(I’d like to preface this review by imploring you to see Spider-Man 3 on IMAX if the option is available to you. I’m now of the opinion that these big studio event films are made for the biggest screen imaginable; they are sensory assaults first and stories second. Watching Spider-Man 3 on The Bridge’s IMAX screen was a wonderfully immersive experience. I just can’t recommend it highly enough – the experience, that is. As for the movie…)
With 2004’s Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi triumphantly claimed the web-slinger as his own, crafting a film that was both commercial and personal. It was his most visually accomplished work to date – an exhilarating commingling of expertly choreographed action sequences (the elevated train battle will be thrilling audiences even after technological advances render its CG quaint) and beautifully composed hero shots. Over two hours, Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent deftly guided Peter Parker from reluctant savior to fiercely dedicated crime fighter, punctuating the lad’s growth with Mary Jane’s straight-out-of-the-comics exhortation to "Go get ‘em, tiger!" It was perfection. Henceforth, as far as most of us were concerned, Raimi could do with this character as he pleased.
And he has. Big time. Overloaded with three supervillains, two love interests and enough melodrama to make Douglas Sirk cry, "Das ist genug!", Spider-Man 3 is Raimi amok. If the previous installment was about refinement, this one’s about excess and regression – which would be wonderful if this were The Further Adventures of Ash. In fact, during the film’s most inspired passage, where Peter is transformed by his heavens-sent black spider-suit into a full-blown narcissist, it becomes exactly that. (And while I bow to no one in my Bruce Campbell ardor – save for those… how do I say this without being too insulting… deep-Raimi aficionados who run around ComicCon draped in "Reign of Comedy" t-shirts – it must be said that Tobey Maguire is the man’s equal in cartoonish conceit.) By the time Peter is whipping Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) around the whitest Greenwich Village jazz club that never existed (like a raging jackass in order to torture a warbling, emotionally defeated Mary Jane Watson), I stopped caring about Spider-Man and started to hope that the film would stay this unexpected, straight outta Tashlin course.
It goes without belaboring any further that this is a huge problem this is for a movie called Spider-Man 3, and it’s one that Raimi has scant interest in overcoming. Whether bored with the character or merely distracted, the director has forgotten everything about what makes a rousing superhero movie and turned this film into his own, intermittently amusing, cinematic playground.
This latest chapter gets off to an inauspicious start in its opening credit sequence; whereas Spider-Man 2 benefited from a nifty succession of Alex Ross illustrations bringing the viewer up to date on the story thus far, Spider-Man 3 lazily opts for a series of clips to cover the last two episodes. Then comes the draggy first act, which finds Peter contented, Mary Jane starring in her Broadway musical debut, and the rest of New York City in a beaming mood. Uh-oh. Already, Raimi’s pacing is way off; unlike the musical number that captivates later in the film, we get Mary Jane’s uninspired rendition of "They Say It’s Wonderful" at enervating length. When she’s later fired in response to hostile notices from the local theater critics, the real surprise is that a big Broadway musical with an opening number this lame saw a second performance.
The decision to pack in three villains this time out is murder on the first act; only Harry Osborn’s (James Franco) enduring grudge against Peter/Spider-Man for having, he wrongly believes, killed his father in cold blood feels organic to the story, and, even then, the showdown in the early going between the two ex-friends seems to come out of nowhere. This isn’t because the conflict doesn’t belong; it’s just that Raimi’s got to quickly dispense with this sequence so he can tend to the development of the other baddie, Flint Marko aka The Sandman.
Though Thomas Haden Church unquestionably gives the best performance in Spider-Man 3 as the morally conflicted Marko, his arc is crudely attached to the main story, which is concerned with Peter’s estrangement from his family and friends. Obviously, when he discovers that Marko was responsible for Uncle Ben’s murder, Peter’s thirst for revenge drives perhaps the biggest wedge of all, but getting to this point requires a lot of clunky cross-cutting; for instance, The Sandman’s origin scene – an abusive marriage of underdressed soundstage and hyper-imaginative CG – happens so far outside of the primary action that Raimi might as well have arranged for introductory comic books to be handed out at the box office. As for Marko’s relationship with his daughter and ex-wife; yes, it’s poignantly handled, but, again, it only distends the setup.
The early disappointment extends to the set-pieces, both of which – the Peter/Harry battle and Spidey’s rescue of Gwen – look surprisingly ragged when compared to the Academy Award-winning work of the last picture. Considering the exorbitant price tag slapped on this movie (and it’s totally fair to cite the budget in this review since these movies flaunt their size as a badge of pride), one expects to see the next level of CG f/x. Though, in all fairness to visual f/x supervisor Scott Stokdyk and his team, the real culprit here might be shoddy choreography, as the sequences are confusingly staged.
The biggest victim of Spider-Man 3‘s multiple storytelling cheats is Harry, who has to become an amnesiac just to get mad at Peter all over again because it’s the easiest way to keep him involved in the action. This would be excusable were it not for the world’s most negligent butler, who has a front row to Harry’s meltdown, salvation, and repeat meltdown (invis-text for the don’t-wanna-be-spoiled), but decides to wait until the boy he helped raised is permanently scarred before he tells him the truth about Spider-Man’s involvement in his father’s death. What a prick! And apologists can claim it’s incipient Alzheimer’s all they want; the fucker would’ve surely had a moment of clarity at some point over the last few years and, if he’s such a good guy, taken pity on Harry, who’s been moping about in a murderous state since his dad died.
Even as the movie lurches into its enjoyable second act (i.e. the "Peter Goes Nutzoid" chapter), the flaws keep piling up. Worse, this is when Raimi starts working in his big gooey theme of forgiveness, which advocates letting go of your anger toward those who’ve caused you pain. Harry is undone by the hectoring voice of his father ("You took your eye off the ball!"*), while Peter nearly loses everyone he loves by obsessively pursuing Marko/The Sandman. And then there’s Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace), an opportunistic scumbag who despises Peter for stealing his girlfriend and getting him fired (both of which were well deserved).
That’s right: I’m just now getting to Venom, who, as a proper villain, plays as something of an afterthought. That said, I think the concept of Venom, or, I guess, the clingy black suit (correct away, fellas!), as it eats away at Peter’s conscience accounts for the most affecting dramatic moments in the movie. But the burden of the black suit also evokes a bizarre strain of Roman Catholic guilt which – while accurately mimicking the storyline from the comic book – continues that discomfiting Spidey-as-Christ metaphor introduced in the last film. I figure we’re one film away from stigmata and a virgin birth (most likely from the flirty Polish girl next door who seems content to live vicariously through Peter’s love life). What’s a nice Jewish boy like Raimi doing proselytizing for the away team?
It’s probably just another unintended byproduct of the movie’s confused, scattershot narrative. The persistent refrain with regards to Spider-Man 3 – at least for the anti contingent – will be that Raimi should’ve erred on the side of restraint and dealt with one villain, or, if he had to jam it all in there, shoot for a three-hour run time. Failing to do either kills the film by half-measures, leaving only those jarring flights of Tashlin-inspired anarchy to truly delight and amaze. On one hand, it’s nice to know the madcap Raimi is still alive and over-caffeinated; on the other, it’s disappointing that he’s sacrificed the maturing of his craft to return to the antic.
*A reference to bin Laden? And, if so, is Raimi saying we need to forget about the guy and move forward? This sure would be a popular sentiment with our current President!