Skip to main content

Spider-Man with his hand in the cookie jar! Whoever brings me that photo gets a job.

Spider-Man 3
(2007)

(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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I am you, and you are me, and we are here. I am the dreamer. You are the dream.

Communion (1989)
(SPOILERS) Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story was published in 1987, at which point the author (who would also pen Communion’s screenplay) had seen two of his novels adapted for the cinema (Wolfen and The Hunger), so he could hardly claim ignorance of the way Hollywood – or filmmaking generally – worked. So why then, did he entrust the translation of a highly personal work, an admission of/ confrontation with hidden demons/ experiences, to the auteur who unleashed Howling II and The Marsupials: Howling III upon an undeserving world? The answer seems to be that Strieber already knew director Philippe Mora, and the latter was genuinely interested in the authors’ uncanny encounters. Which is well and good and honourable, but the film entirely fails to deliver the stuff of cinematic legend. Except maybe in a negative sense.

Strieber professes dismay at the results, citing improvised scenes and additional themes, and Walken’s rendition of Whitley Strieber, protagonist…

I’m not the Jedi I should be.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
(SPOILERS) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a 12-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however,George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.

This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential …

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.