There’s a moment in Spider-Man
3 over halfway through the film where it becomes obvious that all involved
parties realize they have nothing else to prove and simply let their figurative
hair down and had some fun. Real fun. This isn’t a spoiler, but when the film
enters Superman III territory and showcases a Peter Parker/Spider-Man that isn’t
wholesome and the quintessential chunk of Americana, there’s a playful vibe
that is much more engaging than the numerous fast-paced set pieces could hope
to be. It showcases a new school Sam Raimi, one who doesn’t wow us with
delectable camerawork and zany tricks but one who is adept at balancing the
melodrama which pads the action with cocky little moments that would have ended
on the cutting room floor of the first two. A little typically goes a long way
in event films, and something about Peter Parker’s transformation into Tony
Manero after being symbiotically linked with the black alien goo elevates Spider-Man 3 from being a very stout
summer movie to being a lesson in power and responsibility and how to balance them deftly.
Something about seeing the appropriately stiff Tobey Maguire walking the streets snapping his fingers and wooing the women of new York City feels like a minor rebellion for the filmmakers. The scene gives way to another cocksure musical scene and before it’s all said and done we’ve been given a dance sequence and a half and my grin went from the typical glazed and bloated summer movie smirk one gets from being slammed over the head with the magic of special effects to full-on shit eating grin. I was having fun and it wasn’t because I was seeing my favorite costumed hero swinging through Manhattan. It was the knowledge that Sam Raimi had eclipsed the high demands of the property and not only embraced the ‘kitchen sink’ mentality of Spider-Man 3 but also made sure that it was clogged with fun minutia.
By now there’s very little that we can see in the Spider-Man universe that will match that first sensation of seeing Peter Parker swing through the city. Additionally, comic book movie sequels have the unfortunate task of delivering new hordes of villains and the stakes have to be raised each time, something that can be demanding on a viewer. Bloat is the mind killer, as evidenced by the subsequent Matrix, X-Men, and Pirates of the Caribbean films and though no one could argue that they don’t serve a purpose it’s taxing. Thankfully, all three Spider-Man films feature amazing actors as the villains and though Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina share the title as best of the bunch, Thomas Haden Church, James Franco, and Topher Grace do very admirable jobs with very little to work from. There’s just too much to cover, even in the two hours and twenty minutes Raimi’s film allows.
Thankfully, what is lost in character development is gained in Big Boss Action! At a point where many viewers may feel satiated, the film decides to throw caution to the wind, babies with the bathwater, and other overused terms and have a truly jaw-dropping sequence where nothing is spared for the spectacle. It’s the best and most truly "superhero" battle put to film and though not one person in the crowd will be surprised how it turns out, the ride there is incredible. I’d be very surprised if Sam Raimi feels the need to top that sequence by doing additional Spidey films. He’s done a very good job delivering three superior films in the toughest of circumstances and though I still think the second film balances the drama and spectacle the best, this makes good on the strong work of the first two, delivering a satisfying if not slightly overcooked finale. It’s time to pass the torch to someone new. My suggestion: Irreversible‘s Gaspar Noé. Especially to see how he’d handle the Stan Lee cameo. What was once a fun little fanboy wink is now a major distraction. Stan Lee’s contributions to the comic book world are the industry’s equivalent of Babe Ruth to baseball but it takes me out of the film every time I see the once and future creator of Stripperella appear in a forced and annoying cameo.
For those folks who’ve been busy reading up on Groo the Wanderer instead of this, the film features Peter Parker dealing with his love life to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), balancing the life of being a super-hero slowly becoming a celebrity with being a student and lowly photographer, coping with an alien substance that is bonding with his costume, avoiding murder from his best friend who thinks Spider-Man killed his father, hunting the newly revealed true killer of his Uncle Ben who happens to be made of sand, dealing with a rival photographer, fighting the urges of romance from another sexy dame, and life in poverty in New York city.
Busy? Yeah. Way to go, short attention spanned Earth. You brought this on.
Because this film is filled with name actors, it’s thankfully not as mind-numbing as one would expect. Tobey Maguire does a good job of holding things together and though Peter Parker is supposed to be a wallflower and somewhat boring, it’s nice to finally see him let his hair down a little.
Like Doctor Octopus before him, there’s a surprising sadness to Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman character, one whose motivation seemingly stems from a dying daughter though his connection to the death of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is an ill fit. Church, like Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina before him is a solid choice who brings extra weight to the table but The Sandman is a 2nd tier villain at best and his origin is extremely rushed. I also think audiences can be spared another ‘science experiment gone awry’ for a while. It cheapens the impact a little to have three villains in a row come from similar origins. That said, the scene where the character first learns the usage of his powers is surprisingly beautiful, a moment of digital pantomime that really sells the quality of Raimi’s storytelling eye and the progress of digital effects over the years. It’s also exciting to see Raimi have some fun with the character in the climax, allowing Spider-Man 3 to almost be a monster movie for a few minutes.
The less I say about the Venom sequences the better. Not because they’re bad but because the marketing folks at Sony have done a good job to keep them quiet. It’s better that way, but I will admit that the character is handled extremely well and Topher Grace’s energy almost matches J.K. Simmons here. Really fun stuff.
Rounding out the villainous trio is the return of James Franco and his tormented past. Franco has been consistently strong in these films, but his performance here is by far the best of them. Though many of the cast members are strong (including Kirsten Dunst, much to my surprise), Franco is the standout. It’s a lot fo fun to see him go from schemer to punch-drunk innocent and beyond. Though the Norman/Harry Osborn saga has been a recurring theme through all three films, it comes to a very solid conclusion here and the melodrama that has always been a part of these films feels genuine where it could have been laughable.
Spider-Man 3 is a film bursting at the seams with a trilogy’s worth of ideas, threads, and deliverables. It doesn’t hit home on all of them. The Gwen Stacy inclusion is extraneous. Too much time is spent on the relationship of Peter Parker and Mary Jane. The attempts to make the death of Uncle Ben mirror Batman’s origin seems forced. The alien symbiote aspect truly could have constituted an entire feature on its own. Peter Parker isn’t quite as interesting and his flashes of darkness, though fun, could have been more resounding.
The bottom line is that this is a big, loud, and very entertaining superhero movie. Looked at as three acts, this is a very successful climax to the first two films. This has always been the comic book film franchise with the most weight. The films have been huge financially and critically and there’s a set of expectations that may result in some viewers feeling let down. I don’t see it. These films could seamlessly be edited into one and should be, as I feel wholly satisfied with Spider-Man on film. They did it. I’m pleased almost to the point where I wish they’d allow it to remain a trilogy.
This is a very good summer movie, proof you can have way too many characters and still pull it off. And yes, Bruce Campbell has his best cameo yet. By far.
Spider-Man 2 – 9.2