Think of a great movie trilogy. Chances are you’ve come up with Star Wars (originals, of course). Or the Wishmaster flicks. Now think of a great comic-book movie trilogy. Chances are you’ve thought of... bugger all.
When it comes to completing a trilogy, superhero movies have been generally bobbins. The ideal trilogy closer should augment existing themes and visual motifs, while introducing new characters that drive the story to unexplored heights. Comic-book movies have tended to translate this as ‘more explosions’; ‘bigger nipples’; ‘hire Brett Ratner’, or ‘Richard Pryor — on skis!’
The Spider-Man franchise had all the potential in the world to become that great trilogy: with Sam Raimi at the helm the first two films triumphed at the box office and, more importantly, were crackers. So it’s a shame to report that, while Spider-Man 3 is a consistently enjoyable start to the summer silly season, it more pings off the post than completes the hat-trick.
One of Raimi’s most admirable traits throughout the series to date has been his refusal to pit his protagonist against multiple villains, thus avoiding the unfocused fate of, say, Batman Forever, in which the title character essentially cameoed in his own movie. In Spider-Man 3, however, Raimi breaks his own rules, racking up not one, not two, but THREE different nemeses (four, if you count the enemy within) for our friendly neighbourhood whatsit to contend with. And while the broth isn’t spoiled by the presence of too many cooks — there's too much giddy entertainment here for that — it sure tasted a lot better with just a spider in our soup.
Multiple villains can be done, of course, as shown in Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins. But where Nolan had his bad guys simply show up, bringing little-to-no back-story, Raimi has always insisted that his villains should have an arc. Great thinking when there’s only one — bit of a problem when there’s three. Huge problem when Raimi is also determined that the focus not move away from Maguire’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man. And so an otherwise smart and engaging movie becomes bloated as a result.
To wit, it’s well-known by now that the movie’s central conceit sees Spider-Man don a black suit that, being an alien parasite, begins to exert an evil influence over him. It’s the catalyst for many of the climactic events, including the birth of Venom, but it takes so long for Raimi to establish the threads of the plot — from the creation of Sandman; to several contrived love triangles involving Peter, M. J., Harry, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen Stacy; to Harry’s thirst for revenge; to the origin of the alien suit — that it takes over an hour for Parker to even think of pulling on the black duds. It’s clear that something has gone askew during the planning stages.
That ‘something’ was, pure and simple, the decision to go with both Sandman and Venom as Spider-menaces. Apparently included because he’s a favourite of both Maguire and Raimi, Sandman is given a back-story that ties him to events in the first Spider-Man movie, but it’s an unnecessary complication. Fine actor though he is, even Thomas Haden Church struggles with the flimsy material he’s given. That’s when he’s actually on screen — most of the time it’s his enlarged, motion-captured CG self, bellowing in rage in sequences all too reminiscent of the sand FX in the Mummy movies.
Venom, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. Raimi has never been a fan of the alien symbiote, created when Spidey ditches the black substance and it latches onto a murderous Eddie Brock, and by his own admission had to be persuaded to include the character. Still, given the ‘dark Spidey’ storyline, Venom makes sense thematically and structurally: Eddie is what Peter might have been if the coin had landed tails. But because Brock’s screen time is so negligible (he’s introduced about 30 minutes in, almost as an afterthought), his murderous motivations seem forced. When Venom is finally created, in the third act, the drooling monster may be impressive visually, but lacks personality and, crucially for a creature that possesses the enhanced powers of Spider-Man, true menace. It’s almost as if Raimi was unable to withhold his disdain for the character.
Sadly, the gruesome twosome take some of the shine off Harry Osborn, as his vengeful New Goblin targets Peter physically and emotionally. James Franco’s complex and charismatic turn makes Harry into Spidey’s most interesting villain to date. With the benefit of an extended back-story, the two confrontations between Peter and Harry have an emotional undercurrent lacking from the battles with Sandman and Venom, and are easily the best of the movie’s many extended action sequences (we counted six). There’s nothing, however, that even comes close to the Doc Ock-Spidey train battle in Spider-Man 2, despite a budget reportedly north of $250 million, and sadly the final four-way showdown on a construction site comes dangerously close to being both familiar (oh look, it’s Mary Jane, screaming for her life. Again) and unintentionally hilarious (two words: British reporter).
Yet there is plenty to like about Spider-Man 3, and not a little to love. Commendably, Raimi develops his themes (the corruption of power; the burden of choice; is black really slimming?), applies them diligently to nearly every character, and pursues them to the bitter end. And despite such deadly earnestness, Spider-Man 3 can be very funny, with Bruce Campbell and J. K. Simmons — as blustering Daily Bugle editor and refugee from ’40s screwball comedies J. Jonah Jameson — showing Topher Grace and Haden Church how to make an impact with limited screen time.
While Raimi takes his time getting there, the exploration of Peter’s unleashed id sends the character into unexpectedly mature territory, as his relationship with Mary Jane comes under immense strain. Yes, the dialogue really ought to appear in bubbles over the actors’ heads, but there’s a genuine emotional intensity here, with one scene on a bridge proving particularly painful. Maguire, in particular, carries the film: more convincing now at the heroic stuff, he also clearly relishes Peter’s descent into hell, skilfully turning Spider-Man into a sleazeball while still making him sympathetic. It’s a good showing for what is probably his Spider-Man swansong.
Though there will be a Spider-Man 4, this outing is also likely to be Raimi’s last swing. If he doesn’t hit the heights this time around — his impish visual sense feels a little boxed in by a need to keep the dense plot on track — it’s not for a lack of ambition. In fact, anything but, and that should always be applauded. But for the love of God, just one bad guy next time, please?
Still smart, still exciting and still action-packed. It’s just a shame to note that, after promising greatness, all Spider-Man 3 delivers is satisfaction.
Reviewer: Chris Hewitt