'Spider-Man 3' is the most earnest, enjoyable Marvel movie ever made. Seriously.
As modern comic-book adaptations have been increasingly industrial, formulaic and mechanical, I find myself returning to a previous era of superhero movies for comfort: the years just before the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight established mandatory grittiness in the name of prestige. The years when Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi ran the show, when men were men, women were women and Spider-Man 3 was the biggest summer blockbuster of 2007.
Spider-Man 3 was Sam Raimi’s highly-anticipated trilogy-closer, coming three years after the acclaimed Spider-Man 2, which hit a sweet spot of sincerity and spectacle with Alfred Molina a terrifically grounded antagonist. Hopes were high. Raimi had big ideas. So did Sony Pictures, who clashed with the director over whether or not to include Venom in the film. But they threw everything they had into a big frying pan and out came 2 hours and 15 minutes of chaos. Spider-Man 3 has two versions of Spider-Man, three villains, two romantic interests and one really funny haircut. Directed by anyone other than Raimi, a genuinely fabulous visual stylist, it might be considered the worst film ever made. But as it is, it’s one of my favourite comic-book movies of all time.
The film manages to cram an extraordinary amount into 135 minutes. We begin with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) still dating Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who is now a Broadway actor. But he’s got beef with Harry (James Franco) because Harry thinks Peter killed Harry’s dad Norman (Willem Dafoe) way back in Spider-Man 1. Peter’s also got a flirty thing going with Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard), daughter of the police chief (James Cromwell), and with the secretary (Elizabeth Banks) of the newspaper editor (J.K. Simmons) who buys his photos of Spider-Man. There’s a rival photographer on the scene (Topher Grace) who also fancies Gwen.
Peter’s grandmother (Rosemarie Harris) is still pretty sad because her husband Ben (Cliff Robertson) died in the first movie. Who killed him? Turns out it was Flint (Thomas Hayden Church), a smalltime criminal who escapes prison, falls into a pit and turns into a sand monster. As if everyone didn’t have ENOUGH problems, an asteroid lands right beside Peter and M.J.’s hammock, releasing black goo. Peter gets the goo on him, and he turns mean and gets an edgy new hairdo, starts being sleazy to women and disrespectful to his elders. It’s the ultimate millennial horror story.
The trouble of handling the Peter/Harry dynamic (they were best friends before the revelation) is delayed for about an hour by knocking Harry off a brick wall and wiping his memory. So for half the movie, they’re thick as thieves. Until Harry is visited by the ghost of his dad (you haven’t seen Willem Dafoe act until you’ve seen him shout “AVENGE ME!”), and remembers what happened, and decides to Make! Peter! Pay! But Peter’s busy fighting Flint, punching his sandy stomach as the delightfully out-of-place Hayden Church makes a go at Jim Carrey rubberfacing. My late uncle once revealed that he’d watched this film on a plane, and was particularly struck by the Flint character. I can’t blame him, it’s a timeless performance, and the ‘Birth of Sandman’ scene is a CGI achievement worthy of an Andy Serkis project, movingly scored by Danny Elfman.
This is one of Danny Elfman’s best works, and the final act — aided by his music — has strong vibes of the original Tim Burton Batman movies. But those films, like Burton himself, are shallow and lack heart. Spider-Man 3 is notable for just how emotionally expressive it is. This is a film with real sadness — from Flint’s longing to protect his daughter to the fractured Peter/Harry friendship, but mostly just the way Peter’s ‘turning’ to become an asshole is depicted. Yes, most people aren’t poisoned by black goo, but as a portrait of a man who goes from kind and caring to narcissistic and crude, this is some Breaking Bad-level shit. The extent to which this works is mostly down to Maguire and Dunst, who are so much more soft-spoken and sweet than any superhero-and-girlfriend have any right to be. They’re an indie movie pair in a giant blockbuster, and their mutual charm is the foundation of this superb trilogy. When Peter brings Gwen to the jazz club where M.J. works and proceeds to humiliate her by doing a groovy dance, it’s both the most hilarious and tragic moment of Maguire (and Raimi)’s career.
Spider-Man 3’s uniqueness also lies in its strong sense of place: it’s a New York story through-and-through (the whole trilogy is): Peter’s ramshackle apartment, his banter with the eastern European landlord, visiting his aunt in the suburbs, the stunning gothic architecture Black Spidey perches on before Peter rips off the venom suit; this is surprisingly atmospheric for a blockbuster. The best moments in Spider-Man 3 have stayed with me much longer than the best moments in other superhero entertainment.
Without question, things get a little too silly even for me in the finale: Topher Grace’s transformation into Venom and team-up with a pointlessly-resurrected Sandman is visibly not part of Raimi’s vision. And the newsreader who announces that Venom has kidnapped “Mary-Jane Watson, a young actress recently seen on Broad-Way” really has to take one for the team. But it’s brave to end a superhero movie with a funeral and a romantic reunion in a jazz club. Everything about Spider-Man 3 is pretty brave. And there is absolutely no effort to shoehorn-in sequel set-ups or spin-offs or cinematic universes. This stands on its own as a piece of entertainment, and that’s a genuine novelty in 2017. Many call Raimi’s film a failure, but if it is (which I don’t agree with), it fails on such a grand, sexy scale that it emerges victorious from the wreckage of its own ambition.