Tobey Maguire flexing with Venom in Spider-Man 3

‘Spider-Man 3’ Is a Much Better Movie About a Different Character Entirely

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is re-released today, April 29! It’ll make tons of money, but it’s always been a bit of a polarizing movie. Some people love it for its earnestness and well-drawn characters, and some people hate it for its its poorly hung-together plot and unsatisfying take on Venom.

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But I’m one of the former group. The plot makes no sense whatsoever (How the hell does Harry’s butler know how Norman Osborn died?!), but I love the characters of Spider-Man 3—and I especially adore Mary Jane “MJ” Watson.

Yep, I said what I said. Mary Jane has a terrible time of it in Raimi Spider-Man fandom; there’s barely a gendered insult that hasn’t been thrown at her. She’s a “slut” or a “bitch” for her actions in Spider-Man 3, apparently, and I think that’s hugely unfair. I also think that the MJ haters haven’t paid one bit of attention to the actual movie, which presents Mary Jane sympathetically from the get-go.

MJ’s trauma

Spider-Man 3 and its predecessors make one thing very clear about Mary Jane: She was abused by her father, and she still carries the scars. Her childhood of abuse informs everything she does. In the first scenes of the movie, she seeks reassurance from Tobey Maguire’s Peter that she’s a good actress, that people definitely applauded her Broadway debut, that Peter himself really does love her. Kirsten Dunst plays the character so well that you never forget there’s a scared little girl hiding underneath the happily smiling woman.

Life has not been kind to MJ, and so when she loses her coveted Broadway role thanks to bad reviews, it’s no wonder she spirals. Ever since the first Spider-Man movie, she’s fought to achieve her dream of being an actress, and just as she’s nearly there, it’s all snatched away from her. “I look at these words,” she tells Peter, brandishing a newspaper review, “and it’s like my father wrote them.”

MJ is a mess throughout most of Spider-Man 3. She’s jealous of Peter’s success as a superhero—check out the scene where she thinks a New York crowd is clapping for her, only to realize they’re clapping for Spidey—and she’s resentful of Peter’s lack of support for her. And these are all valid feelings for her to have! Being the powerless girlfriend of a powerful superhero is a near-impossible task, it turns out, and MJ is thrown in the deep end.

MJ’s jealousy also flares up when Peter kisses the beautiful Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) on stage at a big celebration thrown for him. He kisses her in the same dangling-upside-down way he kissed MJ in the alley back in the first Spider-Man movie (you know, THAT kiss), and MJ is furious. Peter doesn’t seem to understand what the problem is. You’re rooting all the way through Spider-Man 3 for Peter to get it together and become less self-obsessed, but man does he take a looooong time to get there.

MJ, the men, and the narrative

MJ’s resentment, loneliness, and bitterness eventually lead her back to her ex, Harry Osborn (James Franco). She calls him up, has a day of fun with him, and then, in a moment of weakness, kisses him, before realizing what she’s done and running away.

This was very much MJ cheating on Peter, don’t get me wrong—but in MJ’s mind, Peter had already cheated on her first. Both she and Peter are to blame for their fractured relationship. Peter didn’t know how to support MJ, and she wasn’t very good at communicating with him. In other words, both of them are fallible human beings. (Oh, and Goblin-Harry is also to blame for threatening MJ into breaking up with Peter.)

But then things get even worse. Peter’s personality becomes all-consumed by the influence of the alien symbiote, and he suddenly becomes a total dick to women. He takes Gwen on a date to the jazz club where MJ works, trying to humiliate her. Gwen is having none of this, apologizes to MJ, and flees. Peter continues to harass MJ, and a fight breaks out with him and the club security guards, leading to Peter accidentally knocking MJ to the ground. Committing violence against a woman, a woman he still loves, is what finally motivates Peter to take the symbiote off, no matter the risks.

The narrative of Spider-Man 3 is always, always on MJ’s side. All throughout the movie, the characters are judged by how they treat her. Like I said, Peter assaulting MJ is the turning point for him. Harry also assaults and betrays MJ, which is one of the reasons he has to redeem himself with a heroic death. And Eddie kidnaps, assaults, and sexually harasses her with no remorse, and meets a self-inflicted horrible end.

The women are also seen through a lens of “How do they treat MJ?” Aunt May clearly likes and cares for her, and she’s the best parent we see in the trilogy. (I really wish there were more scenes between her and MJ.) Ursula Ditkovich, whom I love most dearly, has a crush on Peter but nonetheless encourages his relationship with MJ. And Gwen refuses to be used as a pawn against MJ and is furious that Peter tried to hurt her.

MJ is the moral center of the movie. We’re not supposed to think she’s a “bitch.” We’re supposed to think she’s a struggling human being who deserves respect.

MJ’s happy ending

MJ ends Spider-Man 3 having been through the wringer and then some. She’s had all the aforementioned horrible things happen to her in quick succession … but she’s still standing. The last we see of her is on stage, just where she always wanted to be, singing “I’m Through With Love.” She may not be quite through with love, though, because when Peter approaches her, she breaks off her song and hugs him tearfully while they dance. MJ and Peter’s ending is left deliberately ambiguous: Did they forgive each other or didn’t they? Based on the movie’s theme of forgiveness, we can probably assume that they did, but I always loved that the movie was willing to suggest that maybe MJ and Peter were better off apart for a while after everything they did to each other. Sometimes it takes a long time for wounds like that to close.

Spider-Man: No Way Home confirmed that the Peter and MJ of the Raimiverse did get back together and make it through in the end, but I’d have been happy without that confirmation, to be honest. In my mind, Spider-Man 3 gave MJ the perfect ending: standing on her own two feet, using her voice, and slowly starting to heal.

(featured image: Sony Pictures Releasing)


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Author
Sarah Barrett
Sarah Barrett (she/her) is a freelance writer with The Mary Sue who has been working in journalism since 2014. She loves to write about movies, even the bad ones. (Especially the bad ones.) The Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and the Star Wars prequels changed her life in many interesting ways. She lives in one of the very, very few good parts of England.