On Spider-Man 3

In two previous posts, I covered Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, while in this post I will cover the final film of the trilogy, Spider-Man 3. Considerably, the worst of the three films, although I have happened to love Venom as a villain in Spider-Man: The Animated Series. According to The Guardian UK‘s “Spider-Man 3 recap: is this Hollywood’s biggest ever mistake?“:

“Why would I want to push you away? I love you!” – Peter Parker

When Spider-Man was released in 2002, it almost singlehandedly laid the groundwork for the current superhero boom. Smart, funny, bold and kinetic, its influence can still be felt in everything from Batman Begins to The Avengers. 2004’s Spider-Man 2 went even further; roping in Michael Chabon to enrich the themes and deepen the characters in a way that’s pretty much become standard for modern comic book films. And then came Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man 3 is just as influential as its predecessors. Why? Because it’s the perfect example of how a sure-fire hit can go horribly wrong if you take your eye off the ball for even a second.

Spider-Man 3 could have been brilliant, but it was so laden with baggage – too many villains, too many love interests, a protagonist who largely telegraphed his emotions by changing his haircut, an egg-based dance-off, a criminally negligent butler, two other dance-offs and the casting of Topher Grace – that it forgot how to be cohesive or fun. It made a ton of money, but the thing was a mess – such a mess that the studio had to pull the plug and start again with last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man.

“Look, I want to kill the spider, you want to kill the spider. Together, he doesn’t stand a chance” – Venom

You can’t fault Spider-Man 3’s intentions. It was supposed to knock Peter Parker off his perch; making him more fallible and showing us the consequences of his actions. However, this plan had two problems. First, the opening half of Spider-Man 2 already covered this subject so masterfully that repeating it automatically felt redundant. Second, this is Spider-Man. It’s easy to make a darker version of Batman – because he dresses in black and lives in a cave and is haunted by grief and has a voice like Phyllis from Coronation Street – but Spider-Man is a primary-coloured teenager who wears a stag night bodysuit, has magical powers and happily describes himself as “friendly”. He doesn’t suit moody introspection at all.

This might explain the introduction of Venom in this film; after all, if someone as naturally sunny as Peter Parker is going to become convincingly malevolent, it’s probably going to take some sort of mind-altering alien symbiote. But even then, the effects of this malevolence don’t really stretch to much. At his most nefarious, Parker basically just grows a My Chemical Romance fringe and walks down the street winking at girls. Not even Evil Superman from Superman III was that lame. At least he straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“I’ve seen things in this house I’ve never spoken of…” – Bernard

By the end of the film, things have fallen apart completely. There are so many villains that none can develop properly. Mary Jane’s role has been concentrated into a single needy, shrewish shriek. Characters can only move forward emotionally if they dance somehow. And then, just when you think things couldn’t get any more hopeless, Spider-Man 3 introduces the single worst character in all of cinema history: Bernard the butler.

Throughout the Spider-Man trilogy, the story is told of Harry Osborn’s determination to kill Spider-Man. Wrongly assuming that Spider-Man killed his father – and eventually leaning Spider-Man’s true identity – Harry vows to get revenge. The cost is huge. By the end of this film, Harry’s vengeance has all but destroyed a city. It’s cost him his friends, his fortune, his reputation. His face has been mutilated. He’s alienated everything he’s ever loved. Death, surely, awaits him.

And then Bernard the sodding butler pops up. It’s only at this point, after Harry has wrongheadedly lost everything in a berserk quest to murder Spider-Man, that Bernard speaks. “Oh, by the way” he yammers, “Spider-Man totally didn’t kill your father. I saw it happen and everything. Spider-Man’s OK. Sorry Harry, I meant to tell you this at the end of the first film when it would have made sense, but I am an unconscionable pillock and I forgot. Soz!”. Do you know how much crap we all had to sit through, Bernard, just because you didn’t open your mouth earlier? I watched James Franco cook an omelette and dance the twist because of your failure to speak up. I hate you, Bernard the butler.

Observations

• One thing that irked me about the introduction of Venom is that, again, Spider-Man 2 did it so much better. In that film, Mary Jane is engaged to astronaut John Jameson before she leaves him for Peter Parker. Wouldn’t it have been so much better if Jameson was Venom, bringing the symbiote back from space and chasing Parker for vengeance?

• That said, the film isn’t completely terrible. Thomas Haden Church makes a great, guilt-ridden Sandman, and JK Simmons is typically great as J Jonah Jameson. And how can you fully hate a film where Bruce Campbell channels John Cleese in his longest cameo of the series?

• Then again, Peter Parker does dance, so it’s not entirely impossible. There are three dance scenes in this film. Three. And none in The Dark Knight. That’s why The Dark Knight is a better film.

• Still, well done to Iron Man 2 for copying every single one of Spider-Man 3’s mistakes. Hollywood never learns, does it?

In 2015, director Sam Raimi admitted he ‘messed up’ Spider-Man 3, according to The Week‘s article, “Sam Raimi admits he ‘messed up’ Spider-Man 3, would ‘love’ another chance“:

In a recent interview with The Week, Raimi discussed the character’s unusually tumultuous history on the big screen. “I’m not really on top of it,” he told me. “I know they made two [Amazing Spider-Man] features, and obviously, I’ve seen those.”

But Raimi also regrets the way his own run with the Spider-Man character ended, and expressed interest in making another Spider-Man someday. “I messed up on the third one,” Raimi said. “I think they’re so complete now, Marvel. They probably don’t need me anymore. But if they needed me? I’d love to. It’s great to be wanted.”

The first film’s screenplay was by James Cameron, David Koepp, and Scott Rosenberg, while the second film’s screenplay was by (Smallville‘s) Alfred Gough and Miles Miller, with Michael Chabon. This film’s screenplay was written by Sam Raimi (director of all three films), Ivan Raimi, and Alvin Sargent.

According to the IGN review:

In Hollywood, conventional wisdom suggests that it doesn’t matter what you do with the first two-thirds of a story as long as you have a strong ending. While the commercial success of any major film series demands that the opposite be true, front-loading a franchise with its best writing, acting and filmmaking in order to draw in that elusive “everyone” demographic, Spider-Man 3 simultaneously confirms and refutes that a series — much less a single installment — need be defined by the sum of its parts. And while some audiences may register skepticism over the possibility that a third film can suitably tie up all of the loose ends, not to mention tie-in all of writer-director Sam Raimi’s ambitious ideas, IGN can confirm that Spider-Man 3 is indeed the trilogy-closer that fans have been waiting for.

Instead of the year-plus barrier that separated the first two films, Spider-Man 3 takes place almost immediately after the events of the second film. This serves an important purpose: Harry (James Franco) learned at the end of Spider-Man 2 that Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is Spider-Man, and he isn’t wasting any time trying to take down the person he believes killed his father. In the meantime, Peter has grown comfortable in his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), not to mention the idea that his alter-ego is an icon and hero to millions. Mary Jane, however, is struggling as an actress after receiving scathing reviews for her appearance in a new musical, and has trouble relating to Peter’s newfound confidence.

In another part of the city, escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) races to find a cure for his daughter’s illness, landing himself in the middle of a science experiment while trying to evade capture by the police. His transformation into the Sandman makes him a natural adversary for Spider-Man, but Peter takes the pursuit personally when he discovers that Marko may in fact be responsible for Uncle Ben’s (Cliff Robertson) death. Unfortunately, a mysterious creature that feeds off negative energy finds the erstwhile hero during a moment of weakness and attaches itself to him, sending both Peter and Spider-Man into a dark and dangerous spiral of revenge and violence.

With so many different story strands working together toward a hopefully concise conclusion to both film and franchise, it’s easy to worry about how all of the pieces can and will fit comfortably together. Indeed, even as a champion of the first Spider-Man(considering it the best comic book movie of all time), I worried that there were too many characters and just too much going on in this third installment. But with few exceptions, Sam Raimi, his brother Ivan and screenwriter Alvin Sargent have masterfully crafted a collection of characters, scenes and sequences that only seem disjointed. Raimi has previously stated that he prefers classic villains like Sandman to the fan-friendly choices like Venom, but he’s successfully managed to combine their respective appeals — the former’s compelling simplicity, the latter’s effects-heavy spectacle — in a way sure to satisfy both camps.

It’s in this capacity that Spider-Man 3 sustains — if not surpasses — that perfect balance of real world and comic book physics (a balanced successfully achieved in the earlier films). Raimi, who has projected his longtime affection for Three Stooges-style camp into almost all of his films, spares no effort here injecting goofy, humanizing undertones into various sequences in order to relieve some of the mounting melodramatic tension. An early quip about J. Jonah Jameson’s (J.K. Simmons) heart medicine seems superfluous, but it exemplifies the director’s enjoyment of silly and borderline sophomoric punch lines. But this is also what makes the film fun, playful and appealing to more than just Spidey’s core audience of fan boys and comic book followers — not to mention the reason why this series can be considered the most faithful representation of “comic book reality” committed to celluloid.

That said, there are a handful of scenes that really don’t work, including a dance number (yes, you read that right) and an exposition-heavy set-up for the film’s climax (delivered via a newscaster and his on-the-scene reporter). Additionally, the decision to include characters like Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) feels more like a fan service red herring than a genuine development in the overall story. It is in these moments that Raimi’s latitude as author of the franchise is a little too broad. But, then again, that’s a little bit like criticizing the director for continuing to do what got him the job in the first place — namely, combining the sublime, the silly and the spectacular in almost perfect measures.

In retrospect, it’s almost exciting to consider how effectively Raimi introduces each storyline and then slowly weaves it into the fabric of the overall film. For example, Harry’s hatred of Spider-Man might be a lingering plot point if the film either addressed it in a single scene or left it unexplored until the end. But Raimi and Co. offer a solution that allows new plot developments to breathe. There’s also the matter of Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace), whose intricacies will not be explained in this review, but who slowly becomes integral to both the building drama of the narrative and the emotional complexity of Peter over the course of the three films.

After all, how would this nerdy kid respond if he finally found acceptance as Spider-Man, as he begins to here? Peter’s ability to handle that situation and to recognize that he might be the only person able to apprehend his uncle’s possible killer creates a palpable emotional turmoil that plays directly into the comic book origins of both the hero and his adversaries. By the time he faces them down in the film’s climax, Raimi creates the opportunity not only for a physical triumph but an emotional catharsis that ties together all of the preceding, sometimes seemingly disconnected scenes.

As a person who typically has little trouble differentiating his likes from his dislikes, I was surprised by my initial conflicting feelings — especially given my lifelong love for the character and enthusiasm for the franchise. The trailers alone were so jam-packed with story developments and new characters that it seemed an entire film would not be enough to fully explore all of them. But what truly is most amazing about Spider-Man 3 (no pun intended) is that all objections are answered and all developments are resolved, even if at times it feels like they will never converge.

So if you’re going into the film with any trepidation about whether Raimi can combine all these disparate elements and still satisfactorily conclude the movie, much less the series, reserve your judgment until the last web has been slung. Because this is the first time that two films and two-thirds into a trilogy, you still haven’t seen anything yet. Spider-Man 3 has a great ending, and more importantly, it is a great ending for both a standard three-film arc and the best comic book trilogy in film history.

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5 thoughts on “On Spider-Man 3

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