Thirteen years ago today, mild-mannered super-human newspaper photographer Peter Parker (Tobey Maquire) aggressively styled his hair like his mom just dropped him off at the 2009 Bamboozle Festival, put on the same outfit My Chemical Romance wore on the “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” tour, and bopped his way down the New York streets to some James Brown, looking about as un-cool as a person can physically look before they literally transform into a Steely Dan cassette. The scene, from Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man 3, is one of the most divisive, criticized moments from a film already regarded as one of the genre’s most disappointing duds. It is, in fact, aggressively cheesy. It is, for sure, a gigantic swing. And it’s also a genuinely clever bit of character work that’s unlike anything in the comic book movie realm both before and afterward, offering the kind of layering that the MCU could absolutely benefit from borrowing once in a while. Folks, it is time that the awkward jazz room gyrations of Emo Peter Parker get their rightful due. Please, just listen. It is time. It is time.
*dramatic hair flip*
The most important thing to stress about the scene is how hard Peter Parker comes off like a giant asshole, as intended. Spider-Man 3 is ripe with issues; it’s over-crowded with villains, the pace is somehow both frantic and too subdued, and James Franco occasionally delivers lines like he’s just discovered the purpose of a human mouth. But the underrated triumph of the movie is the way Raimi—along with co-writers Ivan Reitman and Alvin Sargent—naturally finds a way for Peter to lose himself.
If Spider-Man is Peter learning that great power comes with great responsibility and Spider-Man 2 is the tragic illustration of what that responsibility can cost, Spider-Man 3 finds a Peter Parker so overloaded on both power and responsibility, he’s forgotten to factor in his own actions. He’s officially swinging too high above New York to recognize the everyday issues of the people around him. The first time we see Peter in Spider-Man 3, he’s standing in Times Square like an absolute psychopath watching a big-screen Spider-Man video on a loop. He can no longer relate to the (extremely real!) problems of Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) without looking at them through a spider’s web. Raimi subverts his own, iconic line here. In Spider-Man 2, MJ offers up “go get ’em, tiger” after accepting what it is to love someone with a city on his shoulders. In Spider-Man 3, Peter asks her to say it because he’s become entitled to her support, no matter the situation. MJ is like “I’m so tired and scared that my hard-earned career is derailing” and Peter is half-way out the window with his spandex already on like, “lady just say the thing from the last movie so I can go.”
Which is jarring as hell for fans who grew up with a web-head who is snarky, sure, but usually returns to working-class New Yorker style of earnest good. Spidey is one of Marvel’s most moral creations, and Spider-Man 3 absolutely nails what happens when something that pure gets “corrupted” by the Venom symbiote. As presented in Spider-Man 3, the Symbiote is less rampaging lobster fiend and more just a ball of guck from beyond the stars that leeches on a host by drawing out its worst attributes. For Eddie Brock (Topher Grace)—already loose on morals and fresh off praying for another person’s death—the result is a literal monster. With Peter Parker, the result is…not that. It’s Peter Parker’s terminally uncool idea of a monster.
Spider-Man 3‘s Symbiote-fueled “Evil Peter Parker”—the one who looks like he runs a Livejournal dedicated solely to the band 30 Seconds to Mars—is designed, acted, and filmed to be as lame as possible. It’s the definition of a square person trying to jam themselves into a trapezoidal hole. Imagine, like, a baby wearing an adult’s suit trying to fire you from your job. You’d be like, “aw, he’s so mad.” That’s Peter Parker in his evil Symbiote guise, a smoll bean’s idea of expressing power and confidence. The transformation comes to a head when Peter brings Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to the jazz club where Mary Jane has taken up a post-Broadway-firing residency, strictly to show his ex that he’s “cool” now because he adopted the same haircut as George McFly.
Raimi shoots this thing like something outside reality, all quick zooms, sudden twirls, and a genuinely hilarious close-up of Peter’s lips saying “now dig on this” that is ripped straight out of Damien Chazelle’s horniest dreams. Peter just knows jazz piano now. The sheer velocity of his gyrations can blow hair back from across the room. It’s like we’re momentarily inside of the head of a man who is aggressively whiskey-confident and unaware he’s making a complete ass of himself in public. Which is basically what’s happening, just replace “whiskey” with “a sentient slime monster.” Once you get past the absurdity and cheesiness of the scene—and woof, yes, this thing is cheesy enough to clog an artery—it’s actually kind of sad. Ignore the bombast and you’ll notice it’s the rock bottom Peter has been headed toward since the beginning of the movie. Spider-Man 3 is one of the only comic book movies to make its lead hero look well and truly pitiful.
It’s a fascinating way to dig into a comic book character, and something we haven’t seen since. Just one year after Spider-Man 3, audiences were introduced to A) Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, a gritty ground-level near-masterpiece that would never admit a guy dressed up as a bat looks really silly, and B) Iron Man and the launch of the MCU, a delightful, highly-entertaining franchise that also happens to be filled with casual assholes who are never, ever framed as assholes. That’s the benefit of consistently casting the most charismatic, likable people on Earth. Tony Stark’s personality remains the same both before and after he stopped being a leading arms dealer. Stephen Strange never found a spell to make him less arrogant. The Guardians of the Galaxy straight-up enter Infinity War looking to mooch off a distress signal. There’s nothing wrong with flawed heroes whose personalities come in shades of gray, but there’s never been an MCU movie that wanted you to leave the theater conflicted over whether the main character is cool. For years, the heroes of the MCU were only allowed to hit rock bottom with biceps still bulging, which kept their big, epic struggles at arm’s length from the audience on an emotional level.
Call me crazy, but the MCU’s best character moments are small ones that follow a direct line from Emo Peter Parker: Tony’s restaurant panic attack in Iron Man 3. Hawkeye’s mid-battle pep talk in Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” Our beloved Thicc Thor.
Spider-Man 3 is an extremely flawed, cluttered mess that also had the moxie to make a superhero look as thoroughly uncool as possible. Over the four live-action Spider-Man films that have come since, nothing has ever been more effective at telling us how good Peter Parker is than showing us what he thinks it means to be bad.