Well, it’s better than Rocky 3. Despite its flaws, and there are a few, the third instalment in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series manages to avoid truly embarrassing its predecessors, as opposed to most Part Threes. Alien 3 took the claustrophobic horror of the first film, and the war-movie momentum of the second and replaced them with muscular androgyny and the visuals from that Madonna video in the steel mill. Terminator 3 had a car chase instead of a story, and the aforementioned Stallone vehicle apparently decided that a movie about a lovable meathead boxing his brains out wasn’t lowbrow enough, so it added Mr. T. Spider-Man 3, on the other hand, while it has the cohesion of wet tissue, at least keeps its heart and stays true to its characters, and doesn`t allow itself to descend too far into the idiocy found in the latter stages of most franchises. Still, I did occasionally fear that Clubber Lang and his pity for fools was waiting just around the corner.
The mood at the midnight screening was passionate both before and after the film, but in diametrically opposed directions. The anticipation before the film was palpable, but was equally matched by the disappointment afterwards, which far surpassed the level of crankiness one might expect from keeping a theatre of comic book fans up far past the time they normally would have fallen asleep while giggling softly to The Colbert Report. Rumours that the film had become the most expensive movie of all time had led to high expectations for the action scenes, and coupled with the long-awaited screen debut of Venom, and it‘s a wonder more people didn’t get so worked up they threw up Sour Kids all over their Punisher T-shirts. But ultimately, Spider-Man 3 doesn’t work as the fan-boy happy ending massage it was built up to be. There’s not enough action to satisfy the summer blockbuster crowd, not enough Venom to satisfy the guys who like to argue about how the Elves shouldn’t have been at the battle of Helm’s Deep, too much smooching for the kids, and way too many guys who smell like Doritos in the theatre for the ladies.
Part of the problem is that there’s just too much going on. Spider-Man battles the New Goblin, Sandman, Venom, himself, Aunt May continually vocalizing key thematic elements of the film, and an alien symbiote, all in the span of 140 minutes. And that’s a very significant issue; any of those antagonists could easily carry a film, and part of why the first two films worked so well is that the villains had a chance to grow and develop, as did the main characters. But with so many conflicts going on, it’s hard for the audience to really invest energy in any one of them, let alone the whole half dozen. And secondly, Raimi is clearly so in love with the characters that he devotes nearly the whole film to examining their inner workings. It’s rare that a summer blockbuster is criticized for being too concerned with character, but I’m sure that will be the case here. The film opens with an exciting fight scene between Spidey and Harry Osborne, who has inherited his father’s equipment, mental illness, and penchant for overacting to become the New Goblin. The battle features perhaps the best effects in the history of the franchise, with a visceral, realistic feel that will appeal even to people who don’t own an X-Box. But afterwards, there’s a solid hour where the real villains are arrogance and hurt feelings, which is about as exciting as listening to your parents argue over directions. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) have a relationship that is realistic, believable, and plagued by the insecurities and trust issues. But then again, so do most of us. Anyone expecting the film to be pure escapism will find the first half just reminds them of that antsy feeling you get when your girlfriend spends too long chatting to the coffee shop guy with the emo hair and the stupid skinny jeans held up by a wallet chain.
After Spider-Man defeats the New Goblin and immerses himself in all the relationship drama of a high school prom, we’re introduced to The Sandman, played by Thomas Hayden Church. Thankfully, Raimi, chooses to make the character sympathetic instead of scary, because there’s only so frightened I can be of the guy the guy from Wings. An escaped convict, he blunders into one of those particle physics test facilities that pepper comic book landscapes, and gets turned into a mound of sentient sand that can change its shape and, inexplicably, its colour. Then, a meteorite brings an alien symbiote to Earth, which bonds with Spider-Man, and gives him a cool new costume, as well as all the arrogant aggressiveness of a libel lawyer. By the time Eddie Brock, whose portrayal by Topher Grace is surprisingly effective, shows up, there’s too much going on to really give him the attention he deserves. And when Brock bonds with the symbiote and becomes Venom and joins in a super-powered free-for-all in the final act, the film takes on the confusing, chaotic feel of a mid-90s Marvel crossover.
Raimi’s direction is as kinetic and frenzied as one might expect, but he’s got enough control to keep things from getting too out of hand. The script, the first that Raimi directly had a hand in, certainly has some flourishes that fans of the director will appreciate, particularly a sequence in which hyper-masculine Peter Parker struts down the street with all the panache and suavity of Buddy Love with snoot-full. A strange dance sequence, right out of Raimi’s Crimewave, feels as out of place here as that film felt in the 80s, but is amusing nonetheless. The acting is universally strong, and the cameo by Bruce Campbell as hilarious as always, but it’s the special effects, that are the real star of the show. And while they’re mostly absent for the middle of the film, they almost make up for the lack of action, and the ever-present spectre of Mr. T.