In Defense of 'Spider-Man 3'
The internet is an echo chamber with no room for ambiguity. That’s especially true in the geekosphere, where the mob mentality of fandom creates a set-in-stone orthodoxy. In Geek Defense, EW’s writers challenge that conventional wisdom by defending a project, a creator, or a movement with a bad reputation. The goal is to restart a conversation about the things we’re not supposed to enjoy.
The Accused: Spider-Man 3, the final film in the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy.
The Crimes: Generally considered one of the prime modern examples of Franchise Bloat, Spider-Man 3 overdoses on villains (The Sandman, Venom, and Green Goblin 2.0) while throwing in ambient bits of canon (Hi, Gwen Stacy! Bye, Gwen Stacy!) and wasting pretty much everything with hammy workaround plotting: Harry Osborn gets magical plot amnesia and can’t remember anything about Spider-Man, until suddenly he can; an alien symbiote just happens to crashland in Central Park next to Peter Parker.
Nominally structured around Peter Parker’s descent into darkness, Spider-Man 3 manifests said “darkness” mainly with a Conor Oberst emo haircut and a pair of dance numbers. (Peter Parker’s jazz hands = the Spider-Man franchise’s bat-nipples.) In the process, the film features what would appear to be a complete misreading of the whole Spider-man mythos: Far from being a publicly-despised misfit, Spider-Man is a hero beloved by his city.
Like the X-Men and Matrix franchises, Spider-Man 3 pretty much defined the mid-decade trend of Disappointing Trilogy Conclusions, partially because it’s never clear whether the movie is supposed to be a conclusion or a sequel. (Raimi and Tobey Maguire worked for years on a sequel or sequels that would have feature the Vulture, before Columbia opted to reboot the franchise, possibly because they just don’t like bald dudes.) Also, there’s crying. Lots and lots of crying.
The Defense: Spider-Man 3 was released in 2007. One year later, the release of Iron Man and The Dark Knight would concretize the two essential modes of the Superhero Film genre: Banter-y action comedy on one side, dark allegorical drama on the other. What both of those movies share is a tremendous respect — even an abject fealty — for the whole idea of the superhero. That respect is almost entirely missing from Spider-Man 3, which — quite purposefully — spends much of its running time making its leading man look like a complete and utter douchebag. Historically, Peter Parker has one of the great victim-complex sad-sacks in comic book history. But the Peter we meet in Spider-Man 3 is a narcissistic boor. Fame, popularity, and the adulation of the crowd have all gone to his head.
In the past, Peter’s joke-slinging web-swinging alter ego was the exuberant Id to his awkward overthinking Superego; now, Peter’s all Id, all the time. At one point, he recreates the famous upside-down kiss from Spider-Man 1 with Gwen Stacy, in front of the cameras — and in front of his lady love Mary Jane Watson. From a cinematic perspective, this feels impossibly cynical: An exhibitionist remake of the most famous shot from the first movie, this time with an audience onscreen. He’s repeating the same old tricks, and the people love him for it.
Now, Spider-Man 3 probably wasn’t intended to be an angry takedown of the superhero genre. But coming into the third movie, it’s possible to see how Raimi and his screenwriters might have sparked to the idea of a superhero transformed by hubris. The first Spider-Man was a risky gamble; by the time they made the third movie, the franchise had grossed over a billion dollars and had kickstarted the whole superhero trend. (With success came more money; Spider-Man 3 was, by some estimates, the most expensive movie ever made.)
But it’s important to note that the movie also provides an intriguingly downbeat counterbalance to Spider-Man’s plotline. Because Peter spends most of Spider-Man 3 as an arrogant, moody, self-aggrandizing glamourpuss, the audience’s sympathy shifts to Mary Jane. Here again, the movie marks an intriguing departure from comic book lore. Whereas in the canon, Mary Jane’s acting career eventually transformer her into an outright celebrity, the film depicts her career spiralling downhill. After she gets terrible reviews for her Broadway debut, she’s fired, and winds up waitressing at a jazz bar; at the age of 25, Kirsten Dunst has to essentially play her own version of All About Eve.
Dunst gives a great performance which is probably easier to see now, post-Melancholia and with her mid-decade flops Wimbledon and Elizabethtown far in the rearview. Likewise, it’s probably much easier to enjoy James Franco’s performance, which is goofily over-the-top but oddly self-aware. Watch Franco’s line reading in this scene and try not to laugh:
There are a lot of funny scenes in Spider-Man 3 that are just like that — scenes that remind you that Sam Raimi was the guy who made Army of Darkness, another movie that seems to view its hero with a hilarious amount of disdain. (Sam Raimi probably prefers Richard Lester to Richard Donner, if you know what I mean.) The film’s two dance numbers are usually criticized for their silliness. And they are silly — but it’s not like they were supposed to be serious. Devin Faraci at Badass Digest has actually argued that those dance scenes are meant to be a rejection of the whole idea of a darker, grittier Spider-Man — a parody of Nolanism, or an accidental rebuttal to The Amazing Spider-Man. I’m not sure if that’s true; I suspect that Raimi was given the ability to do pretty much anything he wanted to do, as long as he included Venom somewhere, and he decided he wanted to do a purposefully ridiculous blaxploitation montage and an actually-pretty-decent jazz-dance number.
The Verdict: Spider-Man 3 has plenty of problems, but as the years have passed, it’s become fashionable to call it the franchise’s Batman & Robin. Conventional wisdom says that Amazing Spider-Man provided a kind of “back-to-basics,” more emotional, more realistic, and ultimately necessary take on the mythology, see also Batman Begins. But if Spider-Man 3 is a mess, then it’s a mess with a lot of potentially great things lurking in the morass. The film does have too many villains, but Sandman is a great visual creation. (The Tokyo-monster music that swells whenever he’s onscreen is a delight. Likewise, the film’s rendition of Venom is an intriguing sketch of an idea, with Topher Grace playing a bizarro-twin of Peter Parker (they even look alike.) The whole thing falls to pieces in the last half hour, but Spider-Man 3 suggests a Third Way for the superhero genre: It’s a movie that smashes together bleak gravitas and spoofy humor. Half a decade later, it already looks old-fashioned.
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