I love Spider-Man 2. It got everything right that the first Spidey film did – intelligent characterizations with a healthy dose of thematic depth – but added the one missing ingredient: kick-ass action sequences. In particular, the Clock Tower fight between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus is a top contender for one of the best action scenes ever committed to film, an exhilarating rush that takes the combatants from the rooftops to the train tracks with Spidey barely preventing a full moving tram from crashing. The scene embodies the traits that places Spider-Man 2 at the peak of superhero filmmaking: respect, intelligence and grace.
Spider-Man 3 lacks all of these. It’s an abysmal mess of a film, overstuffed and undercooked at the same time. It doesn’t just disappoint compared to its predecessor; it’s downright angering. And unlike in other film series, where a change in the creative team can be faulted for a drastic dip in quality, there’s no one to blame for this disaster but Sam Raimi, the very man who made this series worth watching in the first place.
So where the hell did it all go so wrong?
To answer this question, I’m going to have to go slightly into spoiler-territory, so tread lightly.
Three heads are not better than one
If there’s one thread that ties the superhero movie revival together, it’s strong directing. Every one of the biggest success stories – X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man – has been achieved by entrusting a talented director with near-complete control over the creative process. But strangely, Raimi seems to have given back some of that creative control through a critical miscalculation: he began to listen to his producers.
Here’s Raimi explaining to Dark Horizons why Venom is one of the three (yes, three) villains in the film:
I had worked on the story with my brother Ivan, and primarily it was a story that featured the Sandman. It was really about Peter, Mary Jane, Harry, and that new character. But when we were done, Avi Arad, my partner and the former president of Marvel at the time, said to me, Sam, you’re so, you’re not paying attention to the fans enough. You need to think about them. You’ve made two movies now with your favorite villains, and now you’re about to make another one with your favorite villains. The fans love Venom, he is the fan favorite. All Spider-Man readers love Venom, and even though you came from 70s Spider-Man, this is what the kids are thinking about. Please incorporate Venom, listen to the fans now. And so that’s really where I, I realized okay, maybe I don’t have the whole Spiderman universe in my head, I need to learn a little bit more about Spider-Man and maybe incorporate this villain to make some of the real diehard fans of Spider-Man finally happy.
What’s strange about this creative decision is that Raimi has stated in the past that he doubted he would ever make a film about Venom because he just wasn’t a fan of the character. Clearly somewhere along the line he was convinced to put aside his own views as a filmmaker and include Venom in the film, radically altering his original plans. Instead of making a film that he was interested in as a storyteller, Raimi tried to make a film to please other people.
And it shows. There’s so much stuff crammed into Spider-Man 3’s bloated running time that it almost reminded me of the way that comic book films used to be: a paper-thin script filled with copious amounts of cardboard characters that are more vehicles for selling toys than telling a good story. There’s lots going on, but none of it feels fleshed out and poignant, and some of it is downright awful.
Of the three villains, Harry Osborn’s quest for vengeance fares the best, but that’s largely because they’ve been building his story arc through the previous films (kind of like how X3 was able to hold itself somewhat together in spite of several questionable creative decisions by having Magneto as its central villain). The two new villains that Raimi throws at us are starting from scratch, and their failure to resonate as anything more than distracting trifles is symptomatic of the film’s problems. The Sandman, for example, starts off promising with a simple back story and a ridiculously cool creation sequence but ceases being interesting at that point. He becomes nothing more than a schlock movie monster, so much so that when he references his sick daughter at the end of the film it’s a big light-bulb moment: “Oh yeah, now I remember, THAT’S his motivation…where has that been for the past hour?”
Venom fits pretty much the same pattern (simple back story, cool creation sequence, underdeveloped from that point onwards) but fares infinitely worse because his role is crammed into the final half of the film. Also, it’s clear that Raimi still really doesn’t give much of a shit about Venom. I mean, here you have one Spider-Man’s most horrifying villains in the hands of a horror movie veteran and the character is never used in a way that is scary or disturbing in the least. His inclusion is nothing more than transparent lip service to comic book fans; if I was one of them, I’d be downright insulted.
Dancing in the streets
Thankfully there was still plenty in Spider-Man 3 that was insulting to me on a mere filmgoer level. I really don’t know where to start. Should I rant about the awfully coincidental plot mechanisms (Sandman and Venom teaming up with little reason or explanation why, the final swerve in Osborn’s arc occurring through a weird random speech from his butler, etc.)? How about the repetitive action sequences, which almost all take place at night with quick-cut photography that rips away the poetry and grace from the last film? Or what about how vapid and lifeless everything involving Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane is, brought into even sharper focus by the energy (however underused) of Bryce Dallas Howard as a competing love interest?
If I spent time on those, though, I would have less space to talk about what everyone will be talking about when they leave the theatre: the goddamned dance sequence.
Remember that scene in Spider-Man 2 where Raimi had Toby Maguire walking down the street to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”? It was great; a charming way to show off Peter Parker’s sense of freedom after abandoning his role as Spider-Man. But it also didn’t overstay its welcome, which would have threatened turning a cute diversion into a grating indulgence.
Case in point: Spider-Man 3. Raimi, seemingly buoyed by the response from that scene, has returned with a sequence so jaw-droppingly awful, so unbelievably out of place, so stunningly terrible that it truly has to be seen to be believed. While under the influence of a dark alien Spider Suit that has a hard-on for hedonism, Peter Parker spends ten minutes in the middle of the film strutting around downtown to the tune of some 70s disco song, stopping every now and then to ogle at girls and dance like Tony Manero. Things only get worse as he takes Howard’s Gwen Stacey on a date at the same bar where estranged fiancé Mary Jane is working, taking over the piano to lead the band in an uptempo swing number and seducing the dance floor like he’s the goddamned Lord of the Dance.
I’m pretty sure that we’re supposed to think that Peter Parker is acting like a moron, but it doesn’t make the sequence any easier to sit through. It goes on and on and on and on and on, to the point where I grew tired from having my jaw hanging wide open in shock and disbelief for ten straight minutes. It’s as if the projector operator messed up and suddenly put a reel of Jim Carey’s The Mask on instead of Spider-Man 3. It makes rave sequence in The Matrix Reloaded look like Citizen Friggin’ Kane. It’s so bad that it goes past good and back to bad again several times over.
If the rest Spider-Man 3 were the second coming of filmmaking, all anyone would be talking about afterwards would be those ten minutes in the middle when everything went to hell. They almost render reviewing the rest of the movie pointless.
But I’ll keep going, because that scene’s unbelievabilty actually hits upon my personal biggest problem with Spider-Man 3. It’s a really odd point to try and make, believability in a comic book movie. I mean, how do I justify attacking the realism of a film about a teenager who got bit by a radioactive spider and now spins webs around the city fighting supervillians? But indulge me for a moment here.
I always liked how Raimi grounded the villains in the first two Spidey films. Yes, there was clearly a fantastical element to both the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus, but I enjoyed that they were regular human beings first who only gained their powers and villainy when they became victims of science. No matter what form they took on, no matter how much they were changed in the process, there was always a human being behind the mask (albeit a deranged, psychotic one).
On paper, little changes with Spider-Man 3: the Sandman, for example, is just an ordinary criminal who gets caught in the middle of a government experiment that mixes his molecular structure with that of sand. But the execution feels all wrong. For much of the action sequences, including the climactic showdown, the Sandman is able to morph into a giant, stories-high sand monster that can use any sand he touches to grow bigger and stronger. To me, that crosses a line. It not only ceases to be believable within the ground rules the series has set thus far, but as a CGI monster the Sandman completely loses his humanity. He becomes nothing more than a big, expensive visual effect.
But ironically, the film’s biggest lack of believability, its biggest void of humanity, lies not in any CGI creation but in Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Spider-Man himself. This surprised the hell out of me; I was hugely supportive of McGuire’s casting in the first place and it’s proven to one of the smartest decisions that Raimi has made in creating the world of Spider-Man in these films. Until now.
With this film, Maguire’s Spider-Man ceases to be a character. He is a mere caricature – a broad-stroke, subtlety-free, obvious-as-a-sledgehammer cartoon character. The whole first act of the film consists of Peter Parker becoming so enamored with Spider-Man’s popularity that he begins to ignore and neglect everything else around him. I didn’t believe it, not for a second. It felt completely foreign to the character that we’ve spent two films with, trading a semblance of emotional depth for comic simplicity. The turn to “dark Spider-Man” is equally ham-handed; it seems that “dancing and hair bangs = evil” is about as complicated as Maguire and Raimi are willing to let us go with the character.
I’m not sure what the hell happened here: whether Raimi’s direction ruined the character, if Maguire doesn’t have the range to handle anything other than mild brooding, or whether Maguire is just bored with the whole series and can’t wait to get out of it. No matter what the reason, the result is a film missing its heart and soul from the very first frame. During what should have been one of the emotional centerpieces, where Mary Jane breaks up with Peter and he breaks down, the performance was so hideously forced on McGuire’s part that I didn’t blame the sarcastic 20-something behind me in the theatre for yelling out loud, “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?!”
The answer is no, random yelling guy, which is precisely the point.
You may think I’m being too harsh on Spider-Man 3; you may also be right. I mean, compared to some of the lifeless also-rans in comic book filmmaking, it’s borderline passable. But success and failure are entirely relative terms. If you’ve set your standards high, you’ve got a lot to live up to.
I wouldn’t have minded if Spider-Man 3 were a noble failure, a film that admirably tried to match Spider-Man 2’s highs but ended up coming a bit short for whatever reason. But it never tries, not once. The script never seems to worry about lame plot turns or underdeveloped conflicts. Maguire never seems to worry about the lack of heart in his performance. Dunst doesn’t seem to worry about anything going on at all. And the captain of the ship, Sam Raimi, the man who made two of the most critically and commercially successful superhero films of all time, seems to worry about what other people want instead of his own creative vision. Not one of them seems to worry enough to try.
For all their lack of trying, Spider-Man 3 is nothing short of one giant, colossal artistic failure.
(If you’re looking for a counterpoint to my searing negativity, my friend Shawn has his review up at his blog, coming from more of a comic book fan’s perspective. Our views on the film are so diametrically opposed that I’m almost convinced that we saw two completely different movies.)
Watch: Spider-Man 3 trailer