Review: “Spider-Man 3”

With great money comes great accountability, not to mention a greater need to please everyone. Unfortunately this approach ultimately undermines the third “Spider-Man” film from reaching the heights achieved by the first two. Make no mistake though, “Spider-Man 3” is still a solid Summer movie with some glorious set pieces, even if its bones are beginning to creak.

In spite of its inherent clumsiness and disappointing villain, the first “Spider-Man” remains a great crowd-pleaser with an excellent origin story and more life and energy to it than pretty much any comic book movie made before or since. The second in 2004 pulled off the rare feat of being a better constructed film in every way – a far better realized villain, richer characters, better action, etc.

Yet much of the energy that was a hallmark of the first film was missing, replaced by repetitive scenes of tedious teen angst about a superhero struggling to balance life, love and work. It may have been more accurate to the character in the comics, but all the self-pitying frequently made the film’s first two acts stall both our interest and patience, before everything righted itself again for a rousing finale.

Now comes the third film which is as technically impressive as ever, but suffers from being simultaneously pulled in too many different directions. Even being an extra 15 minutes or so longer than its predecessor, the film still has to juggle three villains (Sandman, Harry Osborn, Venom) along with subplots about the rocky roads of new love, a “Superman 3” style ‘dark personality’ subplot, the ongoing Harry-Mary Jane-Peter love-hate triangle, not to mention giving time to a half dozen other characters both new and old.

In “Spider-Man 3”, Peter and Mary Jane are in love and he is on the verge of asking her to marry him. His lack of comfort about being Spider-Man in the last film has given way to a mildly cocky arrogance which he enjoys indulging in. She on the other hand is undergoing great difficulty as her Broadway debut is trashed by the critics and cut short, forcing her to be plagued by self-doubt. Peter’s expanding ego isn’t exactly helping her feel better either.

Other factors come into play – Harry Osborn, armed with a variation of the Green Goblin armor, is still out for revenge over his father’s death. Flint Marko, an escaped convict with a connection to the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, becomes caught in a scientific experiment and turns into a shape-shifting sand creature. Eddie Brock, a cocky young reporter with no scruples, sets out to take Peter’s job at the Bugle. Finally, a mysterious symbiotic black substance from a fallen meteorite clings to the Spider-Man suit and causes Peter’s self-confidence to rise to new levels of arrogance.

Throw in both blond classmate Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a charming amnesiac Harry to serve as romantic foils for the couple, the alien goo becoming the villain Venom in the last half-hour (disappointingly realized too), numerous action set pieces, and scenes for regular characters like Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson, and you can see why that even at 140 minutes, there’s simply not enough time to cover all the bases comfortably.

Surprisingly the film does manage to wrap things up by the end, so much so that it feels like an ‘unofficial end’ to the series in some ways with no cliff hanging stories left to resolve. Yet how most of these are resolved is done in some rushed and often unsatisfactory ways and that’s where “Spider-Man 3” falls apart. The elements are there for some great drama, but they’re never developed enough to become involving, and often awkwardly mix rather than cohesively gel.

The hook this time is not only multiple villains, but a darker story for our hero – Maguire who once again comfortably inhabits the character. Unfortunately he also displays a surprising lack of growth in the role, playing him with little difference than the way he he did in the first film – this is despite the events of the first two films and his general experience as an actor. An awkward and naive school kid is believable, the same for someone pushing their mid-late twenties – ehh, not so much.

It’s more noticeable considering that Dunst, and more notably Franco, show distinct improvement in the way they handle their roles – in fact their scenes together ring with more genuine appeal than any of the tedious domestic squabbles that Maguire and Dunst’s scenes together devolve into. Neither are particularly strong actors, Dunst playing Mary Jane as somewhat petulant whilst Franco’s “I’m an evil guy now” scenes seem more fitting for soap opera than block buster territory.

Yet both work their personal stories better than Maguire. He is given the overused subplot of exploring his bad side (the red kryptonite in this case is the black suit). By a bad side though it means several scenes of rather cringe-inducing dancing on the street or in jazz clubs, a shorter temper and a 90’s alternate rock hairstyle (seems that bangs mean bad-ass).

The rest of the cast do surprisingly well, but struggle with limited screen time. Even with the weakest writing yet for the character, J.K. Simmons as the Bugle’s loud-mouthed editor J. Jonah Jameson remains a highlight. Same goes for Bruce Campbell, this time armed with an atrociously fun French accent, as a maitre’d who gets the best comedic moment in the whole film. James Cromwell is so barely in it he’s not worth mentioning, same for the great Dylan Baker even though he gets the most screen time yet as Dr. Conners.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy serves as a fun new female role and imbues her character with a fresh optimism and a welcome charm. Not faring so well is Thomas Haden Church, not so much his fault as the writers. A little bit of retroactive continuity is pulled off to get Peter emotionally invested in stopping The Sandman, but it feels like a cheat – and isn’t helped by the fact that Marko is portrayed as little more than an unlucky thug who regrets his actions but doesn’t feel the need to apologize for them.

Their attempt to give him dimension is shown in only two scenes – an early visit to the wife and child he left behind, and the ubiquitous emotional plea for understanding in the climax. Beyond that he spends his time mostly as a shape-shifting CG sand creature who serves only as a bland foil in some well-shot but repetitive action scenes. Kudos though to the effects people as his haunting ‘rebirth’ scene as a monster is the film’s strongest visual effect both technically and emotionally.

Topher Grace is, well Topher Grace. He does surprisingly well as the arrogant Eddie Brock, pulling off that bravado and lack of morals that comes with self-confident youth. His turn as Venom however isn’t so effective. Fans dying to see the mega-mouthed alien creature only get a few glimpses of his full guise, more often though it’s Grace’s face grinning madly shoved on top of a tentacled CG black mass. Venom’s initial birthing scene in the church is a well handled effect, as is its earlier ‘slinky from hell’ black goo form which is surprisingly creepy.

The action is pretty spectacular. At some times, most notably the big fight scenes, the action becomes too frantic with the frames shot way too close-up which makes things a little confusing. Yet the sequences are staged well, notably the early Peter vs. Harry fight along with the film’s most effective scene – a vertigo-inducing sequence with Gwen in peril when a construction crane goes haywire. Less successful is the later scenes with forced crowd reactions and somewhat murky action mixed with some seemingly rushed CG effects.

The big finale at a construction site is let down by a truly annoying British female reporter character giving the blow-by-blow description of the action happening. It’s one of several very odd choices by Raimi and co. to obviously help explain or brush over the numerous plot holes on offer. Harry’s never-before-seen butler pops up at just the right moment to serve as Basil Exposition with crucial back story information (why he kept the information to himself all this time is never explained). The Venom-Sandman alliance is born not through a genuine need but purely to have them fighting together in a scene.

Scenes like this are too numerous to mention but all tie back to the script. Time and obvious passion was invested into the first two films, care taken just as much in their pre-construction as there was in its actual production. That’s just not the case here. Whilst the technical skills of those involved are still world-class, there is a notable lethargy and lack of real purpose to it all – certainly more of a need to incorporate story elements (like Venom whom Raimi is quite obviously not a fan of) in order to both appeal to a wider audience and sell more toys. It’s a dangerous path to tread, one that nearly killed the Batman film franchise back in the 90’s and deliberately killed the “X-Men” films last year, and whilst Spider-Man hasn’t gone down that path yet – it is certainly leading in that direction here.

“Spider-Man 3” may not reach the heights of the first two films, let alone the transcendent macabre aria of “Batman Begins” or the near perfectly-balanced symphony of “X-Men 2,” but in spite of it being the closest thing this franchise has had to a mediocre entry – it’s still good enough to show up how laughably bad the likes of mediocre comic book movies like “Ghost Rider” and “300” are, and more on target than some other misfires of late (I’m looking at you X-Men & Superman). Raimi and gang have gone out colorfully, but it’s now time to give the webslinger a rest before coming back fighting sometime next decade.