Continuing our look at the Spider-Man films of Sam Raimi. Third films have bad reputations. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock wasn’t horrible, but felt inconsequential after The Wrath of Khan, and also took back the powerful ending of that film. Alien3 also undid the hard-won ending the main characters of Aliens had earned and went downhill from there. Superman 3 and Batman Forever represented major changes in tone for the series that didn’t sit well with audiences, and the less said about X-Men: The Last Stand, the better.
But Spider-Man 3 stands apart from these other films. In all of the above cases, the fall in quality seemed to be attributable in large part to major changes in personnel, either in front of or behind the camera. All of the above films had different directors from previous films in the series, with the exception of Superman 3, which went through a major structural change to accommodate the casting of a major box-office star in Richard Pryor.
Spider-Man 3, though, was made by almost the exact same team that created the earlier films. Same director, same producers, same screenwriter (one of them, anyway), same cast members in the major roles. It’s not as if they had suddenly forgotten how to make a good movie, nor could you say they didn’t get the characters or understand the appeal. Spider-Man 2 had emphatically proven just the opposite.
So why is Spider-Man 3 considered such a misfire, and how did it get that way? Let’s go through the movie carefully and see if we can find the answers.
The opening credits give a little foreshadowing of what’s to come. Instead of seeing webs against a red background, this time, the background is black, and we see the webs getting covered in some kind of sinister black goo as we see video clips of the previous films played out in the spaces between web strands like reflections in shards of glass caught in the webbing.
One point in Spider-Man 3‘s favor. It tries to tell a different kind of story about Spider-Man this time. Unlike the previous two films, which have opened by depicting how miserable Peter Parker is in various ways, in this film he starts out on a high note. After resolving his problems with Mary Jane Watson and defeating Doctor Octopus, everything now seems to be going Peter’s way. He and Mary Jane are happy together, and the city loves Spider-Man. Peter is doing well in school (shown once again in Dr. Connors’s class, and how much does it suck for Dylan Baker that he never got to take his turn in the villain chair as the Lizard?) and has a new admirer in fellow student Gwen Stacy.
Mary Jane is doing well herself, starring in a new show just opening on Broadway. And suddenly, it’s a musical.
MJ is radiant on stage, and Peter is obviously loving every second of it. Also in the audience is Harry Osborn, splitting his attention between Peter and Mary Jane on stage. After the show, Mary Jane keeps asking Peter if she was really good. The applause wasn’t loud enough. Peter does his best to reassure her.
Later, he and Mary Jane are in the woods, lying in a web strung between the trees and watching falling stars. Mary Jane keeps saying “Tell me you love me.” Damn, she is really insecure. This does not bode well.
What bodes even less well: the meteor that lands nearby that releases a glob of black goo that crawls forward with groping tendrils like grasping fingers.
It attaches to the back of Peter’s moped as he and MJ drive away. Of course, given that this thing landed during a meteor shower, how many of these things might have landed around the world?
Meanwhile, escaped convict Flint Marko (a really jacked Thomas Haden Church) creeps through alleyways and climbs in through an apartment window where a little girl is sleeping. This is Marko’s daughter, and she is sick from an unspecified condition. Marko changes out of his convict coveralls and into the classic Sandman garb from the comics.
Marko’s ex-wife tells him he has to go, but before he leaves, his daughter, now awake, gives him a locket with her picture.
Peter goes to see his Aunt May in her new apartment (the one she said she was moving into in the last movie) and tells her that he is going to propose to Mary Jane. Aunt May gives him a little lecture about how husbands have to put their wives before themselves, then gives Peter her wedding ring to give to MJ.
As Peter is driving home, he is attacked by Harry Osborn, who has redesigned all of his father’s old Green Goblin equipment into a more modern look.
Stupid Harry Osborn who needed Peter’s help to get through high school is now genius inventor. Losing your parents makes you smarter. Who knew? (Okay, you could argue that it was the Goblin serum injections that made him smarter, but still…)
He smashes Peter into and through various buildings and windows, and Peter is too stunned to fight back, until he loses the ring.
Sam Raimi and the visual effects team, this time headed by Scott Stokdyk instead of John Dykstra, pull out all the stops to make the fight frenetic and visually interesting. Extreme speed ramping, abrupt changes in direction as virtual stunt doubles knock each other all over the screen, action so fast you can barely follow it. It’s an exciting fight, but for me, it’s a little too much.
Peter fights back, and his agility and experience win out. Harry is knocked off his hoverboard thing and hits his head as he falls to the ground far below. Peter tries to wake Harry up, and when he is non-responsive, Peter carries him to the hospital.
After a quick bit of foreshadowing with police captain Stacy, who happens to be Gwen’s father, we see Flint Marko being pursued across a marsh. He comes up against a chain link fence and punches out a dog (no animals were harmed in the making of this picture; the dog is a puppet that is mentioned in the end credits).
Flint Marko scales the fence, which happens to be some kind of nuclear test facility. Marko falls into a sand pit just as they’re conducting some kind of unspecified experiment (there’s a lot of unspecified stuff in this movie: unidentified alien goo, unidentified disease, unexplained experiment). Anyway, whatever the experiment is intended to do, what it actually does is disintegrate Flint Marko.
Meanwhile, in a totally non-cliched turn of events, Harry’s head bump has given him FREAKIN’ AMNESIA! Are you kidding me? This was already a cliche when they did it in Gilligan’s Island in 1965, for cripes sake. On the other hand, Harry and Peter are friends again. Yay for amnesia! Oh, and also, foreshadowing when Harry says he would give his life for Peter and Mary Jane.
The next morning, the sand in the pit where Flint Marko died begins to move on its own and takes on a humanoid shape. It finds the locker from Marko’s daughter and forms itself into Flint Marko. The Sandman is born!
Peter is planning his proposal when MJ comes by his apartment. She has been singled out as awful in the reviews of her show. Peter tries to be sympathetic, but makes it all about him, and Mary Jane is disgusted. Even worse, an emergency call comes over the police scanner; there’s an out of control crane on a skyscraper downtown. And although Tobey Maguire is not the most complex actor, I love the deer-in-the-headlights look he gets when he realizes that an honest-to-goodness disaster is intruding on MJ’s drama, and he knows that he will probably pay the price for pointing it out.
Turns out that the crane disaster is happening in a building adjoining the location of a model shoot. Hey, look, Gwen Stacy is a model, too. How does Peter Parker attract all the models?
As Gwen is hanging from a smashed-out office in dire peril, her father is on the street coordinating a cordon to keep people out of the area, where he meets young Daily Bugle photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace).
Brock mentions to Cpt. Stacy that he is dating Gwen, who loses her precarious hold and falls to her death, or at least, she would have died if Spider-Man hadn’t arrived just in time to save her.
And speaking of Gwen, Bryce Dallas Howard was apparently pregnant during the filming and gaining weight. You don’t see it so much in this shot, but the filmmakers try to hide it by giving her these awful mid-calf flumpfy skirts that just make her look weirdly off-balance. Her outfits just scream “We’re trying to hide something” instead of “This is just the kind of stuff Gwen likes to wear.”
And now we finally get to see the return of J. Jonah Jameson. J.K. Simmons is still having all kinds of fun in the role. This time, there’s a gag running through the scene that involves his intercom, which apparently has a buzzer that has been retro-fitted from a jackhammer, because his entire desk rumbles and shakes when it buzzes.
What makes it funnier is that JJJ can’t lose his temper because of his blood pressure. Of all the things from this series that I won’t miss with the MCU Spider-Man, Simmons’s Jonah is the one I will miss unreservedly.
Eddie Brock has pictures of Spider-Man to sell. He flirts with Betty, who apparently doesn’t like him at all, and then tries to sell the pics to Jonah just before Peter arrives to do the same thing. Peter’s pics are from an impressive angle, having been taken via his usual method of webbing the camera high up on a building someplace and then having it take timed exposures as he goes through his paces. Not surprisingly, Brock’s photos are better pictures, so Eddie makes the sale. He announces that he what he really wants is a staff job, because there’s a girl he plans to marry and he needs the steady income.
Which reminds Peter that there’s a girl he wants to marry, so he could use a steady income, too. Just so happens that there’s a staff job open, so JJJ announces a competition: whoever brings him a picture of Spider-Man doing something illegal will get the job. Peter apparently doesn’t want the job that badly, because if he did, he could win it in a second. Not condoning illegal activity, just saying Peter’s in the driver’s seat on this one, and he doesn’t do anything with it.
Peter heads out into the street, where he sees a notice that Spider-Man is going to receive the key to the city. And next to him, a random old man says, “I guess one person can make a difference.”
Stan Lee cameo. Achievement unlocked.
Peter goes to visit Harry, and Bernard is back for another film. I have more to say about him, but I’m saving it for Part 3. Harry and Peter reminisce about things Harry barely remembers while Peter feels guilty about things Harry doesn’t remember at all. But when an ill-thrown basketball nearly shatters an expensive vase, Harry demonstrates that he still has freaky-fast Goblin-serum-enhanced reflexes.
Mary Jane goes to the theater where she works and walks in on someone else rehearsing her role. Turns out, it wasn’t just one critic who hated her performance. Everyone did. Which just makes you wonder: how did no one notice that MJ was bad to begin with? There were lots of rehearsals. For a major Broadway show, there would also have been off-Broadway test runs in front of audiences. How did no one notice that MJ was awful? (And just my personal opinion, I think she’s fine in the one scene where we see her perform in the show).
She leaves the theater absolutely devastated to thunderous applause outside. And for some reason, she thinks the applause is for her, only to be even more disappointed when she learns they’re applauding for Spider-Man who is swinging overhead. Am I really supposed to get invested in this whole “People hate my singing, but my stupid boyfriend doesn’t empathize because he’s too busy enjoying his sudden popularity after a lifetime of being bullied” storyline?
Anyway, time for the Spidey Celebration! Peter is taking photographs and loving it all. There’s even a marching band, playing a drum-and-bugle version of the Spider-Man TV theme song, which causes Peter to break out in this adorably dorky drum major strut dance.
Enjoy it while you can, Peter. Because it’s all about to turn very, very bad.
Be here next week for Part 2.