Welcome to the newest edition of "Andy makes amends for a bad review". After reassessing Fantastic Four last week, I decided that it was time for me to reassess another glaring mistake on my reviewing resume: the time I gave Spider-Man 3 3.5 stars. In my defence, one of the reasons I went that high on the movie was because it was at least as good as Fantastic Four, so since I biffed that review, the mistake carried forward. (The lesson here is for me to ignore the outliers in my reviews, lest I go back and fix every mistake in my index).
The thing of it is, subtract the score at the end, and the overall positive tone of the review, and I wasn't that far off. I identified the problems of the film; yet for some reason, couldn't drop the hammer on it. Part of this is a lesson in expectations. Sometimes when you get too excited for a movie, your expectations are impossible to meet. But sometimes the opposite happens: you get so excited for something that you refuse to accept when it fails to meet your expectations. You wanted to like it so much that you just do. I'm guessing this is what happened to Matrix or Star Wars fans who refuse to accept the terminal shittiness of their respective sequels or prequels. And I'm guessing it's what happened to me.
Because pretty much since the moment I typed the last period on that review, my estimation of this movie has been dropping. The bad parts became more pronounced in my memory, while the good parts faded away.
And yes, there were good parts, even if you're too busy remembering Peter Parker dancing, or Kirsten Dunst singing, or the complete waste of the Venom character to realize it. In fact, I'd argue that the first 90 minutes of the 139 minute movie were pretty good, and had the film continued down that path, it would have been a successful venture. The opening battle between Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker and James Franco's Harry Osborn compares favourably to big moments from the earlier two films, with both characters flying through the New York skyline in a fight that shows the three-dimensional nature of Spider-Man fights. Even better, it shows how, while it might be cool to Spider-Man, it still sucks to be Peter Parker, who must balance his need to survive the attack with his need to not lose the engagement ring his Aunt May just gave him, all the while trying to defeat a friend without hurting him too badly.
Equally impressive is the introduction of The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), which allowed the film to produce some truly spectacular special effects and another set of memorable fights with Spider-Man. I even enjoyed the new black costume (even if the introduction of the alien symbiote was rushed and sloppy), along with the themes of what happens when the great power that makes Peter Parker act so responsibly becomes too much power that corrupts.
If you were to stop the movie here, after Spidey has taken down Sandman for the first time, and dealt with Harry at his house, and take a break for a bit (as I did when rewatching it to go to sleep), you'd probably still be in high spirits and have good expectations for the movie going forward. Sadly, this is where the movie falls apart, rather spectacularly, rendering all that came before it forgotten and replaced with the horrifying image of Disco Pete.
Having Peter Parker Saturday Night Fever his way up the street and perform a dance number in a club as a means to show off his dark side was one of the worst calculations in a previously successful franchise since Jar Jar Binks. There's a tight balance in superhero movies, where you want to capture the fun and adventure of the subject matter, but still need to treat the material seriously. Because if you don't, everything about the project will then seem stupid, because, well, these stories aren't exactly above reproach. Costumed men do battle after being bitten by radioactive spiders, or falling into scientific experiments. It's easy for these things to feel ridiculous, so it's paramount that the filmmakers avoid doing things that make them feel overtly ridiculous.
It's fine to have jokes in a superhero movie, but you can't make a joke of the movie itself, and that's what Sam Raimi does here. The sequence is a joke, Peter Parker is a joke, and the rest of the movie feels like a joke. It never recovers from this moment, as the rest of the movie crashes together in the big rush to squeeze in one more villain into a final act that should have dedicated to wrapping up the stories it had already effectively introduced.
Which brings us to the movie's biggest flaw. Sure, the dance sequence stands out, but the film could have recovered from it. But the fatal flaw of the film comes when Raimi's effective movie about the resolution of Peter Parker's trilogy-wide rivalry with Harry Osbourne and the challenge of the Sandman is forced to also become a movie about Venom. This goes beyond the fact that cramming a movie with this many big characters is never a good idea, and more about the simple fact that Sam Raimi was never interested in making a movie about Venom, and it shows.
I originally thought that Raimi should have just bitten the bullet and made the movie everyone wanted to see: Spider-Man vs Venom, one of the few modern villains to capture the public's imagination. But rewatching it, I realize the opposite to be true: Raimi should have been allowed to make the movie he wanted to make, leaving Venom for a fourth (most likely Raimi-free) edition. The new director (and possibly new cast) would have benefited from having such a popular character to start out with, and Raimi would've had a solid trilogy in his belt. Because here's the thing — minus the Venom-included fourth act, Raimi largely succeeded in created a good Sandman-focused movie.
Sure, there were problems in the first hour and a half, but most of them could have been fixed by the simply having more time to develop plot points, instead of cramming them in. The movie would have always been over two hours long, so if Raimi and company were freed from having to cram in one more villain into that time, we could had better explanations for the black costume, a better use of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a more plausible interlude for Harry than convenient memory loss, and a more naturalistic descent into darkness for Peter than a nightclub sequence.
Some people think this movie went astray by turning Peter Parker emo, but I disagree. The goal was to make us see how far Peter was sliding due to the influence of the alien symbiote costume. The problem is that modern audiences wouldn't see a more aggressive Spider-Man as a bad thing, having grown accustomed to cheering for darker heroes like Batman and Wolverine. Instead, they needed to turn Peter Parker into a douchebag, and what easier shorthand for that in the year 2007 is there than emo bangs? They didn't make him emo to make him cool, they did it to make us hate him, so mission accomplished! Hell, they should've gone further with it, then his downward spiral wouldn't have had to end in the clichéd accidental striking of Mary Jane. Instead, MJ could've just forced him to look down at his girl jeans during a douchebag intervention, which would've been enough to drive Peter to the bell tower in an attempt to tear the symbiote off.
Knowing that Raimi had little interest in the Venom character, it's easy to see the fourth act of Spider-Man 3 as a silent protest against the character's inclusion. Exposition fills in all the cracks to bring the action together (be it from newscasters, reporters, or Bernard the Butler), the action is lazily thrown together, highlighted by a bemused performance by Franco on his snowboard glider, and the final resolution not only destroys Venom as a potential foil, but also devalues the Spider-Man origin story. It's an unmitigated mess from a guy who delivered two superior films with much of the same cast, which leads me to believe that he simply didn't care, and possibly decided to just hand over the film's climax to the studio and their notes.
And I see that now. There is good in this movie, but much of it is undone by its flaws. As much as Sam Raimi deserves the benefit of the doubt for what he previously accomplished, he still deserves significant demerits for what he turned out with this effort. Sure he could have made a better movie if permitted to do things his way, but he still should have made a better movie than the one he produced.
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, James Cromwell, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons