Wrapping up our three-part in-depth look at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. When we left off, Peter and Harry had just had a knock-down, drag-out fight which ended with Harry blowed up real good with his own grenade.
And as I said last time, the movie is surprisingly not horrible at this point. The Uncle Ben retcon is horrible and unnecessary, Mary Jane has spent the movie being insipid, and there are so many sub-plots that none of them get fleshed out beyond nodding toward cliches.
But Peter and Harry have an interesting dynamic, the special effects are good, and the emotional baseline of the story works pretty well. And the next scene is pretty decent.
Peter, having seen the latest Daily Bugle which features a picture of black-suited Spider-Man on the cover in front of the bank Sandman robbed, goes to the Bugle to confront Eddie Brock, who has just won the competition and landed the staff photographer job. Peter reveals to Robbie and Jonah that Eddie actually ‘shopped in a photo of Spider-Man that Peter had taken and recolored his suit to black.
Once again, for all his clownishness, we see for just a second that J. Jonah Jameson actually has some journalistic ethics and is a serious person at heart.
Thus Eddie is destroyed, earning Peter his undying enmity, and by the way, not only is Eddie’s journalistic career over, but so is the part of the movie that is any good whatsoever. The rest of the movie is a descent into horribility that must be experienced more than described, but I will do my best.
Now we begin the infamous Evil Douchebag Montage, in which Peter (with the black suit on under his clothes) is strutting down the street to the strains of James Brown’s “Drive That Funky Soul,” finger-gunning every woman in sight. It’s a very uncomfortable sequence; the German word for my feeling in this sequence (and I think most of the people watching) is fremdschämen, feeling embarrassed for someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel embarrassed for themselves.
This sequence has its apologists, who mainly say that this is Peter acting in the way he thinks a cool badass would act, and because Peter is a dork, his idea of a cool badass is also by definition dorky, thus the fremdschämen. This may in fact be the explanation, but I don’t think it’s an artistic choice that works. I think it’s a failed attempt to hang onto audience sympathy for Peter after showing him doing some authentically dark things: blowing up his best friend and killing (as far as he knows) Flint Marko. It’s an attempt at a takeback, saying look, Evil Peter isn’t really evil. He may try to be bad, but he’s a failure at it.
But not only does that attempted takeback feel clumsy in and of itself, it’s also badly executed. The shots in this montage seem to have been meant to build in a certain order, but got out of whack in the editing process. First, we see Peter talking to Dr. Connors on the phone, who is concerned about how the symbiote feeds off of aggression (to which I can only say, “Welcome to the party, pal!”). As Dr. Connors is talking, Ursula is feeding Peter cookies as he orders her around, and it seems like her crush is back in full force.
Then we get the strutting and finger-gunning with women on the street looking at him like a freak, intercut with Peter flirting heavily with Betty, to the point that she’s about to make out with him right there in the office. Jonah shuts that down, but Peter offers him new shots of black-suit Spider-Man, that show Spidey beating crooks down far more thoroughly than before, and when Jonah asks him what he wants, he confidently says he’ll take the staff job.
And I should add that the scene before the montage, where Peter sees the headline, we see women in the street looking at him admiringly. So at first, Bad Peter is also Hot Peter. This is reinforced with Ursula worshipfully feeding him cookies and fetching him milk. But then we get this weird pair of shots that show women grimacing at him from the front (who is this weirdo finger-gunning at me?), with a reverse angle of women ADMIRING him from behind, followed by Betty nearly jamming her tongue down his throat, followed by more women treating him like he’s toxic.
And I think the initial idea of the sequence was that it gets worse over time, that when Peter first lets himself run with his dark side, some women find it hot, but the further he goes, the worse he gets. But the shots aren’t shown in that order, so you start looking for more explanations, like is it all in his head? Does he think women are turned on by him, but they’re really turned off? No, because the angles are backwards. Does the suit itself exert some kind of mind control on the women he flirts with? Maybe, but it’s never discussed. It’s just the viewer’s mind trying to find rational ways to reconcile contradictory data before giving up and saying, “Okay, this just sucks and there’s no good explanation for it.”
Urgh. I’ve spent way too much time trying to explain that mess, so let’s move on. Turns out Flint Marko’s not dead, it just took him a while to reconstitute.
So next Peter takes Gwen Stacy to the jazz club where Mary Jane is working (and once again, Bryce Dallas Howard is in one of the weight camouflage outfits that just draws attention to what they’re trying to distract from). Mary Jane gets up to sing, and Peter somehow manages to start playing the piano, totally distracting from Mary Jane’s performance. And suddenly, it’s a musical… again.
And once again, it’s confusing, because last we saw, everybody who encountered Evil Peter seemed to think he was a total idiot. But now when he gets up and starts dancing through the club, with Gwen joining in for part of it, everybody seems to love it (lending validity to that mind control theory I totally just made up?). Gwen totally doesn’t understand that Peter’s just using her to hurt MJ until the dance is over. Gwen runs out, devastated.
Peter then confronts Mary Jane, but for what purpose, we never find out, because the manager and bouncers suddenly decide to throw Peter out. And as he’s wiping the floor with them, Mary Jane decides to get in the middle of it, with the predictable result that Peter knocks her to the floor.
That seems to sober him up, because he decides to get rid of the black suit once and for all. But once again, we get one of these weirdly random moments where stuff just happens the way it does because the plot needs for it to happen. In the comics, Peter goes to a church bell tower to get rid of the symbiote because Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, who has been studying the symbiote (the way Dr. Connors has in the movie), tells him the symbiote can be weakened by loud sounds. Peter chooses the bell tower strategically.
In the movie, Peter chooses the bell tower just because it happens to be close by. He discovers the thing’s weakness quite by accident.
Also randomly, Eddie Brock just happens to be in the same church, praying for God to kill Peter. When he hears the bell ringing, he goes into the base of the bell tower to see what’s up (not any of the other people we see in the church, just him, conveniently), where two things happen. He sees Peter getting rid of the black suit (thus learning his secret identity), and he gets covered in the goop himself, becoming Venom.
We have finally been introduced to the final villain of the piece, and the movie is now 3/4ths done. Not much time to flesh out this plotline, is there?
Peter sulks in his apartment and gets a pep talk from Aunt May. This scene seems to exist only to allow for some separation between Venom’s creation and the moment he finds Sandman in an alley, where they decide to team up to kill Peter. The visual look of Venom is very much in keeping with the comics, but he has Topher Grace’s voice, so there’s no real menace here.
After another quick filler scene, we see Venom kidnap Mary Jane and we’re into the climax. Television news reports show Mary Jane trapped in a cab that has been webbed up twenty stories next to a building under construction. It’s efficient exposition, but also incredibly clumsy (and contrary to what I said before, the news reports do actually name Marko “the Sandman”).
Peter sees the news reports and puts on his old red-and-blue uniform. Before going after Mary Jane, he stops by Harry’s penthouse to recruit his help. Turns out Harry wasn’t killed by the grenade, but horribly scarred on one side of his face. Or I should say, he has facial scars carefully calibrated to make sure he can still retain our sympathy–damaged, but not too damaged.
Peter tries to convince Harry to help him rescue MJ, but Harry sends him away.
After Peter leaves, Butler Bernard enters and tells Harry that the wounds on his father’s dead body confirm that he had been killed by his own glider, and therefore Peter is innocent. The way it’s written, it seems as if Bernard was always in on Norman Osborn’s secret (he can identify wounds received from the glider, for instance). He’s like the evil version of Batman’s Alfred or something, not the doddering old fool he’s always appeared to be. Still, it’s not a very convincing speech, clumsily written with no real proof in it, and the delivery is barely competent. In fact, Bernard–who has been in all three movies–has always been played by a man who seems barely able to deliver dialogue at all.
Because you remember how I’ve mentioned in the previous movie recaps that Raimi likes to give minor roles to family members of cast and crew? Well, turns out that Bernard is played by one of those. The actor’s name is John Paxton, and he is the father of Bill Paxton, who starred in Raimi’s A Simple Plan. John Paxton had his first role for Raimi in that film, and has since appeared in at least five other Raimi films. He’s a horrible actor, but Raimi seems to feel a loyalty toward him such that he keeps casting him.
So Peter heads to the construction site, which just happens to be located in Uncanny Valley.
Look, I can understand being confident in your digital doubles, and I have seen how they can make for more exciting and dynamic superhero action sequences. But for whatever reason, either the long takes they work on here or just the fact that they were rushing to finish a climax nobody was particularly excited to work on, the effects just don’t convince.
Venom and Sandman double-team Spidey, with the predictable result that he ends up pretty much helpless between the two of them, Venom holding him down while Sandman beats him to death. Remember this image, because I’ll be referring back to it in a bit.
Of course, the day is saved by the arrival of Harry and his Goblin tech, yada-yada-yada. There’s some wisecracking and some teamwork and the cameos you expect from (this time) Sam Raimi’s kids. The whole thing ends up with Sandman being destroyed by Goblin bombs and Venom being destroyed by loud clanging sounds… and a Goblin bomb.
Happy endings all around, except for the fact that (as foreshadowed earlier) Harry ends up fatally wounded in the confrontation. Oh, and Sandman isn’t actually dead.
He and Peter have a final moment where Marko says he is sorry for killing Uncle Ben and Peter forgives him. And then he blows away.
And I get that they’re trying to end on a grace note, giving Sandman a kind of redemption and Peter a chance to let go of the vengeance in his heart, but holy God, nothing in this entire Sandman plotline works. From the very first moments where he’s justifying his crimes to his wife (“I’m not a bad person. I’ve just had bad luck.”), the unspecified medical condition his daughter has, the unspecified experiment that “kills” him, the unspeakable retcon of Uncle Ben’s death, to this final moment of forgiveness just minutes after that moment above where Sandman was BEATING PETER TO DEATH, I just don’t buy any of it.
And the worst part of it is, there are hints of what could have been a really good story in there. Thomas Haden Church is better in the role than I thought he’d be, and the whole idea of a pile of sand animated by the ghost of a man with only one overriding goal–to save his daughter–makes me really want this to be better every time I rewatch it. It’s just that all of the Venom and Vengeance stuff forced in (apparently by studio decree) makes the whole thing into an overstuffed muddle, with an emotional throughline that doesn’t just not work for me, but comes close to offending me with the insincere manipulations it goes through.
And maybe the worst thing of all is the way it happens right before Harry’s big death scene, because I’ve still got such a bad taste in my mouth from the Sandman bullshit that it poisons what should be a very affecting moment, the culmination of three films’ worth of development.
There’s some wordless grief at Harry’s funeral (well wordless other than Peter’s narration), where not only are Peter and Mary Jane and Aunt May and Bernard present, but also classmate Flash Thompson (last seen getting his ass kicked by Peter in the high school hallway way back in the first film) and Captain Stacy and Gwen, for some reason.
Final scene: Mary Jane is singing in the club where she still works (“I’m Through With Love”), and Peter walks up. Mary Jane stops in mid-lyric (does she ever sing a song all the way though in this club?). Peter holds out his hand. Mary Jane takes it. They embrace and begin to dance.
But neither of them seems particularly happy about it. They haven’t actually worked out any of the issues that drove them apart in the first place. It’s a weirdly grief-stricken and bitter ending, two people stuck together because neither seems to have anyplace else to go. What an awful way to end a trilogy that was so good just one film earlier. Not only does this film end badly, but it seems to drain away all of the goodwill from the earlier films and exhaust any character development possibilities for Peter and Mary Jane in the process. I really don’t want to follow Peter any further on this path.
Which may be why it’s just as well that Sony ended up rebooting the franchise instead of going forward with the Spider-Man 4 they were developing. But given the fan reaction to the reboot, maybe not.
But that’s next week.