Look, here’s the deal: If you’re likely to break into applause the minute you spot Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, or roll on the floor with laughter as soon as Bruce Campbell walks into the film, or think that life-lesson, bumper-sticker wisdom from Aunt May (Rosemary Parker) is deeply profound, then read no further, because you’ll love Spider-Man 3 and only get yourself worked up over the fact that I didn’t. No, the film is not exactly horrible, but it comes close, and isn’t good, despite its reputed $350-million price tag and all the hype an additional $150 million of promotion can buy.
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by Spider-Man 3. I did give good reviews to Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), but I had reservations about the latter—that it was a structural mess, that it was too full of itself, that it lacked the freshness of the first film etc. (That otherwise reasonable people were calling it “one of the truly great films” didn’t help. Now, my definition of “the truly great films” is pretty broad, but really is Spider-Man 2 likely to be on the same list as Potemkin, Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia? A little perspective, please.) Everything that was wrong with or at least creeping in around the edges of Spider-Man 2 is on full display in the third installment—and then some.
Spider-Man 3 is such a mess that it’s hard to know where to begin. You may have heard that Sam Raimi and company have tried to cram too much into one overlong (140 minutes) movie, and that’s true. But that’s hardly the beginning or ending of the trouble. The essential problem is that all the stuff crammed into the film ranges from the perfunctory to the not very good to the outright bad.
The idea of filling the movie with bad guys was an especially poor one coming from Raimi. This is the man who put together Spider-Man 2 in such a clunky manner that it was easy to forget the supposedly central plot involving Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). The movie instead wandered through relationship troubles between Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Harry Osborn’s dead daddy issues and Aunt May’s financial woes. Just imagine how Raimi handles three-and-a-half villains in Spider-Man 3—along with all the other side issues which are even more pronounced here. In addition to the aforementioned plot points, we’ve now got Mary Jane’s disastrous show-biz career (affording much unimpressive vocalizing for Kirsten Dunst); a romantic rivalry between Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy (Dallas Bryce Howard); a romantic rivalry between Peter and Harry; a professional rivalry between Peter and new photojournalist-on-the-block Eddie Brock (Topher Grace); a conscience-stricken villain, Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), with a sick child (Perla Haney Jardine, Kill Bill Vol. 2); Spider-Man’s extraterrestrially induced identity crisis that transforms him on occasion into “bad” Spidey … There’s more, but that’s a good sampling of how and why whatever plot there is gets lost in Raimi’s plodding structure.
And then there are the villains. Although Spider-Man 2 tended to lose sight of Dr. Octopus, he was a villain for the ages. The guys in this film—Harry/New Goblin, Marko/Sandman and Eddie/Venom—aren’t even also-rans, nor for that matter is Bad Spidey (who counts as the half villain). It’s easy to say that none of them are given enough screen time to make the impression “Doc Ock” did. And that’s true, but does anyone really want more of Sandman? And three-and-a-half under-developed villains ought to at least equal one well-developed one, but they don’t. Of course, the combined acting skills of Maguire, Grace, Church and Franco don’t equal those of Alfred Molina either, and that’s part of the problem.
Beyond this, the writing is pretty bad. The dialogue—even by comic-book standards—is stilted and false. Plot contrivances run riot to a point that the movie’s often in the land of “Ah, we meet again, thanks to clever scripting.” The goo from outer space that creates both Spidey and Venom just happens to land near Spidey, and just happens to attach itself to his moped, and just happens to get into his room, and just happens to latch onto him days and days later when it’s convenient to the story. Harry gets amnesia only for purposes of sidelining his villainy for an hour, and very selective amnesia it is: He remembers Peter, Mary Jane, high school, cooking skills and indeed everything except maybe dancing by the on-screen evidence, but nothing about his late super villain father (Willem Dafoe). Harry’s butler (John Paxton giving the most monotonous one-note performance in history) is privy to a key bit of information that could have saved a lot of grief, but somehow he never thinks to share it till the next to last reel.
Large chunks of the film are just plain goofy. It was bad enough in Spider-Man 2 that an entire subway’s worth of passengers knew who Spider-Man was, but now he appears in broad daylight putting on his mask for a publicity event, and romantically lounging with Mary Jane on a giant spiderweb (explain that to a passerby). The idea of Bad Spidey consists of making Peter into a jerk, who at first looks like an incipient Hitler, and then transforms into a Goth creation that resembles Stephen Trask as the back-up singer in Hedwig’s glam band in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). The fact that he comes across like someone who saw Saturday Night Fever (1977) one time too many is more dated and pathetic than funny or clever. In its favor it makes a break from Peter’s nonstop moping and tearing up. (There’s more crying in this movie than in a Bette Davis soap opera.) And what’s up with this silly “particle separator” that creates Sandman? An open pit anyone can just fall into? The technicians operating it can tell that the mass has changed, but can’t tell the difference between “probably just a bird” and 200 pounds of overrated actor? Even the unflappable J.K. Simmons—still the best thing in the movie—as newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson is reduced to comedy so broad that the Three Stooges would have rejected it as too unsubtle.
The icing on the cake, though, may be the pricey and highly touted effects. Not only is there nothing here you haven’t seen before—all the “neat” Sandman effects were in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy back in 1999, and the origin of the effect dates back to 1980 and Ken Russell’s Altered States—but a lot of it, especially the green screen work, isn’t very good, and the CGI is frequently cartoonish (Venom’s mouth).
Again, if you’re presold on the whole thing, you’re likely to forgive the film’s flaws—or at least try to. If you’re not, you’ll rarely have been so glad to see the ending credits finally start. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence.