…Ok. So, where to begin with this one? This one comes with some personal baggage. I first saw Raimi’s original Spider-Man at the cinema when I was eleven years old, and although it wasn’t my introduction to superheroes onscreen (that claim goes to Batman: The Animated Series, and yes that counts), it catapulted me instantly into fanboyhood. The music, the web-swinging, the ‘great responsibility’ philosophising, every moment of Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons (to this day I will defend the Green Goblin as being among the greater supervillains of cinema). Sure, it could get a little cartoony, but it was just so much fun and radiated such love for its own mythos. Two years later, Spider-Man 2 took it all to the next level and left us fans with the ultimate webhead cinematic experience (even if at the time, I still preferred Goblin as a villain), and the promise of a thrilling trilogy-closer with Harry Osborn’s inheriting his father’s secret arsenal to aid his Spidey death wish. Three long years later in 2007, Spider-Man 3 finally arrives. And this lover of cinema and superheroes experienced his first great betrayal by the silver screen.
For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), life has never been better. Spider-Man has become a beloved hero of New York City, and Peter is on the verge of proposing to girlfriend – and woman of his dreams – Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But this calm belies an approaching storm for the web-slinger. Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) has taken up his father’s Goblin mantle. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), a petty criminal with an unexpected connection to Peter’s past, is accidentally transformed into ‘The Sandman’ and unleashes havoc in the city. Spider-Man is seemingly outmatched, until a mysterious symbiote latches onto his costume, turning it black and enhancing his abilities. But as Peter also discovers, the symbiote brings out his darker impulses, and the price for even getting rid of it may prove higher than he could imagine.
By far the most frustrating thing about Spider-Man 3 to this day is that there is real, distinguishable, tangible potential for this film to have been a triumph, even in the shadow of its immediate predecessor. The film is like a puzzle where you can see the intended picture on the lid, but all the pieces themselves are either misshapen or stuck in completely the wrong places. The ingredients are there: the long-awaited Spidey versus Goblin Jr, a standout origin sequence – and indeed a solid arc – for Sandman, and perhaps above all the big-screen interpretation of the iconic ‘black suit’ storyline and fan-favourite supervillain Venom. Any one of these would have made for a Spidey threequel certainly on-par with the first film, each offering a unique and fresh dynamic to the series. Instead, we got all of them at once, and the result was an unsurprisingly tangled web of inconsistent tone, stop-start momentum, baffling creative decisions and an overwhelmingly lacklustre aftertaste.
After two films of establishing Peter’s innate insecurities, humility and general weight-of-the-world character, suddenly our hero is a man with swagger and smooth moves (and that’s before he gets the new suit and the film cues his infamous dance montage). The chemistry is still there with Dunst’s MJ, but their relationship is forced so clumsily into choppy waters by the dictations of the plot (looking at you, whoever decided to shoehorn Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen Stacey into this), and brought on by such out-of-character moments by both parties. Harry’s vendetta, a key leftover from Spider-Man 2, is practically flushed down the toilet in favour of a love-triangle storyline that’s simply an overlong rendition of the first film’s hospital bedside corniness. What course-correction the film does eventually take with him is just too little, too late, and frankly even on an aesthetic level this ‘New Goblin’ disappoints. Whoever thought that a ‘ninja on a sky-surfboard’ design could surpass Dafoe’s actual goblin-esque super soldier look I hope has since thought about their life choices.
Ironically, Church’s Sandman makes for easily the film’s most nuanced and substantial character arc, as well as one of the most breath-taking origin sequences in superhero cinema history (a telling sign of where Raimi’s personal interest with his villains laid), even though his relevance to the overall story is tenuous at best, and ham-fisted at worst. For a film series that up until this point prided itself on characterization, Spider-Man 3 just seems to lose all sense of what makes an emotionally-cohesive character. Motivations come and go as if guided by a magic-eight ball. And after all the above, we get Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a flimsy foil for Peter Parker who literally exists just so the film can capitalize on Venom’s appeal to the comic book fan-base, which itself amounts to little more than five minutes of actual screen time. What with this, and Suicide Squad’s Joker last year, there really should be a term for this kind of thing: Topher’ed? Leto’d? Playing the base? In any case, at least here we still had J.K. Simmons, the real hero of Spider-Man 3. Seriously, J.K.’s Jameson needs a Netflix series. I’m thinking a cross between The Office and Spotlight. Make it happen, Marvel.
Spider-Man 3 isn’t a terrible film. It’s well-acted across the board, even through clunky dialogue (and cementing Maguire’s legacy as ‘crying Spidey’). Its special effects surpass anything else in the entire series, and despite taking on far too much storytelling it’s still able to hit a solid number of beats throughout. It’s watchable, colourful (despite its whole ‘going dark’ schtick), but ultimately stands fittingly as a disservice to the fans and an unsatisfying experience for a more general audience. Overcrowding has since gone on to become a recurring problem in superhero cinema (including the next attempt at a Spider-Man franchise), but as examples of such go Spider-Man 3 is maybe the least egregious. A regrettable trilogy-closer, but not irredeemable.
Final Score: 3/5