(SPOILERS) Spider-Man 3 is a mess. That much most can agree on that much. And I think few – Jonathan Ross being one of them – would claim it’s the best of the Raimi trilogy. But it’s also a movie that has taken an overly harsh beating. In some cases, this a consequence of negative reaction to its most inspired elements – it would be a similar story with Iron Man Three a few years later – and in others, it’s a reflection of an overstuffed narrative pudding – so much so that screenwriter Alvin Sargent considered splitting the movie into two. In respect of the latter, elements were forced on director Sam Raimi, and these cumulative disagreements would eventually lead him to exit the series (it would take another three years before his involvement in Spider-Man 4 officially ended). There’s a lot of chaff in the movie, but there’s also a lot of goodness here, always providing you aren’t gluten intolerant.
Post the Marc Webb Amazing reboot, Spidey 3’s decriers have tended to regroup slightly, on the basis that it wasn’t all that bad in retrospect. I was never among them (the decriers), although I can’t deny there are times when you can feel Raimi trying his best not to let this behemoth, over spilling with villains, one of whom he fought against, and two love interests, and effectively two Peter Parkers, get out of control.
What undeniably survives is his vision of Peter Putz Parker, still making all the wrong choices and being entirely oblivious to the needs the woman he professes to love. Thrown into the mix is Bryce Dallas Howard in the fairly thankless role of Gwen Stacy – again, the most effective love interest in the movie is the unrequited one from Mageina Tovah’s Ursula – there for rescuing (a crane goes super apeshit beserk in a sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Fast and Furious) or igniting jealousy (Peter, in an act of shocking lack of awareness, prostitutes his upside down kiss with MJ from the first movie for the cameras; “She’s just a girl in my class”).
What’s been lacking in Raimi’s movies – because he needs his underdogs, and he needs them to suffer, even when they’re super-powered – since the fight with Flash Thompson in the first movie is Peter actually taking charge with effortless confidence. Even as Spider-Man he’s mostly on a back foot rather than cutely quipping. But being Raimi, when he doesallow his worm to turn, he turns him into Emo Peter, probably the most hilarious and entirely controversial move of his trilogy. For me, it’s the absolute highlight of Spider-Man 3, even if it lasts for little more than fifteen minutes (in a movie that runs more than two hours fifteen). However, I’d quite forgotten how the random symbiote-laden meteor crashes to earth right at the very start and then proceeds to squidge around Peter’s bedroom for an hour before doing anything of note; whatever else the screenplay, credited to Sam Ivan and Alvin Sargent, has going on positively, it’s structurally a disaster, also managing to side-line Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) for ages.
The effect of the symbiote, aside from turning Peter’s costume black and rendering him as a very obvious CGI double – seriously, while the effects in the trilogy are very variable, here in particular they have not aged well, probably because Raimi’s more visibly reliant on them than before – is to give him a kind of coke high, emo fringe and eyeliner. He consequently thinks he’s very much cooler than he is (dancing down the street to the disconcerted looks of any women walking by), and eventually hijacking MJ’s pub gig with a piano recital before dancing down the bar (and only reconsidering his ways when he accidentally hits MJ). On the other hand, we also get to see him smash morally-compromised Eddie’s camera (“See ya, chump”), flare up at his landlord (“You’ll get your rent when you fix this damn door!”) and finally give Harry what-for in a much more effective fight than the earlier high-flying one (“He despised you! You were an embarrassment to him!”)
So effective are these scenes – you can feel Raimi, whatever his qualms about the symbiote, really coming into his own here – that one can only conclude it was a grave error to devote so little screen time to the Venom plotline. Coincidentally or not, this third movie also manages to follow the Superman template (the second movie has the protagonist give up the good fight, the third movie has him turn evil for a spell); the problem is, while Avi Arad might have “persuaded” Raimi of the merits of Venom/ the symbiote, it clearly wasn’t enough to integrate him/it into an effectively told story. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace, who’s fine in a reflection of Peter way but lacks, well, he isn’t Tom Hardy, and there’s no relish to Venom – “I like being bad. It makes me happy” is a bit sappy) only connects with the symbiote with half an hour to go, in a very evidently can’t-be-arsed scenario (the bank robbery when Peter and May are opening an account in Spider-Man 2 was coincidence enough, but this time Peter’s tearing off his costume while Eddie’s praying in the church below).
Raimi clearly doesn’t care about Brock’s transformation, as there’s none of the care bestowed on Sandman earlier, a villain he didwant to include (he also wanted Ben Kingsley as the Vulture until Venom took precedence). While the effects in much of the movie are shonky – possibly a symptom of John Dykastra passing on supervising this one – the birth of Sandman is a thing of beauty, all the more so with the lyrical accompaniment of Christopher Young – replacing Danny Elfman’s vanilla scoring – as Flint attempts to martial the properties of his new granular form.
On the one hand, this is another science experiment with a human caught up in it, but on the other, Flint’s motivation is very different to the boffins of the previous pictures (“I’m not a bad person. I just had bad luck”). Church’s mournful performance does as much as it can to flesh out a character Raimi must take the blame for sabotaging; retconning Uncle Ben’s perp seems to have come with his blessing, but it’s an unnecessary decision and one that ultimately feels hollow, a rote attempt to force further angst/ character development on Peter (the Joker killed my parents). And with the overstuffed melange of villains, Marko is ultimately dealt short shrift (there’s also that Raimi never finds a way to make him a sufficiently effective antagonist, simply because he’s too sympathetic – granted, one of his reasons for including the character was to question Peter’s conviction that criminals are criminals but that attitude isn’t really evidenced in anything we’ve previously seen other than Uncle Ben’s killer).
Raimi does, though, manage to finish Harry’s arc effectively. But while Harry makes a good bastard best friend, he is not a great villain, meaning that, despite there being three of them, the picture’s ultimately lacking in that regard. Harry here is possibly the purest distillation of James Franco on screen, at least until the climax, so there’s that. The memory-loss device is very cheesy, but it does at least elicit Harry’s shit-eating grin as sabotages the parts of Peter’s life he hasn’t already sabotaged (“How was the pie?”: “Soooooo good”). It’s more classic Raimi.
We also get Bruce Campbell (once earmarked for Mysterio), of course, playing nice with Parker this time as a Monty Python French waiter attempting to aid him in popping the question to MJ. And there are further high notes with J Jonah Jameson, including a priceless routine with Elizabeth Banks (an early role, playing his assistant in all three movies) raising his blood pressure further by continually buzzing him (“Time to take your pill”) and his horror at the faked Spidey photo (“I haven’t printed a retraction in twenty years!”). And then there’s his being extorted for cash when he needs a camera during the climax.
Which isn’t very good, really. Yes, it pays off Harry well enough, but it also brusquely dispenses with Venom, involves MJ being kidnapped again, doubles down on the trilogy’s obsession with unmasking our hero (not really much different to the Burton Batmans on this point, I suppose) and features some absolutely appalling reportage interludes that help to destroy any tension.
So as a trilogy capper, Spider-Man 3 never really finds its groove, but it does have moments of greatness – early scenes with Flint, anything with Emo Peter, anything with JJ – and it certainly isn’t the massive step down, quality wise, that many suggest. Whatever the movie’s perceived problems, they didn’t damage the box office (the most successful of the trilogy worldwide). It might have been nice to see Raimi continue with the series for a couple more movies, but on the other hand, given the compromise he was encountering (he suffered four versions of a 4 script and still hated it, apparently, so we never got to see Malkovich as the Vulture), perhaps it was time (he has since called 3 “awful”). It’s just a shame that the next incarnation of Spidey was so creatively compromised, scoring a director who wouldn’t or couldn’t push back, with entirely dispensable results.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.