Looking back at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3

After two great comic book movies, the Spider-Man series stumbled with its second sequel. Andrew takes a reluctant look back at Spider-Man 3…

Spider-Man 3 is a messy, crammed-to-breaking-point film with too many ideas and characters competing for space. If the film is a competition, it’s difficult to say who the winner is. No one’s actions make sense, from villains to heroes to chiefs of police to a weird old man who’s probably the Osborns’ butler, only no one’s ever actually said so.

It really should, as screenwriter Alvin Sargent wanted, have been two films, with Sandman and Venom villains in each. The initial proposal, featuring Sandman as the main villain, would have featured Eddie Brock, and so Venom could easily have been seeded in Spider-Man 3 rather than dominating the (significantly poorer) second half of the film. Making one film, incorporating too many elements from the producer and director’s suggestions, suffocates the story. Economical dialogue becomes clunky dialogue.

That’s not to say the film is without merit, but it certainly lacks the narrative simplicity that drove the first two films. The original concept – Flint Marko is revealed as Uncle Ben’s killer, Peter learns to see criminals as people too – would probably still have irked fans with its retcon, but we see little of it.

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Flint’s barely sketched, and the Sandman as a creature is a giant CG headscratch, lacking the satisfying hubris of Doc Ock and the Green Goblin. Venom, too, is oddly safe. Any horror comes from Sandman’s human form disintegrating, which is handled much more gleefully by Sam Raimi than Venom.

Topher Grace does little with Eddie Brock, and Gwen Stacy is reduced from a hugely important character in the comics to Just Some Girl, brought into and leaving Peter Parker’s life without much fanfare. When she dangles from a building, her life in great danger, her father and boyfriend stand at the bottom and stare up as if they’re watching a passing blimp. No one seems to react plausibly to anything, and the veneer of pseudo-realism the first two films managed so well disintegrates.

The tonal shifts jar horribly, including one scene which veers from The Mask to domestic abuse in the space of seconds. The cartoon physics are inconsistent, and no one, absolutely no one, has ever cooked an omelette like that. It’s like a first or second draft, the compromises not ironed out, but forced to go in front of the cameras nonetheless.

My abiding memory of Spider-Man 3 comes from working in a cinema on the opening night. It was May, so we were witnessing the opening salvo of the summer’s barrage of heightened expectations, soon to turn into an underwhelmathon of below-average movies that cost no less than One Hundred Million Dollars. You know the drill.

It was the run-up to university exams, and the main cinema managed to cram 501 people into its 500 seats (it’s strange telling people that they’re fire hazards) for the highly anticipated third instalment of the franchise. As well as being a memorable addition to the comics, people my age have fond memories of Venom’s appearance in the Spider-Man animated series that appeared on Live And Kicking and other Saturday morning children’s TV shows. How could this film fail?

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As you may have guessed, the audience’s reaction to the film was not one of overwhelming positivity. From the British reporter with the voice of a gap year student to the subtle framing of Spider-Man with an American flag, the response was largely one of mocking laughter, which was topped a moment later when Kirsten Dunst’s lip wobbled, and three people fell out of their seats as the entire cinema decked themselves. There were tears, but not in the way the film wanted.

Similarly, the possessed Peter Parker walking along the street to an imaginary funk soundtrack in his head divided opinion as to whether people were laughing at it or with it. Often labelled as The Emo Bit, it’s a mishmash of Emo fringe and eye shadow with sharp suit and said-imaginary-funk-soundtrack that jars. It’s never entirely clear what thought processes cause Peter Parker to arrive at this point, it just seems needless. Possibly, several people put forward ideas as to what the ‘youth fashion’ of the time was, culminating in the creation of a new subgenre: Emunk (adj. Emunkulous, and for the sake of an obscure Doctor Who reference, let’s say it originated in Peking).

We can only speculate as to whether the original idea for the film would have been as popular as its predecessors, but the concept of taking the hero’s defining moment and altering it significantly robs the initial scene of its impact. Also, crucially, who’s to say that all the moments that an audience found so hilarious wouldn’t have found their way into two finished products, as opposed to one? The lack of logic behind the monster’s powers and abilities? I know that if I were an alien symbiote, I’d make sure I re-dyed my intended target’s clothes matt black so he looked really cool, and give him the same haircut as the singer from The Feeling.

So. What is there good to say about Spider-Man 3?

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Well, JK Simmons is still in it. That’s at least something. The scenes in The Daily Bugle are still funny, and the kid who is visibly sickened when Gwen and Spider-Man kiss is both amusing and something many of us can empathise with (some to this day). Stan Lee’s cameo is touching, but Bruce Campbell’s cameo, the largest of the three, is his best yet. When Bruce Campbell is playing a Frenchman, everything is fine. When Bruce Campbell is gone, there’s a hole in the film. This is always true.

The potential is there for two good films. Not great films, though. I don’t think the villains are good enough for that, as they lack the depth of their predecessors. However, the Harry Osborn arc could and should have played out more satisfyingly, and we don’t really see enough of Peter and Mary-Jane, or Peter and Harry, as a couple or as best friends to really feel any loss at the end of the film.

Maybe, in killing off his villains, Sam Raimi made a mistake that the comics either don’t make or can get around more easily. If you kill your best bad guys, what are you going to do when you run out of decent opponents? If anything, Spider-Man 3 is testament to the fact that, even if you’ve got talented people working on a project, sometimes the system of making movies is its own worst enemy.

After all, Spider-Man 3 made an extra $100,000,000 profit compared with its massively more popular predecessor. But what good is that when it’s a middling film, you ask? Well, Hollywood can’t hear you to answer that question. It’s got its fingers in its ears, your money in its wallet, and is going, “Lalalalalalalalalalalalalala.

Enjoy Breaking Dawn Part 1, by the way.

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You can read Andrew’s look back at the first Spider-Man here, and its sequel here.