Director : Sam Raimi
Screenplay : Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent (story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi; based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (New Goblin / Harry Osborn), Thomas Haden Church (Sandman / Flint Marko), Topher Grace (Venom / Eddie Brock), Bryce Dallas Howard (Gwen Stacy), Rosemary Harris (May Parker), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), James Cromwell (Captain Stacy), Theresa Russell (Emma Marko), Dylan Baker (Dr. Curt Connors)
Third outings in movie franchises are notoriously dangerous affairs. There’s the temptation to either rest too firmly on what worked the first two times, which results in tedium and the leaden discomfort of “been there, done that,” or reinvent the wheel completely, which usually has only a sliver of a chance of actual improvement. But, despite the artistic dangers, there’s also major profits to be made, which is why this summer is bloated with third timers--we’ve got a third Shrek, a third Pirates of the Caribbean, a third Bourne, a third Rush Hour, and a third Ocean’s (the chances of that one being better than the second installment is pretty good given how lame the European vacation known as Ocean’s Twelve turned out to be).
First out of the gate, though, is also the most highly anticipated of the three-times’s-the-charm crowd: Spider-Man 3. Once again helmed by Sam Raimi and featuring an amusing cameo by the indomitable Bruce Campbell (this time as a French maitre d’), Spider-Man 3 makes the most of its numerical marker by including three villains, a love triangle, and roughly three times more material than it needs; the “3” might as well stand for “three movies in one!” You get the sense that Raimi, who will most likely not helm the inevitable Spider-Man 4, is more intent on cramming in everything he can than making a coherent, focused film. Yet, despite narrative bloat, Spider-Man 3 maintains much of the giddy-enthralling energy and emotional pathos that made its predecessors the very definition of great popcorn moviegoing.
Raimi, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent (who penned the previous sequel), starts the movie on a high note, with the web-slinging superhero enjoying such fanatic adoration from the citizens of New York that geeky Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is starting to get a bit of a big head. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit too well with long-time paramour Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), whose fledgling Broadway career is starting to fizzle out. The Spider-Man films have always been notable for their depth of characterization, and 3 is really no different, as Peter and Mary Jane’s romance, which took two whole movies to get burning, is quickly undermined by the twin specters of jealousy and envy, but to mention Peter’s romantic myopia.
There are also a number of new baddies on the horizon, the first of which crash-lands on Earth in a meteor. Later known as Venom, it is a sticky black glob of space goo with a menacing mind of its own that follows Peter home and attaches itself to his body, morphing into a wicked black Spider-Man suit that not only gives Peter more strength and virility, but also taps into his darker impulses. For a significant chunk of screen time, Peter goes to the dark side, which makes him both ruthlessly murderous and a humorously self-aggrandizing lothario (one can’t help but suspect that Raimi purposefully hedges on making Spider-Man go too dark by playing up the humor). Maguire clearly relished getting to indulge Peter’s bad side after years of playing the bumbling dork, and despite a misguided attempt to visually signify his badness with a greasy Goth comb-over, he makes the most of being a geek-gone-wild.
Meanwhile, escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church, whose chiseled face is tailor-made for a comic book adaptation), gets caught in a molecular something-or-other that turns him into the shape-shifting Sandman. Marko is another in Spider-Man’s long line of conflicted villains, in that his crimes are the direct product of his wanting to help his dying daughter. And, speaking of conflicted, Spider-Man 3 brings to a head the long-gestating storyline of Parker’s best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) following in the footsteps of his Green Goblin father (Willem Dafoe) and enacting direct revenge on Peter/Spider-Man both physically (the scene in which he attacks Peter on his way home is the movie’s first big action setpiece) and emotionally (slipping into the cracks of Peter and Mary Jane’s faltering relationship).
Other new characters include Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), an ambitious and underhanded photographer who’s vying to swipe Peter’s job from The Daily Bugle by snapping a picture of Spider-Man doing something rotten (which is, given Peter’s disposition throughout much of the movie, a good possibility). Peter is also tempted by Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the pretty daughter of New York’s police chief (James Cromwell), who is not only Peter’s lab partner in school, but is also saved by Spider-Man, thus putting her forever in his debt.
Despite all the added characters and the literal rogue’s gallery of villains, Raimi maintains the fundamental building blocks of the franchise--alternating vigorously vertiginous and chaotically rousing action spectacle with deep-seated character pathos--and if there weren’t so much being hurled at us, Spider-Man 3 might very well have ranked with its predecessors. Everything feels calculated to be bigger than before, but that’s an approach that will eventually run headlong into the law of diminishing returns, which is exactly what Spider-Man 3, as good as it is, demonstrates best. There is so much going on that the movie gives you whiplash, tearing you from one plotline to the next, moving as quickly as possible lest you forget about any of the half-dozen dangling narrative arcs. Raimi even goes so far as to stage the supposed deaths of at least two of the villains as a way of getting them off-screen for a while before bringing them back for the big climax.
And a big climax it is. To their credit, Raimi and his screenwriters manage to pull all the threads of Spider-Man 3 together for the final showdown, which finds two villains teaming up, one villain siding with Spider-Man, and Mary Jane literally hanging in the balance. In one explosive battle scene, the film takes care of all three villains, concludes the love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry, and resolves any doubt about Peter’s split persona. Thankfully, Raimi leaves enough room for genuine tenderness, ending the film on a heartfelt, but slightly ambiguous note of reconciliation that gives Spider-Man 3 a lingering sense of sadness that all the digital bombast in the world can’t quite obliterate.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Columbia Pictures