Until the advent of serviceable computer-generated imagery, fans of the Spider-Man comics were spared the disappointment of seeing their beloved hero bastardized on film. But that didn’t stop them from wanting a movie version anyway—especially after seeing Hollywood and even some critics bow down to Tim Burton’s Batman and Richard Donner’s Superman. Of course, capturing the likes of Batman’s caped crusades or even Superman’s up-up-and-aways was one thing. Filming Spider-Man’s balletic swinging, flipping, and twisting through Manhattan’s scraped sky posed a serious filmmaking challenge. Luckily for fans, the movie was stalled for fifteen years before Sony snatched up the rights and in 2000 hired Sam Raimi, who made a name for himself with the Evil Dead series of winking horror-fantasy films and other independent films. With the casting of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst fans had high expectations for their first taste of Spider-Man on the big screen.
In large part, their expectations were met. Raimi’s Spider-Man garnered heaps of praise and, most important, mounds of cash at the box office. Superhero origin stories can be tough to pull off in a film, but Spider-Man’s was handled beautifully in Raimi’s first installment. And while the post-origin plot didn’t quite hold up and the action sequences stagnated, the performances (e.g., Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin) were generally good enough to buoy the film.
Armed with a script written in part by the talented novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) the second film was hailed as a superhero-movie masterpiece—Roger Ebert said it was the best since Donner’s Superman—and audiences responded. They were right. The film holds real emotional power, thrilling set pieces and unforced humor. After the success of the first two films the stakes were higher for part 3. If Raimi could pull this off, breathless fanboys and -girls wondered, what could he do with an even bigger budget and even better computer technology for part three?
Now that Spider-Man 3 has been released, we know the answer to that question: Sam Raimi has turned in an embarrassing botch job. Spider-Man 3—which is already breaking box-office records (did you ever doubt it?)—bears all the marks of a sequel in a wildly successful franchise whose films have all been helmed by the same director. It’s bloated, self-indulgent, poorly paced, lacks tonal discipline, and suffers from an insultingly telegraphic script.
In this year’s model, Spider-Man is no longer feared by his native New York City. Revered as a hero, everything seems to be going his way. He’s set to propose to Mary Jane, who has landed a plum role in a Broadway musical. But storm clouds are gathering: Harry Osborn (James Franco), who knows Peter Parker is the nerd behind the mask, still blames Spidey for the death of his father—the Green Goblin from the first film. Harry is planning something just awful. You can tell because early in the film, while Peter is taking in Mary Jane’s performance from the front row, the camera pans up to a box revealing Harry glowering menacingly at Peter.
As if that’s not enough trouble for the Webslinger, the guy who may have killed his beloved Uncle Ben breaks out of prison, and while fleeing the cops falls into a pile of sand at the bottom of one of Central Park’s famous particle accelerators. His molecules are duly fused with the sand, and voila: Sandman rises—but not before visiting the young daughter he abandoned for the big house. His crime was, after all, just stealing to pay her medical bills. Baddie with a heart, natch.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Peter Parker, a seemingly sentient pile of black goo crashes to earth in a meteorite just a few feet from Peter and M.J. and has followed him home. The goo eventually attaches itself to Peter, becoming a black costume that endows Spider-Man with more strength—and a serious dark side.
It’s all downhill from there. Harry ends up with short-term memory loss, conveniently forgetting his desire for revenge. Mary Jane gets canned from her play, goes weepy. She sees Spider-Man plant one on the police chief’s daughter—who happens to be a classmate of Peter’s—a la the upside-down kiss from the first film. Goes weepy—then goes over to Harry’s, where the two make beautiful omelets while dancing to Chubby Checker’s “Twist.” (Can you tell the screenwriter is 76 years old?) In a moment of weakness, M.J. kisses Harry, then pulls away and storms out, having gone weepy. It’s as though, absent Michael Chabon, the producers enlisted a healthy chunk of the writing crew from Days of Our Lives.
There’s a lot of crying in this film. Aunt May cries, remembering her dead husband. Peter cries, remembering his dead uncle and his troubles with M.J. Mary Jane cries throughout most of the film. Harry cries. Sandman cries. Even the most evil of the villains—an offspring of the black goo called Venom—sheds a few. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if, when the DVD comes out, a well-timed hit of the pause button revealed tiny tears emerging from the black goo after Peter finally rejects it. Daddy’s so mean.
But if one can forgive the 90210 aspects of Spider-Man 3—and that’s a big if—there can be no forgiveness for the directorial gaffes. Whatever hope filmgoers had that Raimi would bring an independent spirit to the Spider-Man franchise has been eradicated with the third installment, which is every inch the clichéd studio sequel: bigger, louder, longer, more, more, more. The two-and-a-half-hour film simply can’t keep all its balls in the air. The story lines strive for complexity, but fail. Sandman is not the cold-blooded killer Peter imagined. He’s just a guy with bad luck, who is now made of sand. But the film ultimately leaves him—and his sick kid—hanging.
While in previous films Spidey struggled to be accepted by his hometown as the good guy we know him to be, here his own goodness is called into question. Is the hero-worship going to his head? Is the black Spidey the real Spidey? Now it’s M.J. who struggles to be accepted. But the reversal never pays off. Dunst’s material is too weak, and so her performance is reduced mainly to whining (and screaming…there’s always screaming). Likewise, Tobey Maguire’s pre-black-suit Peter is almost sickeningly earnest. Is he really mouthing the words to M.J.’s songs at her play? One gets the sense that Raimi wanted such aw-shucks moments to set the black-suited Spidey in relief, but he blows that part of the movie, too.
The black goo influences Peter to do some very nasty things, including hurling a grenade at Harry’s head and leaving him to die. In one extended scene, Raimi has Peter don the black suit under his street clothes, literally mess his hair up on camera (is that eyeliner? So badass!), then strut, Saturday Night Fever-style, through the streets of New York. At one point Peter ducks into a clothing store, emerges in a black suit, then dances in place to the ‘70s music playing on the soundtrack.
In Spider-Man 2, Raimi dropped in an amusing, and short, scene set to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” in which Peter buoyantly walks the streets after deciding to stop being Spider-Man. Maguire’s doofy grin, perfectly in keeping with the character, sold the scene.
But when Peter drags another woman into the jazz club where M.J. sings, only to jump onstage and bust a few measures on the piano before launching into a bizarre tabletop dance routine—or fugue state—it plays all wrong. As with the Chubby Checker omelet-making scene, this one belongs in a different movie. Actually, I think I did see it in another movie. It was called Anchorman.
Perhaps worst of all, the script doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. It wants to make a statement about human nature, you see. It’s after big ideas. Duality. Good versus evil. Free will. Forgiveness. But the film is too thin to hold the weight of the filmmakers’ ambition. So instead of allowing the story to speak for itself, the script tells the audience exactly what it should take away from the film. The net effect leaves the movie in knots, and the audience insulted. Why would Sandman apologize to Spider-Man moments after the final battle, in which he nearly pummeled Spidey to death with his giant sand fist? Does Raimi think the audience forgot the earlier scenes in which it was established that Sandman had a heart through the actions depicted on screen?
The same narrative fate befalls Harry. Late in the film, the family butler discloses some rather important information about Harry’s dad, helpfully—obviously—moving the plot along. The scene stands as one of the most hilariously ill-timed moments of exposition ever filmed. And to cap it off, Peter Parker reassuringly explains what you just watched in the final lines of the film—delivered, of course, in voiceover: “We always have a choice. And we can choose to be good.”
Lucky for us, we also have a choice to see good movies. And to avoid bad ones.