I believe, based on the evidence of the first two Spider-Man movies, that Sam Raimi is one of the best action blockbuster directors in the business. Spider-Man 3 doesn’t change my mind on that, because the action in this threequel is very serviceable and sometimes even exceptional: both Peter and Harry’s fights are great. It’s just that everything else about this bloated sandbag of a story is about as nasty as a black goo-ed parasite doing the can-can on my cerebral cortex. With that one sentence, I adapted and combined both Sandman and Venom better than Spider-Man 3. And that was a terrible sentence.
Where to begin with this movie? Honestly, I finished watching it an hour ago and I’ve got a headache. Spider-Man 3 as a viewing experience is the exact opposite of the first two movies. Instead of awe there is confusion, instead of tight plotting there are a thousand contrivances, instead of neat pacing there is way, waaaaay too much going on. This is one of those two-and-a-bit-hour movies that, with a lot of correcting, could be turned into a six-episode miniseries, though not a particularly good one.
What is the point of Spider-Man 3? That’s the question I’m going to use to sift through this movie. One of the points is to show Peter some humility about himself and his growing fame as Spider-Man. This is an interesting direction, especially how it relates to his relationships. Being Spider-Man was what got between himself and Harry, but it’s also what brought Mary-Jane closer to him. After spending two movies with Peter trying to balance Spider-Man with his normal life, it’s a great idea to show the pitfalls of him getting everything he wanted.
Then there’s Mary-Jane, and I know that plenty of people loath Mary-Jane in this movie but I can’t. I realise that she can come across as selfish and erratic, and selfish again, but Spider-Man 3 is showing, through her that being the hero’s girlfriend is amazing when you’re flying through the city with him, her own issues were still waiting for her when her feet were back on the ground. I like the ambition of these choices, and it’s a dynamic that has not been explored in a superhero movie before, but it is not done well here. The reason why? The villains.
Harry should have been the main villain
Harry Osborn’s transformation into the next Green Goblin was set up with the brilliantly silly Norman cameo in Spider-Man 2. What makes a great villain? It’s a common question, and there are lots of good answers. In the context of Spider-Man, it’s about opposites and connections. Harry works as a villain because he is connected to Peter through friendship, Mary-Jane through romance, and Peter as Spider-Man because of his father. There is always an epic quality to friends who become enemies, especially when Harry has had a different experience to Peter. His father was cold, distant, and cruel, but Peter had uncle Ben, the man who is the symbol for Peter’s own moral code. With Mary-Jane in the middle, it could have been great but Harry had to have amnesia just as things were starting to get good to allow time for the other two. Which leads me to…
Sandman should not have been the main villain
Sandman is a co-headliner with Venom, and I still can’t see why. Flint Marko’s transformation into Sandman has a real sense of tragedy to it, but he just spends the rest of the movie breaking policemen and muttering that he’s not a bad guy. Even the twist that he accidentally killed uncle Ben is a complete non-starter. Still, if Harry is to be the main villain, then Sandman’s inclusion, Uncle Ben twist included, would give Peter a chance to feel Harry’s pain. Peter doesn’t need Venom to feel conflicted about Sandman, and like Norman’s death, the truth isn’t as simple as Peter wanted it to be. Even so, having a retcon of Uncle Ben’s death is a cardinal sin on my view. While I like the scene at the end where Peter forgives Flint (a truly heroic act) the whole point of Uncle Ben’s death is to deny Peter that closure. Like Batman’s parents, Uncle Ben’s death from an ordinary crime is there to prove that no crime, and no way you deal with it, should be ordinary, and that sometimes, loss doesn’t have to come in the symbolically huge shape of momentus plot point.
Venom shouldn’t have been in the movie
Is it strange that I think the Venom effects in Spider-Man 3 are much better than the Tom Hardy version? Venom sucks here, Eddie Brock sucks, and the fact that this alien lifeform just dropped from the sky sucks. J Jonah Jamison’s son is an astronaut, for fuck’s sake, have him bring it back. Venom is an excuse in Spider-Man 3 – its inclusion allows Raimi (who famously didn’t want Venom in the movie) to cut a lot of corners when it comes to Peter and the actions he isn’t proud of. If there’s one thing that black goo is great at, it’s killing nuance. I can’t think of a good, bad, or even lazy reason to have Venom in my improved version of Spider-Man 3 – it’s just so plain that he doesn’t belong here at all, despite Topher Grace making perfect sense as Tobey Maguire’s dark shadow.
It’s not just the villains, though. In Spider-Man 3, it feels like the magic is gone. The heroes and villains don’t feel as vivid as the previous entries, Raimi himself seems creatively exhausted, and there is a sense of “lets just get this done.” There is a darker, better movie at the heart of Spider-Man 3, one that puts our three leads in some ambitiously dark places, but instead that movie was possessed by the black goo of studio interference, a tragic death knell for a series of movies that, despite this creative misstep, are still among the gold standard of comic book adaptation. Even though I liked the emo montage this time. Don’t hurt me.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via drink.when.ca)