Dir. Sam Raimi
Premiered April 16, 2007
For a long time, there was something about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films that rubbed me the wrong way. When Iron Man came out in 2008, I found myself wondering why Spider-Man couldn’t have been more like it. In my memory, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a whiny dweeb who took himself so seriously that it made you wonder if the “great power” uncle Ben talked about really meant spider-powers. His obsessive attempts at secrecy only endangered the people he meant to keep safe. Spider-Man 2’s tie-in song was by Dashboard Confessional, for God’s sake! Where was the wit and lightness of the comics?
But then I watched Chris Stuckmann’s review of the first film, and it made me wonder if I had been wrong, so to prepare for this review, I revisited the entire trilogy.
I mostly agree with Chris. It’s cheesy at times, but it’s Sam Raimi, and he knows how to deploy cheese. It also deals with a lot of adult themes that I didn’t really understand back in 2002. As a film, it’s well-shot, the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is done mostly right, and hey, he’s actually funny! Overall, it’s a decent thrill ride that strikes the balance between fun and business.
Spider-Man 2 is goes way beyond decent; not only is it less dated and gimmicky, better-written (much of the film’s best moments can be credited to an early draft by Michael Chabon), and more interesting to look at, it also explores many of the issues with the character of Spider-Man that the first movie had raised but never addressed: the difficulty of balancing Peter’s moral responsibility with his own well-being and loved ones, and whether he can or indeed should have a normal life.
At this point, I realized what had soured me on the franchise as a whole: Spider-Man 3 is a mess, and discussing the plot of this film in a linear fashion is near-impossible, so let’s go point-by-point.
Spider-Man 2 ends with Peter (Tobey Maguire) revealing his secret life to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who accepts the risk of getting close to a man with many enemies and embraces him as the love of her life. In Spider-Man 3, Peter is on his way to propose to Mary Jane when a symbiotic organism falls from space, attaches to him, turns the Spider-Man suit black (as well as Peter’s hair, depending on what take they used), and making him cruel, vengeful, selfish, and vain.
This results in a borderline-Saturday Night Fever parody that has no relevance to the story, and is widely regarded as the stupidest thing in the movie, though there are plenty of others to compete with it. After driving away the people he loves with his new behavior, Peter breaks free of the symbiote, but it finds a new host in Peter’s unscrupulous work rival Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who transforms into Venom– at least when the transformation doesn’t pause to show Brock’s face.
Everyone who’s read the comics or seen the first movie knows that Peter’s choice to become Spider-Man was driven by the fact that his uncle Ben was killed by a criminal whom he could’ve stopped before it happened. Amazingly, Spider-Man 3 completely invalidates this character-defining moment by revealing that Uncle Ben was actually killed by someone else, Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), whose life of crime has since led him to become caught in a bizarre physics experiment and become the Sandman.
Although Marko is a tragic villain (and Church plays this aspect of the character very well), his newfound invulnerability transforms him into New York’s latest terror. Though seemingly undefeatable, he isn’t protected from Spider-Man’s newfound rage.
Peter vs. Harry
At the end of Spider-Man 2, Harry Osborn (James Franco) discovers that his father was the Green Goblin, the villain of the first movie, and that his best friend Peter (Tobey Maguire) is Spider-Man, who he suspects killed him. In Spider-Man 3, he goes looking for revenge. This is a problem in itself. While Harry’s jealousy of Peter has been built up over the course of the trilogy, why would he (or anyone) then embrace his father’s secret madness?
After trying to kill Peter, Harry is injured and suffers amnesia in order to make room for everything else in the movie. When he regains his memory, his butler of all people reveals that his father’s fatal wounds were caused by his own glider.
A lot of people raise the question of why the butler didn’t tell Harry this earlier, but I can’t help but wonder how the butler even knows what killed Norman. Did he used to be a medical examiner? Furthermore, just as Harry automatically accepted his father’s villainy, he automatically accepts Peter’s innocence, and rescues him from Venom, sacrificing himself to defeat the symbiote, while the Sandman makes peace with Spider-Man and leaves the city, thus making his part in this film completely pointless.
Spider-Man 3 is a frustrating film. Not knowing whether another film in the series would be made, Sony Pictures took a more active role in the movie’s development than before. It was workshopped and re-written several times, and you can tell. Though over two hours long, Spider-Man 3 still feels overstuffed. Several characters from the comics are introduced just in case it’s the last sequel. I can’t even be sure who the main villain is. While Sam Raimi did great work with the first two Spider-Man films, here he is hobbled by a script that doesn’t understand the character of Spider-Man and showcases the comic’s universe rather than telling a story– an unfortunate portent of the “cinematic universes” of today.
Sign This Was Made in 2007
The symbiote plot makes me think a lot about the politics of the era. The United States government was routinely kidnapping and torturing people, often the people they weren’t looking for, on the logic that it was necessary to defeat an unconventional enemy. Considering how some of the other movies I’ve reviewed here dealt with the politics of the time, this actually works, but that still doesn’t explain the dancing.
Each film begins with Peter narrating what’s going on, and it’s never necessary, but Spider-Man 3’s opening monologue is the worst offender, wherein Peter cheerfully discusses that the status quo from the end of the last film is still in effect.
The opening credits of Spider-Man 2 recap the first film in the form of hand-drawn images. Spider-Man 3 does it again, but uses production stills instead. Lazy.
One thing that’s often overlooked is Danny Elfman’s score. It’s one of the most memorable movie scores I’ve ever heard, one of Elfman’s best, and even now gets me excited about these movies.
How Did It Do?
I don’t know to what extent Spider-Man 3 could have worked. The first two movies told a complete arc which contrasted refreshingly if glaringly with the prevailing hero archetype of the post-9/11 era, exemplified by 24’s Jack Bauer and the latest iteration of James Bond, wherein self-sacrifice and self-destruction is always an acceptable cost. But regardless of where the series could have gone, Sony Pictures’ endless meddling in the production, occasioned by the studio’s presumption that Spider-Man 2 had suffered financially from Raimi’s increased creative control, virtually doomed the picture to failure.
Mind you, at $890.9 million, it was the third-biggest movie of the year, and critics were initially positive, with a 63% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. But even the most positive responses were far from the glowing praise of the first two movies. As late as 2008, Raimi and company were still preparing to produce Spider-Man 4, but Sony, alarmed by the critical consensus, overreacted by pulling the plug on the entire franchise and, even more bizarrely, immediately relaunching it from scratch with (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb at the helm. I’ll probably get to that story someday, but to make a long story short, it didn’t work.
Next Time: Next