The overstuffed, dreadful ‘Spider-Man 3’ botched everything but the action

February 24, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 24, 2016

Nearly two years ago, I came across a three-for-one DVD containing the trilogy of Spider-Man films directed by Sam Raimi in the first decade of the 21st century. After writing about the first film, from 2002, and starting and tagging but not otherwise working on a post about the second film, released in 2004, I didn’t start watching 2007’s Spider-Man 3 until one night in early February.

I didn’t finish watching it until a few days ago.

Raimi’s first Spider-Man was a decent enough flick, but hardly great. His follow-up is, in my opinion, one of the greatest superhero movies (although bear in mind that I’ve only seen one X-Men movie, and none of the Avengers films). The third Spider-Man movie, however, is widely regarded as a mess, despite the fact that it was the top-grossing domestic movie of the year, with a haul of more than $336 million.

(Incidentally, the second- through 12th-highest-grossing features of 2007, in descending order, were Shrek the ThirdTransformersPirates of the Caribbean: At World’s EndHarry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixI Am LegendThe Bourne UltimatumNational Treasure: Book of SecretsAlvin and the Chipmunks300Ratatouille and The Simpsons Movie.)

I had long suspected that Spider-Man 3’s bad reputation was overblown. But my friends, I am compelled to report that this movie is indeed quite dire.

The main problem here is that the film doesn’t have quite enough material for two movies, but it has more than enough for a single feature. (Bear in mind that Spider-Man 3 weighed in at two hours and 19 minutes when it was released; the director’s cut has another 17 minutes of material.) At least one of the screenwriters recognized this problem, but the movie makers ended up sticking with one feature because they couldn’t find a worthwhile cliffhanger to lead into a further sequel.

The script was written by Alvin Sargent, who also worked on both Spider-Man 2 and the 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, in conjunction with Raimi and his older brother, Ivan Raimi, whose most prominent work is Army of Darkness, the cult-classic 1992 horror-comedy joint that the Raimis co-wrote, with Sam also directing. They set up a complex web (get it?!) of interlocking plot strands involving an on again, off again rivalry between protagonist Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his longtime friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), as well as his conflicts with desperate criminal Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) and ambitious Daily Bugle photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). 

All four of these men have superpowered alto egos. Parker, of course, is the eponymous web-slinger whose abilities came courtesy of a bite from a genetically engineered spider. Osborn is the son of 2002 Spider-Man menace Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe, who appears here briefly), a.k.a. the Green Goblin, whose evil persona and gear (but not his green color scheme) have been passed to Harry in bits and pieces. Marko escapes from prison, stumbles into some kind of high-energy physics experimental facility and gains the ability to control sand — hence his nickname, the Sandman. Brock inadvertently becomes host to a mysterious alien life form that transforms him into a malevolent fang-faced black-clad version of Spider Man. (The character isn’t named on-screen, much like the name “Catwoman” is never spoken in The Dark Knight Rises, but this is Venom, an extremely popular antihero from the comic books.)

The opening of Spider-Man 3 makes for a major contrast with the 2004 sequel. At the start of Spider-Man 2, Parker was at his nadir: He was falling behind in his college classes, he lost his job as a pizza-delivery man, he had his powers falter for unknown reasons, and he saw the lifelong object of his affections, former neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), become engaged to a handsome, dashing and famous astronaut.

Now, however, Spider-Man is the toast of the Big Apple. After he rescues Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the daughter of a high-ranking police officer (the wonderful James Cromwell, given embarrassingly little to do), from an early Sandman rampage, the wall crawler is thrown a parade and given a key to the city. Moreover, Parker is killing it in his college classes, one of which he shares with Stacy, and his relationship with Watson is going full blazes — so much so that when Peter tells kindly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) that he intends to propose marriage, she happily hands him the ring that she wore throughout a half-century or so of matrimonial bliss with Ben Parker (Cliff Robertson). To top it all off, Harry Osborn comes down with a case of amnesia that completely erases his enmity toward Parker/Spider-Man, whom he (unfairly) blames for dad Norman Osborn’s death.

Unfortunately for Parker, his world — are you sitting down for this? You should really be sitting down for this — is about to fall apart. The gooey Venom symbiont, after being conveyed to Earth by a falling meteorite, winds up in Parker’s apartment and begins to amplify his bellicosity. Brock shows up and begins to cut into our hero’s part-time photography work at the Daily Bugle. Marko begins robbing banks to fund his ailing daughter’s costly medical treatments, which puts him in bad odor with Spider-Man even before Peter and May learn that the police now suspect Marko in Ben Parker’s shooting death.

Worst of all, however, is that days (or maybe just a day?) after Watson opens as the lead in a Broadway musical, she is unceremoniously fired by the producers. With Parker so wrapped up in all his positive goings-on, he’s completely oblivious to his girlfriend’s professional calamity. She turns to Osborn for comfort shortly before his Goblin persona resumes its hold on him, prompting Harry to launch an elaborate plan to destroy everything that Parker holds dear.

Parker’s angry new Venom-inflected persona doesn’t take things lying down, however, and he ends up exacting a measure of revenge against Watson, Brock and Sandman for the wrongs he thinks they’ve done him. When Parker splits from Venom and the symbiont takes hold of Brock, giving the unctuous photographer access to Spider-Man’s memories, powers and anger, that leaves Spidey with a lot of powerful, pissed-off enemies who come together in a climactic battle.

If this sounds busy, well, it is. The movie delivers decent action sequences — although, as is true of all of Raimi’s Spider-Man outings, some of the computer-generated imagery is a bit suspect. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down by the soap-opera elements of its plot. I stopped watching Spider-Man 3 on three different occasions, all at moments when the relationship drama between Parker, Watson and Osborn (and Stacy, to a lesser extent) was about to take center stage.

The movie’s worst stretch comes about two-thirds of the way through as Venom increases its hold on Parker’s personality. He changes his hairstyle, dresses completely in black, buys a slick new set of clothing (also exclusively black) and generally struts around the city like a rooster. Maguire is a fine actor, but he’s completely unable to sell the bad-boy schtick the story requires for these sequences.

Maguire, who was 32 at the time Spider-Man 3 came out, frequently appears to be much older than his character, who I have to assume is supposed to be in his early 20s. That does nothing to enhance the enjoyability or credibility of the movie’s melodramatic relationship scenes.

The writers also makes some questionable moves. It seems odd that Parker, a college student and crime-fighter, wants to get a full-time job at the Bugle. And the retroactive rewriting of Ben Parker’s death seems to undermine some of that storyline’s power.

And so, in summary: Yikes. This is a bad movie, and I’m baffled that it made so much money. Don’t watch it unless you really love Spider-Man, superhero movies, Sam Raimi movies, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst or James Franco.

On second thought, I take that back: Don’t watch Spider-Man 3 at all unless someone is compensating you generously for doing so.

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