NOTE: This article contains spoilers.
Spider-Man is back and in black when a mysterious entity from anther world bonds with Peter Parker as he confronts new villains, temptations and revenge. But this time around, the greatest battle lies within. Directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, "Spider-Man 3" opens nationwide on May 4th.
(Although some Bay Area MySpacers hit the jackpot and saw the movie for free in San Jose.)
The film begins with a recap of the events of the previous "Spider-Man" films, much like that of "Superman II," but with the 21st century flare fans have come to expect from "Spider-Man's" opening credits. Cleverly designed to weave in and out of the very impressive, ultra-close-up webbing and symbiote animation, the recap is the first indication that "Spider-Man 3" seeks to address the previous films' unresolved plotlines. Conspicuously abundant in the visual recap are images of Uncle Ben's murder from the first film, which is curious because that matter was wholly resolved many years ago. Oh, wait -- it wasn't?
As many fans of the "Spider-Man" film series have heard in recent months, the murder of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben was not all it appeared to be. Or rather it was all it appeared to be, but has been retconned in "Spider-Man 3" so as to facilitate a new back-story for Flint Marco, aka the Sandman. In this film we learn that due to incompetence on the part of the police -- represented in "Spider-Man 3" by a Captain Stacy, father of Gwen -- the real killer got away, and the guy the cops and Spider-Man chased down to his violent death was actually not guilty of Uncle Ben's murder.
Presumably this plot twist was introduced so as to push Spider-Man to the dark side, filling him with feelings of hate and vengeance against Flint Marco and thusly expediting his bonding with the malevolent and aggression-fueled Venom symbiote from outer space. Clever and effective, to be sure, but with one rather serious side effect: the pathos of Spider-Man is essentially erased. Because Peter's inaction that night at the wrestling match did not result in the death of his Uncle after all, the idea of Great Power and Great Responsibility is reduced to an abstract philosophy rather than the hard, painful lesson that has been the underpinning of Spider-Man mythology since the character's creation. The filmmakers present Peter Parker with a new lesson to learn in "Spider-Man 3," a predictable one of forgiveness. It will be up to audiences to decide whether or not that's a worthy substitute.
The Sandman's origin story is further manipulated, as we discussed with actor Thomas Haden Church in our interview last week. In the comics, Flint Marco is traditionally portrayed as being motivated purely by robbing people. Co-writer/director Sam Raimi, as he's done to every villain in each "Spider-Man" film, sought to infuse the character of Marco with a more human and personal story, which he did very successfully in "Spider-Man 3." While a cliché mission to raise money for his sick daughter's healthcare now governs the Sandman's actions, the character is played so honestly by Thomas Haden Church that you believe in it completely and sympathize with his struggle, if not his methods. Setting up this facet of Marco pays off hugely during the film's lauded "birth of the Sandman" sequence, which besides being "Spider-Man 3's" best visual effects spectacle, is far and away the film's most emotionally powerful moment. Audiences will never forget the images of the resurrected Flint Marco trying desperately to grasp his daughter's locket, only to have his whole arm fall to pieces under its miniscule weight. This moment couldn't have worked without that adjustment to the character's back-story, changing him from a thug to a desperate father, and is testament to the ingenuity of Raimi and his co-writers Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent.
The "Spider-Man 3" team also succeeded greatly in upgrading the character of Eddie Brock. In this film, Brock is the anti-Parker. An evil twin. They fight for the same job, the same woman, and are both eventually given the chance to use the same dangerous power, the Venom symbiote. But only one of them had an Uncle Ben, which of course informs the events that play out between Parker and Brock, including, naturally, a fantastically expensive and entertaining fight sequence that is more or less what fans have been waiting for since these "Spider-Man" movies started coming out. Viewers have never seen Spider-Man get wrecked like this before. It's almost painful to watch, but that's why fans love Venom.
That said the Venom concept itself remains annoyingly underdeveloped in "Spider-Man 3." Certainly, the symbiote's entire "Secret Wars" origin cannot even begin to be explained in a two-hour film already featuring two other villains, but Raimi has designed into this film series a mechanism by which to quickly explain every sort of extra-normal adversary: weird science. In each "Spider-Man" film, we've seen men driven to villainy because of weird, crazy scientific stuff going wrong and blowing up. Spider-Man himself was gifted/cursed with powers from an escaped genetically engineered spider. Norman Osborne was the victim of his own foolish experiments in weapons of mass destruction. Doctor Octopus was possessed by evil, artificially intelligent cybernetic tentacles he designed to operate some kind of dangerous whatever-o-tron. The Sandman was caught in a demolecularization... science... thing and turned into a monster. Easy enough to explain Venom as another in a long line of science fair projects gone terribly wrong, surely? Instead, "Spider-Man 3" depicts Venom as simply falling out of the sky. The symbiote jumps around a bit, finds Peter and bonds with him. Dr. Connors makes a few remarks to explain its nature as a symbiotic life form that feeds on aggression. That's all the explanation you get. On with the carnage (heh).
It's unfortunate that Venom and Brock aren't given much screen time, as Raimi and Grace create in Brock a very realistic and compellingly nasty character, full of ambition, jealousy and hatred, both in and out of the Venom costume. As Grace affirmed in our interview last week, the "Spider-Man 3" version of Brock is superior to that of the comics. In light of how rarely that actually happens, it's quite a shame they didn't do more with him, especially when you consider how much of the film deals with the dubious Sandman retcon and Parker's increasingly pointless relationship with Mary Jane.
Indeed, "Spider-Man 3" betrays loudly the fact I suspect all Spider-Man fans know to be absolutely true: Mary Jane sucks and Gwen Stacy rules. In not one of the "Spider-Man" films - and even the Spider-Man comics as far this writer is concerned - is it ever made clear why Peter is so unflinchingly obsessed with Mary Jane Watson and her relentless narcissism and whining, which are more prevalent in "Spider-Man 3" than ever before. Her aspirations of stardom are crushed yet again when New York's entire theatre community agrees she's just unspeakably awful in her newest play. Mary Jane is fired and forced to work in a jazz club, which she lies about to Peter because she's so ashamed. And just when it seemed that Mary Jane couldn't be more disgraceful, we learn that she resents Peter for his popularity as Spider-Man! Admittedly, the fame and admiration have gone to Parker's head, but never to the degree that Mary Jane's failures go to hers. So fiercely jealous is she of her boyfriend's success, Mary Jane sabotages his marriage proposal with baseless accusations of infidelity - after which she goes off and kisses Harry, Peter's best friend.
Really, if the symbiote is meant to be a metaphor for substance abuse and the temptation the weak and so forth, then Mary Jane should have been Venom all along.
It's really impossible to count the ways in which this girlfriend totally sucks, and that she doesn't die in poetic tribute to Gwen is "Spider-Man 3's" biggest flaw. On the other hand there's Gwen Stacy, portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard as intelligent, kind, compassionate and of upstanding character. Also, she's really hot and works as a model because people actually enjoy seeing her, unlike the apparently talentless and much-reviled Mary Jane Watson. Naturally, the rescue of Gwen from a collapsing building is the film's most astonishing action sequence, which depicts precisely the sort of superhero splendor that comic fans have come to expect from Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies. The sight of Spidey leaping from piece to piece of falling debris to rescue a plummeting Gwen Stacy is something that will humble even the most joyless mechanical web-shooter fetishists. It looks completely real yet totally stylized, and ties with "Superman Returns'" plane rescue sequence for most awe-inspiring superhero moment on film.
If you see the film and disagree, it's only because there's another "Spider-Man 3" action scene you thought was slightly better. There's a tremendous amount of action in this film. More so than any other "Spider-Man" movie, and possibly more so than any other superhero film. One of the best fights is between Spider-Man and Harry Osborne, which of course has been building up since the first film. The twisted journey of Harry Osborne is perhaps the "Spider-Man" films' most prevalent subplot, and the turns he takes in "3" are among the film's most excellent scenes. It's because of this that I find the Mary Jane situation even more confounding. The events of previous films have been leading up to a massive revenge plot against Spider-Man on the part of Harry and the "ghost" of his dead father Norman. Even though Raimi stages a positively glorious battle sequence between Harry's Nu-Goblin and Spidey, the filmmaker makes a big deal out of Norman's ghost explaining to Harry that the sweetest revenge against Spider-Man - revenge against Spider-Man for killing Norman Osborne, mind - is to attack Peter Parker's "heart."
As depicted in "Spider-Man 3," the grand revenge plan is for Harry to fly into Mary Jane's house and scare her into breaking up with Peter, thus ruining his life forever... or something. That's it, the Osbornes' revenge against Spider-Man for all he'd done to them. Make his already a pain-in-the-ass cheating girlfriend leave him - and just for a minute, because you know they just get back together at the end anyway.
Paradoxically, the underwhelming "revenge" event and Mary Jane's general awfulness create ripples in the story that are easily the film's most memorable non-action moments. Depressed and angry about his Osborne-manipulated fortunes with Mary Jane, Peter embraces the warmth of the explanationless symbiote from outer space, which inspires him to strut hilariously down the streets of New York, buy black designer suits, comb his hair down in front of his face, stare rudely at passing women and perform meticulously choreographed dance numbers a la Jim Carrey in "The Mask." It's all really quite wonderful. Another pleasant Mary Jane side effect is Bruce Campbell's turn as the maître d' at the French restaurant where Peter plans to propose marriage. Peter enlists Campbell's help in delivering Mary Jane's ring in a champagne flute, but due to his trademark jackassery and outrageous faux-French accent, it's a naturally taxing affair for the beleaguered Spider-Man. The scene is one more in an unbroken run of movie-stealing performances from Bruce Campbell, who has appeared in every "Spider-Man" film so far. JK Simmons, Ted Raimi and the rest of the Daily Bugle crew turn in similarly great scenes that make you wonder why the movie isn't just about them. Until you see some cool ultra-violence, and then you remember it's a Spider-Man movie.
Writers Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent as well as the entire cast and crew deserve all the respect and admiration they're sure to receive for "Spider-Man 3," as it is easily the most complex and deftly orchestrated superhero epic ever filmed. I viewed the film while sitting next to a very popular and acclaimed comic book writer, and he remarked to me that "Everything - the emotion, the action, the plot - everything was balanced so perfectly. It's the best of the three." While "3" doesn't contain a scene that even approaches the intensity of "2's" "He's just a kid" moment, the writer was correct: "3" is #1. Quibbles aside, the story made sense unto itself, was never confusing and wrapped up its unresolved plotlines as perfectly as it could given its running time (short of killing Mary Jane and replacing her with Gwen, of course). The performances and direction are totally sincere and brimming over with genuine affection for Spider-Man and his legend. And despite the enormous amount of characters, action and sci-fi superhero plot going on in this film, "Spider-Man 3" never feels weighted down, tedious or boring. With the X-franchise closed, the Fantastic Four doomed to horribleness and "Superman Returns 2" still years away, "Spider-Man 3" may very well be the last piece of quality, high-flying super powered action fans are likely to see on screen for a long, long time.