Something inexplicable happens when a popular movie franchise hits it’s third installment. Flaws start to show. Cracks in the armor begin to form. What was once shiny and new becomes dull and faded. I suppose you can chalk this strange phenomenon up to a few key factors: bored actors who are tired of playing the same roles and endlessly fret about being typecast; directors who try to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen in an attempt to trump the previous two films, and greedy studio execs with dollar signs in their eyes looking to squeeze every last coin out of a beloved property with fast food tie-ins, action figures, and countless other marketing schemes…all at the expense of a good story and well-developed characters.
So, the question is, have any of these factors destroyed the Spider-Man franchise? Well, thankfully, not yet. But the cracks in the armor are definitely starting to show. It’s not that Spider-Man 3 is a terrible movie, but watching it is like getting drunk and sleeping with a good friend that you’ve known for years, then waking up the next morning to that unspoken, incredibly uncomfortable awkwardness. You both know that things got weird, and while you may still remain friends, it’s never going to be the same again. And folks, let me tell you, things get weird in Spider-Man 3.
How weird, you say? Well, how about a bizarre 10-minute stretch in which Peter Parker, under the influence of the black alien costume (we’ll get to more on that later), gives himself a Jared Leto-esque emo coiffure, struts down the street Saturday Night Fever style, and caps it all off with a manic jazz dance routine straight out of The Mask (the Jim Carrey one, not the Cher one). Now, before you condemn me and label me a humorless curmudgeon, let me just say that I had absolutely no problem with the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” musical interlude from Spidey 2. It was a cheesy, but funny and harmless little gag that fit the tone of the what was going on and didn’t distract from the overall film. This musical debacle however, is an utter trainwreck. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was physically and emotionally uncomfortable to watch. I’m not sure if it was simply a case of director Sam Raimi wanting to do something quirky, or if he was just bored to tears on the set one day, but whatever the case may be, it was a terrible mistake. It took the audience right out of the flow of the film, and almost single-handedly wiped out the care and dedication that Raimi put into bringing this iconic comic book character to the big screen.
Painfully awful dance numbers aside, Spider-Man 3 also suffers from the classic (and tragic) “too many ingredients spoiling the stew” cliche’. You’ve heard it a million times before, but it needs to be said here: there are way too many characters and plot threads in this film. And while some of them have satisfying and logical conclusions, others are left floating in the wind or come to jarringly swift and poorly-written ends.
Gwen Stacy and Eddie Brock/Venom, unfortunately fall into the latter category. These two characters are almost arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. Gwen, played quite nicely here by the vivacious and voluptous Bryce Dallas Howard is basically in the film as a plot device; a pretty face to make Mary Jane jealous, piss off Eddie Brock, and speed up Peter’s descent into darkness. Once her role has been played, she vanishes from the film with absolutely no fanfare. A shameful waste of one of the great, iconic female comic book characters.
The Venom character meanwhile, is a mixed bag. As far back as 2002, when the first Spider-Man movie hit theaters, Sam Raimi was quoted as saying he hated Venom with a passion and would never include the character in any Spider-Man film he directed. When it was announced Venom would be one of the main villains of Spider-Man 3, there was some speculation that Raimi never really felt that way and was only trying to pull one over on the fans. Judging by how Venom is handled in Spider-Man 3, it’s evident (to me, at least) that Raimi doesn’t have any great love for the villain. In fact, I’m pretty sure he set out to prove that Venom is one of the lamest Spider-Man bad guys in his Rogue’s Gallery.
Honestly, if Raimi was trying to make that point, it’s hard to argue with him. Despite being a visually dynamic character (in an early 90’s sensibility), Venom has never been able to cut the mustard as a nemesis for Spider-Man, nor does he have the character depth to drive a decent story along. He only appears in the movie in his fully-transformed state for about five minutes, and it’s not very impressive. The effects are decent, but you never really get a good look at him, as he spends the majority of his screen time bouncing and swinging around against a dark night sky. The way he is defeated is one of those jarring, disappointing conclusions I mentioned previously. Venom is not the main villain in Spider-Man 3 and that’s exactly how it should be.
Topher Grace plays a character very different from the Eddie Brock of the comics, who was essentially a muscle-bound simpleton. Here, Brock is a sort of anti-Peter Parker; a cocky, unethical asshole who won’t hesitate to throw someone under a bus to further his career as a photographer. He’s a guy that Peter may have turned out to be if things had turned out differently and a certain radioactive spider hadn’t come along. Despite his brash exterior, Brock is insecure and he’s a complete mess when it comes to the ladies. Grace plays the role with devilish glee. He’s a nice foil for Peter but when all is said and done, I wished they would’ve cut him from the movie entirely and saved his character for the fourth movie where he may have benefited from more screen time.
Perhaps the biggest detriment to Spider-Man 3 is the ridiculous amount of plot contrivances that pop up throughout in order to advance the story along. When you make a superhero movie, plot contrivances are a necessary evil. They simply have to be there, but most scripts make a decent effort to limit and/or mask the larger ones. Not so here, sadly. Here’ s just a few of the amazingly dumb conveniences you’ll see sprinkled throughout:
- The Venom symbiont crash lands in a totally random, unexplained meteorite in the park at exactly the same time Peter and Mary Jane are hanging out there.
- Flint Marko is running from the cops through some barren swampland, and stumbles across a sign that says–I kid you not, “Particle Physics Testing Lab”. He then proceeds to hop a simple chain-link fence (with no barb wire or proximity alarms on it), falls into a sand pit, and becomes a victim to the dumbest and most irresponsible scientists in human history when a giant particle accelerator doohickey lowers down and transforms him into the Sandman.
- When the Sandman first shows up in New York, the cops immediately start chasing him. After running about five feet, he comes across a parked dump truck and hides in the bin . Care to venture a guess as to what the truck was carrying? That’s right…SAND. How convenient! This of course allows him to increase his overall mass and become a giant sand creature, annihilating everything in his path.
- Eddie Brock just happens to be hanging around the streets outside the jazz club at the EXACT SAME TIME Peter and Gwen show up for their date. But wait, there’s more!
- He then JUST HAPPENS to be at a Church praying for Peter’s death when Petey shows up in the bell tower to free himself from the alien suit. Brock hears the bell ringing and the alien suit drips down on him, transforming him into Venom.
- Suddenly Harry Osbourne has this ancient geezer of a Butler (Geezer Butler heh heh) who reveals to him that he examined Norman Osbourne’s body and discovered that his wounds were caused by his own Goblin Glider and not by Spider-Man. This convenient revelation comes right at the end of the movie when Spider-Man is practically begging Harry to let go of his misguided hatred towards him and help him save Mary Jane from Venom and the Sandman. Of course, the geezer’s heartfelt revelation works and Harry suits up to help Peter save the day.
I realize that I may have buried this film under a mountain of negativity, but this is still a Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, so there are a lot of positives to be found. Most of the reviews you’ll find online right now are very critical of the CGI effects in the action scenes, but I thoroughly enjoyed all the fight sequences and action set pieces. The Sandman effects, in particular, are astonishing to behold. If you’ve ever read a Spider-Man comic book with the Sandman in it, you’ll get to see everything he’s ever done translated right off of the page and onto the screen in stunning fashion. Thomas Hayden Church does a great job with what little his given to work with. Much like Raimi’s version of Doctor Octopus, The Sandman is not necessarily a bad guy, he’s just made bad decisions and does questionable things for a good cause. In this case, it’s stealing money to help pay for his daughter’s medical expenses.
Ultimately what saves the film is its’ core theme of forgiveness and redemption, with Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry at the center. Despite a typically mediocre performance from Dunst and a less-than-stellar turn from Tobey Maguire (who may be getting sick of Spidey), you’ll find yourself rooting for Peter and Mary Jane to finally overcome all the obstacles that get in their way and find peace and happiness. Harry’s journey of vengeance, forgiveness, and ultimately redemption that began way back at the end of the original Spider-Man is also quite powerful.
Of course, all the Spider-Man films benefit from the hilarious antics of cantankerous Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, played brilliantly as always by J.K. Simmons. His comic relief is complimented by one of, if not the funniest Bruce Campbell cameos ever. The Evil Dead star is nothing short of hysterical as a smarmy French Maître d’. Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May again lends the production her trademark warmth and kindness, all too brief it may be.
Overall, Spider-Man 3 is a sloppy affair, but as far as third installments of superhero sagas go, it web-slings all over other part III’s like X3: The Last Stand, Batman Forever, and *shudder* Superman III. Although, is the “evil” Peter Parker an homage to Superman III’s angry, drunken Superman? Hmmm…
7.5 out of 10.