Okay, truth be told, I pretty much knew all the details due to my obsessive investigation into the film's production over the past two years. What was interesting however, is both how right the gossip was, and how wrong. I'm pleased/concerned to report that Spider-Man 3 is quite a different animal than the brilliant earlier chapters. I'll get to specific instances in a bit, but first I have to throw on my cape and assume my other identity as EXPOSITION MAN! Recanter of vague plot details!
The film starts off quickly after segment numero deuce, with the whole city of New York going Spider-Man crazy. Everyone loves the guy, and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is feeling pretty damn pleased with himself. As always though, the dude is destined to get slapped down a few pegs. First, his beloved M.J. (Kirsten Dunst), who he is planning to propose to, gets a lousy review for her big Broadway debut. Then the troubled Harry Osborn (James Franco) attacks him, in his new X-treme sports villain attire, receiving amnesia in the ensuing throwdown. Meanwhile, escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) is accidentally transformed in the villainous Sandman following an escape from the police. Also, as pretty much the whole world knows, Spidey finds himself a new black suit this time around. The suit, which is an alien symbiote, has hitched a ride on an asteroid/comet (I can't tell the difference) and landed on earth... Right next to Peter Parker's moped.
Fwew. Anyways, soon Peter learns that it was actually Flint Marko who killed his beloved Uncle Ben. It's at this point that the symbiote takes hold of him and Peter starts to slip into a severely angry funk. This has severe consequences on his relationship with M.J. (Who starts to wander over to Harry's side of the field), as well as causes him to seek revenge against the clearly downtrodden Sandman. Amongst all the chaos, we also meet young upstart Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a competitor for a job at the Daily Bugle. Pete and Eddie's relationship is further tried by Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Eddie's sorta girlfriend, and Pete's lab partner, who has a crush on ol' Webhead. Eddie is smug and cocky, and eventually becomes the fan favorite Venom, a seething black monster version of Spider-Man (Like you all didn't know that already!). Toss in comic bits from Bruce Campbell, Stan Lee and J.K. Simmons (Returning as the great J. Jonah Jameson.), and a few musical numbers, and a four character battle royale at a construction site, and Spidey 3 is packed to the gills for it's entire 140 minute running time.
So, I know the first question you all have! Is it as good as the other two? Putting it bluntly, no. Before I explain why, I just want to mention that it's always hard reviewing a movie like this because I see it through the geeky comic-fan lens, while the majority of the world won't. I want to also mention that while I raise a number of negative points, I actually think Spidey 3 is a great film-going experience. The running length flew by. However, as with the Star Wars prequels, my intense love for them causes me to be more critical when they falter. So, I'm going to try as hard as possible to keep my reasoning objective, but bear in mind that I'm probably taking the negatives more harshly than you will. Let's get to the breakdown!
Tobey Maguire (Right, with Dunst) is once again spot-on and he never appears foolish, despite a couple of poorly thought out scenes involving Peter's dark side taking over. Maguire is the key to why these films work, and he does good work here. He understands the series Parker character so deeply that we simply accept him without question. His dramatic scenes in this film are strong, and his Spidey moments are snappy and clever. It's only in the film's funky middle where the somewhat moody nature of the character drags Maguire down. I'd like to point out however, a painful scene between him and Dunst on a bridge that is very uncomfortable (In a good way) to watch. Maguire's face translates so much pain that it I found it almost hard to watch. It's going to be extremely difficult to see the role recast in future sequels.
Kirsten Dunst is again reliable as Mary Jane, although the film's writing occasionally fails her. Dunsts has received a lot of criticism for these films, but I still think she really brings something to the franchise. She has a spunk and adorbale quality that works really well. When M.J. is emotionally beaten down she really plays it effectively. That said, I think it was a poor decision to create such false circumstances for Peter and M.J. to breakup. The ensuing bitterness and anger damages our faith in their relationship as a whole, and unfortunately has a slightly negative consequence on the film. Despite dedicated work from the duo, it's becomes hard to see them in any sort of cheery light come film's end.
James Franco (Right) gives probably the strongest performance in the film. His Harry Osborn character is finally given a true dramatic arc that is sometimes tough to watch. Lacking the playfulness of Green Goblin or Doc Ock's storylines, Harry is a study of a good man who is undone by a lifetime of emotional abuse and low self-confidence and esteem. Even as he is suiting up as the New Goblin and battling Peter over the city, we never lump him into the villain category. It's a testament to Franco that Harry becomes the film's strongest point. He's funny, sympathetic, frustrating, and heart-breaking. Of all the resolutions in the film (And there are many!), Harry's has the most impact and stays with us the longest after we leave the theatre.
What made the first two films (Specifically 2) great was how fleshed out the villains were and how they tied into the overall themes. Sandman and Venom are both quite underwritten and don't have the impact they should. Haden Church (Left) has an effective melancholy dignity that, used properly, could have put Sandman right alongside the other greats of the series. His transformation scene alone is the most beautiful and haunting comic-book villain origin scene, I think, in film history. Watch for that moment, it's a joy to watch and arguably the film's highlight. Sandman's backstory is also effective, although emphasized so shallowly that it prevents him from becoming him a great villain. Despite a couple great battle scenes, he seems lost by the end, and his reasoning behind doing what he does is questionable. I also think it was a mistake to spend so much time with Sandman as a bellowing 6 story tall CG monster. It strips him of his tragedy and humanity.
Venom on the other hand, is a completely different story. This is a character that shouldn't probably be here at all. Like Sandman, he's underdeveloped, and yet I have to admit that he too had the potential to be a wonderful villain. Topher Grace (Right) steals every scene he's in, and when Venom finally does show up, he doesn't disappoint. While closer in tone to Carnage (Geek alert!), he still has enough Venom-like characteristics to make him an acceptable translation. I do feel strongly, however, that he should have been saved for a future film, as Grace is so good that the mind boggles at what he could have done with a full film. Let me just say that his mano et mano with Spider-Man is extremely cool.
Falling in the "Glorified Cameo" category is Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy (Left), who is such an energetic breath of fresh air that the film really loses something when she disappears in the third act. It would have been nice to include her in the story's resolution. Rosemary Harris, as Aunt May, has only a couple scenes where she provides earnest advice, and I felt that each one was effective and properly highlighted the heart of the series. James Cromwell, as Captain Stacy, Gwen's dad, is a throwaway, with little reason to exist. It's unfortunate, as his character was such a warm presence in the comic book series.
Sam Raimi (Right) does a good job again of holding it all together and keeping the whole project from derailing. I love his vision for the series and truly love the quirkiness he brings to the films. Here, he does what he does best, amazing us, moving us, and drawing a few good laughs. His judgment falters, however, in some of the more heavy-handed comic moments. Bruce Campbell's idiot maitre'd is a keeper, as is a fair amount of Pete's 70's era swagger in a key scene. He goes a bit far, however, when Peter channels Jim Carrey's Mask in a jazz club and starts pounding on the piano and dancing up a storm. It's a bizarre moment that while undeniably well-timed and executed, belongs in a completely different movie. I also wish he'd refrain from so many shots of kids yelling "Go Spidey!", "Awesome!" and "Wicked cool!" into the camera. It was something I could look past before, but here it's just tiresome. Also annoying is the ridiculous British reporter in the final battle. She belongs on the cutting room floor.
Spider-Man 3 is a triumph of effects artistry and staging. Every action scene is a joy to behold and reminds us why these films are held in such high regard. If only the film could have found better ways to tie the threads together near the end. Minor characters pop-up and announce details that they likely wouldn't know (Or really should have mentioned earlier... YES, I'm talking to you Butler man!), and characters occasionally ignore their own psychology. If only the writers (Sam & Ivan Raimi, and Alvin Sargent) had better tied the whole thing together. Let me also add that while I applaud their courage in ending the film on such a bittersweet ambiguous note, it robs the audience of the joy they experienced with the exhilarating closings of the previous two films. It is also an odd way to end it in such a fashion as this is likely the last Spidey film to feature any of this creative team. The downbeat tone is going to make it very interesting to see how this film performs in the long run...
In closing, I recommend the film for the strength and imagination behind it. There are great sights to be seen and you are unlikely to be ever bored. Raimi has crafted a truly unusual summer blockbuster that dares to take chances, even if they don't all pan out. This courage elevates the film above most movies of this magnitude and I have a feeling that Spider-Man 3 is going to create some really interesting debates between film-goers. Obviously you can see that my thoughts on the film are somewhat conflicted. I will need to see the film again to establish a more concrete position and view the film without my over-hyped expectations. I do feel it's important to mention that Spider-Man 3 is far better than Ghost Rider, and more satisfying than X-Men: The Last Stand! Now, its up to you all to weigh in with your own opinions.
Despite this film's shortcomings, I'm still praying Raimi and Co. return for Spider-Man 4. Then they can really give us a film that will be a rousing final home-run.
Grade: 4 out of 5