As legions of fanboys prepare for a darker, grittier Amazing Spider-Man, many have taken to slamming Sam Raimi's original trilogy of films. Setting aside any historical context - look back at the state of superhero movies circa the beginning of the 21st century and let's talk about these films again - Raimi's films are good movies, with Spider-Man 2 being a downright masterpiece of the genre. Spider-Man 3 is the most problematic of all, a mixed bag movie overstuffed with silly retcons and a terrible villain shoehorned in by the studio.
But for all its problems, Spider-Man 3 has some shining moments, one of which is essentially Sam Raimi's grinning middle finger to all the grim n' gritty business that has consumed superheroes for the last few decades: the Peter Parker dance scenes.
Each of the Spider-Man movies had a scene that felt so very, very Sam Raimi (the Doc Ock origin sequence in Spider-Man 2, for instance), and the dance scenes are where Raimi exerts himself the most in 3. The director's sensibilty has always been just left of serious; he's playful and silly, but done with a straight face. Sometimes that straight face confuses audiences: so many people think that Ash of the Evil Dead films is a badass hero, but if you watch the films through an understanding of Sam Raimi you realize he's a big, dumb buffoon. And that's the joke.
By Spider-Man 3 Peter Parker is less of a nerd than he was in the first film. He's grown up and gotten a better sense of himself. But deep inside Peter there will always be that dork, and when the alien symbiote takes him over, that's what begins to surface. It's a wonderful character concept: when Peter Parker gets cocky he doesn't get violent or gritty, he turns into a raging dweeb's version of a cool guy. Growing up a loner, Peter's vision of cool includes John Travolta's 70s dance moves and a vague idea of beatnik jazz action. To Peter, always an outcast and always unsure of himself, these archetypes represent the ultimate in self-confidence.
This is why I've never understood the massive hatred for the dance sequences - they're totally in character. And they're not supposed to be serious; perhaps, like Ash in the Evil Dead movies, some viewers don't pick up on the tongue in cheek aspect of the scenes. Or maybe they do and that's what's bothering them - Raimi isn't honoring their childish desire to see an evil and angry Peter, he's poking fun at them. This is your dark side, he's saying. It's silly.
The sequence where Peter gets his cool new duds is the sillier of the two, and it's hard to imagine anyone watching this and not realizing it's comedy:
Just in case everything about it isn't obvious enough, Raimi has every girl on the street react to Peter with absolute disgust. He's a joke. He's full of unearned pride and confidence. He's Ash.
The jazz club scene is wonderful as well. Peter's dance moves are all things he might have gleaned from TV and movies, and they don't really go together with any fluid grace. While his Spider-Man powers allow him to perform some remarkable moves, they're all slathered in a deep grease of douchery (I especially love the way he grabs a woman's drink, tosses it back and then throws the glass). The highlight for me, though, is the moment when Peter pulls off his jacket, the camera zooms in on him and a puff of wind blows back Gwen Stacy's hair.
The thematic element here is clear and simple: evil doesn't look good on Peter Parker. It doesn't suit him. He doesn't understand it, in a very deep and profound way. He's a kid playing dress up.
In the end these scenes are Raimi rejecting the very concept of a dark and gritty Spider-Man, and that's why they're so abolutely perfect.
More than that, though, what I love is the way Raimi draws a direct line between musicals and superhero movies. They're such closely related forms that I can't believe there hasn't been more crossover. Musicals are stories where, when the emotions get too big to contain, characters burst into song. Superhero movies are stories where, when the emotions get too big to contain, characters burst into costume and fight. Both forms trade in heightened realities, asking you to suspend certain disbeliefs immediately and completely. You hear similar complaints from people who don't like either form - they'll nitpick at things that are taken for granted by fans, or they'll dislike the elements that are boldest and most integral to the forms' unique quality.
Amidst the chaos and unwieldiness of Spider-Man 3, these 'Emo Peter Parker' scenes make for not only great cinema, but some of the best understanding of the character of Peter... as well as his fans.