’s dark side, his weakness in giving in to his anger and desire for vengeance. In Topher Grace‘s Venom/Eddie Brock, Raimi even gives us a shadow character who embodies those unpleasant qualities Peter Parker has difficulty repressing.
The strength of this movie is not only in its script, but also the casting (not to mention the special effects). As in the original Star Wars movies, we believe the relationships between the three principal characters — Tobey Maguire‘s Spider-Man/Peter Parker, Kirsten Dunst‘s Mary Jane Watson and James Franco‘s Harry Osborn. (We even believe the secondary relationships, notably that between Peter Parker and his Aunt May, Rosemary Harris.)
While I found the film thoroughly engaging, I was slightly disappointed by the end. That said, it was the quality of the characters, both as Raimi (and his brother Ivan) wrote them and as the actors played them which made the movie — even more than the special effects. We can see (and understand) the tensions in the relationship between Maguire’s Parker and Dunst’s Mary Jane as he struggles with his dark side and she falls on hard times. And we believe the maternal compassion Harris’s Aunt May shows for her tormented nephew, reminding him that the “hardest person to forgive is yourself.” In many ways, she reminds us of Peggy Wood‘s Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, the wise older woman eager to impart the wisdom of the heart to a younger generation.
And Mary Jane also shows compassion for her boyfriend’s weakness when she tells him that everyone need help sometimes, even Spider-Man. She is flawed as well, not behaving entirely responsibly when her career goes south.
One reason Raimi’s Spider-Man movies have done so well at the box office is that they have stayed true to the themes of the comic books which themselves remained true to an even older tradition, one which has resonated with human beings for as long as we have been telling stories, that of the flawed (or wounded) hero. With this movie as with the others in this franchise, Hollywood once again gets it right.
Let’s hope other filmmakers learn the lesson that Raimi has and rely on themes and develop characters which have recurred in myth, legends and folklore for generations uncounted. They just need find the appropriate modern dress to tell their tales. So they can reach contemporary audiences which stories which both entertain — and enlighten.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)