Spider‑Man 3 is a movie stuffed to bursting — with action, plotlines, characters, humor, energy, moods, spectacle and certainly inspiration.
Like its web-headed hero careening crazily through the canyons of Manhattan at the end of a web-line, the film swings breathlessly and without warning from one thing to another, from breakneck excitement to outrageous silliness to comic-book morals about responsibility, sacrifice and now even vengeance and forgiveness. Heedlessly leaping headlong into the most daunting complications, Spider‑Man 3 is flush with the exhilaration of its own agility and the joy of playing to the crowd.
Popcorn cinema, especially super-hero cinema, frequently runs out of steam by the second or third act, and always by the second or third installment. Bucking the trend, Spider‑Man 3 may be the freshest and most unique of the three films, completing the trilogy without a hint of franchise fatigue. If it doesn’t quite deliver on all its promise, at least the filmmakers have erred in the direction of trying for too much rather than settling for too little.
The original Spider‑Man related how Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) became Spider‑Man. Spider‑Man 2 explored Peter’s difficulties juggling his dual identities and his growing resentment over the hardships of being Spider‑Man. By Spider‑Man 3, Peter has his double act together — so much so that he’s swinging toward the opposite extreme, becoming complacent and full of himself.
These days, Peter no longer has trouble making an eight o’clock curtain call to see Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) on stage, or keeping up with classes at NYU. (Apparently Dr. Curt Connors [Dylan Baker], the future Lizard, teaches every science course worth taking; at least Peter always seems to be in his lecture hall.)
What’s more, it’s gotten so everybody loves Spider‑Man. The media loves him. New York loves him — so much so that he gets his own parade and even the key to the city. Of course Mary Jane loves him… though he may be taking that one too much for granted (this is the first film in the series in which MJ isn’t seen onscreen before Peter). Still, he wants to marry her, an intention prompting Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) to offer one of her trademark moral speeches.
In a nice touch, Aunt May relates how she turned down her first marriage proposal from Peter’s Uncle Ben, as much in love as they were. “We weren’t ready,” she says. “I didn’t want to rush into something with nothing but love to sustain us.” Admonishing Peter, she adds, “A man has to be understanding and put his wife before himself. Can you do that?”
Peter thinks he can — but there’s a certain lack of conviction and maturity in his tone. Peter’s love for MJ has always been a schoolboy crush, and even in his third outing as Spider‑Man, Peter hasn’t really grown up. He’s still living an adolescent fantasy, not yet fully grasping the great responsibility that comes with the great power of love.
Meanwhile, Harry Osbourne (James Franco) is out to kill Peter. Also, an alien symbiote is stalking him, photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is horning in on his work at the Daily Bugle, a fugitive named Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) has been transformed into a walking sandstorm, Uncle Ben’s real killer may still be at large, MJ’s Broadway career hits the skids, Peter’s lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) is really cute, and if all these transitions seem a bit abrupt, well, the movie is like that too.
And that’s not all. When the alien symbiote catches up with Peter, it not only transforms Spider‑Man into Dark Spider‑Man, it transforms Peter into Dark Peter too. Dark Peter is the polar opposite of Spider‑Man 2’s Sunny Peter, briefly seen in a whimsical sequence scored to “Raindrops Are Fallin’ on My Head,” and if you thought that bit was loopy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the origin of Venom yet.
Are these too many characters, too many storylines? Well, yes. Like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest or Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Spider‑Man 3 represents creativity run amok, where most popcorn entertainment represents creativity struggling to put one foot in front of the other. The results may be somewhat uneven compared to the outstanding Spider‑Man 2, but this film’s heights are series high points — and it’s consistently head and shoulders above the original film, which remains the weak link in the series.
The first two films had essentially one truly spectacular action scene between them, the sequel’s Dr. Octopus fight ranging from the clock tower to the train top. Spider‑Man 3 has several: an early out-of-the-blue assault that makes far better use of a Goblin glider in just a few minutes than the entire first film, and during which, in a nice touch, Peter isn’t even wearing his spider-suit; Spider‑Man’s down-and-dirty second confrontation with Sandman in a subway tunnel, which makes the second best use of trains in the series; and above all the staggering climactic conflict involving all four major players, though not in the way you might expect.
There are also other memorable conceits worth calling out, including a startlingly bold set piece involving Gwen and an out-of-control crane, and a number of free-falling shots throughout the film that involve more action than you would think possible as characters hurtle earthward from enormous heights.
The level of energy and ambition isn’t without tradeoffs. One of Spider‑Man 2’s highlights was Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus, a flawed but decent human being who fell prey both to ambition and to the subversive influence of his own technology. Octopus’s arms became a character in their own right; the scenes of Octavius trying to resist their whispering suggestions while they wove about his head like the serpent in the garden were among the film’s most effective moments.
Spider‑Man 3 had a gold-plated opportunity to revisit this theme with the introduction of Venom, a composite character created when the alien symbiote finds another host. The opportunity was squandered. There’s no sense of a relationship between the symbiote and its host, as there was between Octavius and his arms; the symbiote never becomes a character on its own. (The ordinary term is “symbiont,” incidentally; for some reason the Marvel universe has its own slightly different word.) We learn nothing of its motives or feelings at being cast off by Peter, though these are well established in the comic books. (By contrast, the second film went beyond the comic books in how it treated Octopus’s arms.) If the filmmakers should have cut anyone from the film, and they should, Venom is the obvious choice. He ought to have been saved for another film (possibly a whole new trilogy, as the studio has mentioned).
Marko, the Sandman, fares only a little better; he has more poignancy, but his character development consists mostly of looking sorrowfully at a locket picture of his daughter. Actually, the most moving scene with the Sandman — as well as the film’s most beautiful scenes, and one of the most technically impressive — is a pure effects sequence involving an undulating heap of sand as Marko tries to pull himself together for the first time after the transformation. Even before there is anything in any way recognizable as a human form, the shifting sands are somehow remarkably evocative, and the locket is here used to nearly poetic effect.
Although Harry Osbourne falls short of the complex character he should be after three films, he ultimately elicits surprising sympathy, particularly during a sweet, lighthearted sequence with Mary Jane that works far better than you would expect for a scene with the ostensible villain moving in on the hero’s ostensible girl. But then whether or not Harry is a villain at the moment depends on how well his memory is working after a knock to the head in the first of the movie’s wildly ambitious fight scenes. (Incidentally, Franco’s smile in this film looks eerily like that of Willem Dafoe, who played his father in the first film.)
Gwen Stacy, the remaining corner in the Peter–MJ quadrangle, fares less well, alas. In the comics, Gwen is Peter Parker’s tragic lost love, the girl he was going to marry before Mary Jane, until she was killed by the original Green Goblin at the Brooklyn Bridge. (The first film borrowed this incident for its Queensboro Bridge sequence, with MJ standing in for Gwen, and of course Spider‑Man saving the girl this time.)
In the films, of course, there’s no question that MJ is the girl for Peter, which leaves Gwen relegated to a strictly incidental role as an accidental wedge between Peter and MJ. One of the film’s most outrageous sequences involves Peter deliberately trying to make MJ jealous with Gwen, but then in that scene he’s Dark Peter, under the influence of the symbiote. On the other hand, when Spider‑Man gets a little too frisky with Gwen at the key to the city ceremony, I was hoping it would turn out that he was already under the symbiote’s influence, but no, that was just Peter being a Grade‑A jerk.
The film takes a huge risk revisiting the question of Uncle Ben’s death, given the foundational role Peter’s inaction and Uncle Ben’s death have in Spider‑Man’s character and motivation, but manages to resolve the essential difficulties by the end. This conceit also offers yet another opportunity for one of Aunt May’s speeches, this time about revenge. “Revenge is like a poison,” she cautions. “Before you know it, it takes you over. It turns us into something ugly.” Something like Venom.
Not that Spider‑Man 3 is profound or anything when it comes to issues of vengeance, justice and forgiveness. It’s not clear whether we’re meant to feel that Peter ought to have let Brock off the hook for a flagrant ethics violation, but clearly Brock had to be nailed, though Dark Peter was a little meaner about it than he needed to be. “You want forgiveness?” Peter sneers. “Get religion.” As regards his attitude, Peter might be in need of Brock’s forgiveness, but not as regards his essential actions.
Likewise, a climactic sequence involves forgiveness offered where the demands of justice haven’t been met. It’s true that the one offering forgiveness is in no position to enforce justice, but then the film doesn’t even gesture in this direction. It’s as if the personal issues between these two characters are the only relevant consideration.
On the other hand, the redemption of another character comes off better, and helps bring the film and the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. Although the film’s success certainly paves the way for further Spider‑Man films — and confirms that the second film was no fluke — Spider‑Man 3 wraps up a number of story-arcs spanning all three films, wrapping up the trilogy in grand style.
What remains to be seen, if there are more films to come, is whether the filmmakers can finally take Peter past his extended adolescence, and let him finally become Spider‑Man in fact as well as in name.
This is what a Spider-Man movie should be — freewheeling, rip-roaring, hilarious, heartfelt, over the top.
From its breathless, cartoony title sequence, with the letters of cast members’ names stuck like flies in a vast spiderweb,
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.