Earl Dittman wins. He gets his name (even in small print) associated with a massive marketing push and we just get another lousy blockbuster. I’ll spend the next few hundred words explaining eactly why, but for the people who just read the first paragraph and skip to the score, here it is: Spider-Man 3 is not good. Sometimes, it’s enthusiastically, horrifically not good. Moments of genuine popcorn bliss are hidden few and far between, making Sam Raimi’s Spidey swan song (please let it be) play out like a contentious Sony Pictures board meeting.
At some point in the gestation of this script, someone needed to suck it up and walk out of the room, taking their ideas with them. Between Spider-Man’s inner conflict as represented by the black costume/alien symbiote; the unlikely villain duo of Venom and the Sandman; Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane and dalliance with Gwen Stacy; and the conflict/reconciliation/conflict with Harry Osborne, there’s easily enough material for two movies, if not three. The new villains get shortchanged, leaving us feeling as if the Sandman’s sypmpathetic story is wasted and Venom’s (with scant interest from Sam Raimi) severely underdeveloped.
That’s especially frustrating as the plot lines all make sense when laid side by side, and each leads to a potentially satisfying action setpiece. Targeting the Sandman (a wildly under-utilized Thomas Hayden Church) as Ben Parker’s real killer is a big stretch, but Raimi gives him some of the film’s best moments of humanity and super-villain pathos. New photo freelancer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) makes a good foil for Peter Parker, but their conflict is barely sketched in before it comes to a head. The same goes for the alien symbiote that articulates Peter’s dark side and Venom, the monstrous version of Eddie Brock that arises when he and the alien merge.
Those story ideas are all meant to reflect on rough times between Peter and Mary Jane; she rightly feels that her boyfriend is more interested in Spider-Man than her. It’s not the most engaging narrative backbone, but at least the story is one familiar enough that it needs no explanation. Adding to their tension is Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Peter’s white-hot lab partner who is smart and a fashion model and the daughter of a police captain. Peter and Gwen’s single date is one of the movie’s most entertaining moments, but it doesn’t fit in this picture at all; more on that in a moment.
In the background, major characters appear and disappear with little reason. James Cromwell is cast as Gwen Stacy’s father, and their relationship is suddenly revealed in a clunky scene that barely squeaks by on a joke delivered by Topher Grace. Gwen, a fanboy favorite, is on hand to provide eye candy and a romantic revenge foil, but disappears quickly once the third act gets too crowded to deal with her. That Bryce Dallas Howard is obviously better suited to play Mary Jane than Kirsten Dunst (a cruel irony, given Mary Jane’s plotline) doesn’t help at all. And the alien goo that becomes Spidey’s black suit merely hangs around his apartment for the better part of an hour before the movie pauses long enough for it to leap into action.
There’s a frightening lack of coherence to the first two thirds of the picture, to the point where one scene between Peter and his professor (and future Lizard) Curt Connors had me thinking the projectionist had built the film out of sequence. Looking around, I wasn’t the only one. For a film this big to generate so little audience faith that we’re more willing to believe in theater error than directorial intent…that’s a terrible thing. A movie like this has only one thing to to: propel us to the end with increasing force. Spider-Man 2 did that amazingly well, and still spared time for characters and their relationships.
If anything, this movie is more focused on relationships than the last. That doesn’t have to be a stumbling block, and at times Raimi’s emotional pitch is set well. For the first time in the series, we sympathize with Mary Jane, as Peter’s self-involvement threatens any chance they have for a life together. Aunt May continues to resonate honesty and even Peter’s rival Eddie Brock is often smartly, if obviously, tuned.
But this is a movie about shadows and duality, and so every moment that works has a shadow-self that fails. Peter and MJ’s relationship is poorly echoed in laughable scenes that attempt to build and manipulate Peter’s friendship with Harry Osborne. This second Green Goblin is wrong on nearly every level, from the amnesia that blocks his hatred of Peter to the double-reversal in the second and third acts. Don’t get me started on Harry’s butler, a bumbling oddball in a few scenes who becomes a laugh riot deus ex machina when he reveals how much of Harry and Norman’s lives he’s seen.
The biggest problem is Peter’s own shadow-self. Under alien influence, his self-absorbtion becomes a dominant characteristic, as evidenced by a new emo haircut and the hint of eyeliner. Is that Peter Parker, or Pete Wentz? This Fall Out Boy superhero decimates every scene in which he’s not punching someone. While the dark Spidey is great in action, he’s flatter than Elle Fanning without the costume.
At least my fondness for old Sam Raimi movies had me laughing with sympathy instead of malice at some of the film’s goofier moments. Bruce Campbell’s turn as the maitre’d of a French restaurant made me think of his too-oft forgotten appearance as The Heel in Crimewave/The XYZ Murders. That spirit — there’s no word other than ‘zany’ — followed through into Peter Parker’s mean-spirited date with Gwen Stacy at a Jazz Club. It’s a cringe-inducing scene, but at least it’s alive, and Raimi seems fully involved. Most people in the US might never see Crimewave on DVD, but that scene is close enough.
That zany spirit attemps to inject comic-book zing into the entire film, but most of the time it just feels like cheese. And the action setpieces, intended as an ever-escalating set of showstoppers, are barely capable rehashes of what we’ve seen Spider-Man perform in the past. There are moments where Raimi & Co. better visualize his physical abilities, as when the webslinger uses chunks of a falling building to leap closer and closer to a plummeting Gwen Stacy. Even then, however, the scattershot construction shortchanges scenes; with Gwen safe on the ground, the hero bounds off, apparently forgetting the rampaging crane that drew him to the scene in the first place.
I walked out of the movie laughing at it, not with it; Spider-Man 3‘s sense of pace and tone are characteristic of a barely competent journeyman, not a seasoned craftsman like Sam Raimi. Even knowing the source material, the alien costume seems abrupt and odd, Venom is barely second-rate and Gwen Stacy merely a placeholder. I can’t imagine what non-comic readers might think, nor can I envision many telling their friends to rush into this sticky, muddled mess.