All my pasts remembered

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“Spider-Man 3” Retrospective: Re-Examining a Superhero Epic 10 Years Later

Before the Marvel and DC cinematic universes were born, there was the “Spider-Man” trilogy. Directed by Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead,” “Darkman,” “Drag Me to Hell”), the first three “Spider-Man” films ever produced dominated the superhero landscape for much of the 2000’s. While there were the “X-Men” films and Christopher Nolan had just revived the Batman franchise with “Batman Begins,” “Spider-Man” was in a league of its own. Breaking box office records and heaped with critical acclaim, the first two Spidey flicks revitalized a dying subgenre, and paved the way for many of the superhero films that would come after. For a while, Marvel’s company mascot was unbeatable.

And then “Spider-Man 3” arrived.

The film kicked off the summer movie season on May 4, 2007, almost 10 years ago as of this writing. It was the biggest film of that year, and in typical Spidey fashion, broke many box office records. However, the critical reaction noticeably differed from the previous two films, to say the least. It was one of the most discussed movies of that summer, but not in the way those behind the film intended. People were up in arms over how greatly the film fell below expectations. Outcry over Peter Parker’s emo demeanor and dancing scenes still echoes throughout the internet to this day. Fans of Venom, a fan-favorite Spider-Man villain who made his cinematic debut here, were outraged over the characters portrayal and lack of screen time. Everybody else took issue with the film’s messy, overstuffed plot, overabundance of villains, and an unsatisfying culmination of the trilogy’s storylines.

“Spider-Man 3” was the film that tried way too hard to please everyone, and ultimately ended up pleasing no one.

I was 12 years old when this film was released. To me, Raimi’s “Spider-Man” films are much what Richard Donner’s “Superman” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” were to the respective generations of kids that grew up on them.  A year and a half before the film was released, I absorbed all the information I could about it on the internet. I can’t recall a day during that time where I wasn’t digging for scoops of “Spider-Man 3” on all sorts of film websites.

For better or worse, I would not be writing film criticism or be as intensely invested in the medium if it wasn’t for “Spider-Man 3.”

I can, however, recall my excitement for the film. I remember staying up late on a school night to watch the trailer premiere on television and skipping class the next day just to watch it on a loop for several hours. Much like “Star Wars” fans after the release of “The Phantom Menace,” I was so caught up in the hype of the film that it took me quite some time to closely examine the film and come to terms with what happened.

Now 10 years removed from the film’s release and with superhero movies having radically evolved over that period of time, I felt it necessary as film lover and as a massive fan of Spider-Man to revisit the film that so many felt was a step backwards for not just the franchise, but superhero movies on a whole.

A Tangled Web

For the first hour, I found that “Spider-Man 3” is a surprisingly solid film. The story builds on the previous two installments, economically puts all the characters in place, sets up the stakes naturally and with focus, and finds time for some great comedic and action beats. Had the film remained this tightly paced for the remaining duration, I doubt it would have the reputation it does today.

The first significant storyline established is Peter feels like he is on top of the world, and unfortunately that success is making him become full of himself. After being a punching bag in both his dual lives for too long, Peter is unable to process his newfound success as it all happened so fast. With Mary Jane, she’s known nothing but success in her career. After scathing reviews of her Broadway performance diminish her prospects, she seeks solace in Peter, but he’s too caught up in his own bubble to notice.

Seeing Peter and Mary Jane essentially trading roles is one of the most interesting choices the film makes. At the end of “Spider-Man 2,” Mary Jane makes the decision to be with Peter, knowing there will be risks and sacrifices to make. “Spider-Man 3” is about the consequences of that decision, and it’s the one aspect I can confidently assert the film handles deftly.

What doesn’t work as well is one of the most criticized aspects of the film, the villains.

Starting off with Sandman, the narrative quickly establishes who his character, his motivations, and his goals. While there is an emotional core to Flint Marko, he is missing a vital component that made Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus so memorable: a personality. Sandman’s character arc isn’t interesting or satisfying to see unfold because he doesn’t connect on an emotional level. Although he does tie in thematically to Peter’s need to learn forgiveness, it only leads to what is perhaps the one of the most egregious retcons in recent memory:

Sandman killed Peter’s Uncle Ben.

Considering how deeply Sam Raimi understood the character of Spider-Man and his mythos, this only makes this particular creative decision all the more baffling. The reason Peter repurposes his powers from a tool for personal gain to a means to defend the helpless is because of the extraordinary guilt that weighs on him for letting the thief, whom he thought murdered his uncle, slip away due to his own selfish impulses. Not only does this absolve Peter of any wrongdoing, it also removes the basic foundations of his origin with surgical precision. There are certainly other ways to tackle this theme of forgiveness, but this was absolutely the worst way the creative team could have gone about it.

This is more of an offensive slight against the character than any dance scene or short-handed villain could ever be.

The one upside to the Sandman character is what a technically impressive feat he is. The film was released in 2007, but the digital effects of Sandman still hold strong to this day. After the incredible and almost seamless integration of practical and digital effects for Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, Sandman is worthy successor, visually speaking. Spider-Man already has the best rogue’s gallery in all of Marvel Comics (it’s true. Don’t deny it), so it’s a welcome treat whenever their live-action counterparts live up to the colorful, multi-layered illustrations that inspired them.

One standout scene that could have easily been its own short film is Sandman’s birth sequence. After Flint Marko is transformed (due to falling into a random, nighttime sand mutation experiment that is never explained), he struggles to literally put himself back together and grab onto the locket given to him by his sick daughter. There is no dialogue in this scene; only music and visuals to carry the story and convey the emotions, and it works wonderfully. The score starts off slow and mournful before building to a climax that establishes the threatening force of nature Spider-Man will have to contend with later on. Every visual beat of this sequence is perfectly paced so every emotion hits its intended mark. This scene alone only makes the weak execution of this character all the more disappointing.

It’s at the hour mark where Marko is revealed to Peter to be the actual killer of his uncle where the film starts to buckle under the pressure of servicing its many storylines and characters. Coincidentally not too long after this revelation, an alien symbiote bonds with Peter, and turns his Spidey suit black.

So now with this new black suit, Peter’s abilities are further enhanced (We’ll get into Emo Peter and those dance scenes soon enough). The downside to the suit is it amplifies the more negative aspects of its host’s personality. Eventually, Peter discards the symbiote and it ends up bonding with his rival, Eddie Brock, turning him into Venom. Prior to his transformation, Brock makes up for the lacking charisma of Sandman and proves to be effective foil for Peter. While this incarnation of Brock differs from the muscular, exercise junky from the comics, he is able to stand on his own by being a nastier reflection of Peter, which is impressive considering mirror villains can easily be quite tiresome and unoriginal.

Brock is basically the Peter Parker who couldn’t. Whereas Peter is good-natured at heart, intelligent, and selfless, Brock is none of those things. He uses his talent of sweet-talking and deception to get what he wants. Peter and Eddie are both underdogs in the sense that they’re both freelance photographers who just happen to be competing for the same job, but what separates the two is how they cope with their shortcomings, and Eddie deals with his horribly. He’s a sad, pathetic, lying, jerk with delusions of grandeur, and seeing Topher Grace step outside his That 70’s Show role to flex his acting muscles is an absolute delight. In fact, perhaps in an alternate universe, it would be Grace in the role of Peter Parker.

The fundamental flaw is that Eddie Brock, the black suit, and Venom didn’t need to be in this film at all.

Though the symbiote does force Peter to confront the reality that even he, a superhero, isn’t infallible, we certainly didn’t need yet another villain to get that point across, and the pieces were already there in the forms of Sandman and Harry Osborn, making Venom’s inclusion all the more superfluous. With Harry, specifically, we had the story of two friends, who over the course of three films, have a tragic history of hurting each other, no matter how unintentional they may have been. Putting aside the fact that “the New Goblin” is a terrible name and the overall design of his costume is equally terrible, the film seems to be at a loss on what to do with Harry and how to properly resolve the conflict between him and Peter is a satisfying manner.

At the start of the film, Harry surprise attacks Peter and the two have a fight in the New York skylines, which culminates in Harry suffering a near-fatal injury that leaves him with no memory of what happened to his father or his grudge against Spider-Man. This amnesia subplot goes on much of the runtime until deep into the second act when Harry recovers his memory. Only then does his conflict with Peter resume. Unfortunately, it’s during their second violent confrontation that Harry is dealt with yet another near-fatal injury, only this time it leaves his face permanently scarred and takes him out of the film until the climax.

It’s only as I write this that I’ve had the revelation that Harry’s arc is illustrative of almost everything wrong with “Spider-Man 3.” It was supposed to be the culmination of several years carefully-constructed relationships and themes, yet it is constantly bending over backwards to service narrative-breaking retcons and villains who are either lackluster or could’ve been removed all together. It’s a film that works in fits and starts, where everything is solidly laid out in the first hour before it all goes completely off the rails in the remaining hour and 20 minutes.

Following on the heels of the magnificent “Spider-Man 2” make this film that much more disappointing. That film has a deep understanding and earnest love for the source material and it’s all on display. That’s not to say that the people making “Spider-Man 3” didn’t love the character. Nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie. Sometimes people with strong pull behind the scenes have their own agendas and unfortunately, that gets in the way of good storytelling. As was the case here. The production turmoil is worthy of its own article, and Raimi himself has openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the finished product. It’s a shame that “Spider-Man 4” never saw the light of day, as it seemed Raimi, aware of the misgivings of the third installment, wanted to get back to basics and focus on what made the first two films so great. Of course, there have been more “Spider-Man” films between 2007 and now, but it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker with a better understanding of the character than Raimi. Especially when it comes to certain part of “Spider-Man 3” that still remains controversial to this day….

Now About Those Dance Scenes and Emo Peter…

For many people, seeing Peter Parker with emo hair, doing “Saturday Night Fever” struts down the streets of New York, and dancing in a jazz club is ultimately what killed “Spider-Man 3” for them. They could handle the overwhelmingly convoluted narrative and Venom’s lack of screen-time, but it came to seeing a superhero openly break out into a dance number, that was crossing the line into the out-of-place cheesiness that sunk “Batman & Robin.”

Except it’s not quite out-of-place or as bad as you remember. In fact, I would say these scenes are actually brilliant.

Going back to black-suit Spider-Man, the reason some people wanted to see Peter affected by the alien symbiote that would bring out the more negative aspects of his personality is because it would take the story into what we now call a “darker and grittier” direction. There are so many reasons why going this route is a terrible idea, but chief among them is that it doesn’t work well with characters who are known for their light-hearted nature. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but why would you want to unless you’re, you know, a jerk? Thankfully, Raimi understands this and decides to use black-suit Spider-Man not just to further explore Peter as a character, but as a proud rejection of the childish, dumbfounded declarations that superheroes can only be taken seriously when given the dark and gritty treatment.

This works because it builds upon information we already know: Peter Parker is and always will be a dork.

Underneath the four-color, charismatic superhero identity he dons is still that weak, socially-awkward, unimposing nerd who was at the bottom of the high school social ladder. There is a scene where Peter is strutting down the sidewalk, trying to impress the various women who walk past him. Most of them look at him with disgust or indifference. Peter has never known what being cool means, so the man we see when under the influence of the black suit is what Peter’s idealized version of cool. Even when he is trying to be hip with confidence and swagger, it rings false because it doesn’t suit him at all.

This approach may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s shocking that few people pick up this, especially as it plays into Raimi’s strengths a storyteller. Going all the way back to his horror roots with “The Evil Dead” franchise, Raimi’s style has always been one that effortlessly and playfully bounces between tones. His movies can have you screaming in terror and laughing with glee within a beat. Even Ash, the main character of “Evil Dead,” shares similarities with Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3.” They are both guys who think they’re awesome when really they’re either incompetently dumb or embarrassingly nerdy.

On top of all this, it provides some of the funniest parts of the film. There is one particular moment in a scene where Peter takes Gwen Stacy (a character who is utterly wasted here) on a date to the jazz club Mary Jane works at. This is where the aforementioned dance number occurs. It’s during this dance sequence that Peter takes off his jacket with such force that it blows Gwen’s hair back. “Spider-Man 3” has many bits of comedic gold in it, but this one had me cackling like a madman. Is it campy? Yes. But does it also work well with the established tone? With flying colors. It’s also evident Tobey Maguire was having the time of his life filming these scenes as he just throws his all into it. Seeing him whisper, “Now dig on this,” as the camera closes in on his lips, and then proceeds to rhythmically snap his fingers is an absolute delight.

“Spider-Man 3” may have been released a decade ago, but it feels more current than ever. We live in a world where Zack Snyder has turned the bright, idealistic, hopeful Superman into an angry, morose, ambivalent brute and the intelligent, strategic, selfless Batman into a violent, sadistic, murderous psychopath, all in the name of “dark and gritty.” Luckily, audiences have caught onto this, and wisely don’t want to see their heroes being changed into what they’re not. Emo Peter may be silly, but that’s only because he’s supposed to be. By showing how poorly fit Spider-Man is for the darker makeover, we get a better understanding of who he is and why removing the heart and soul of a superhero and replacing it with solemn and dreariness is a misguided folly.

In Conclusion

“Spider-Man 3” is a heavily-flawed film. There is no doubt about it. However, despite these flaws, it remains a fascinating film to watch and to look back on. Would the film been received better had it come out today? Unlikely. The flaws would still be glaring no matter what year the film was released. What can’t be denied is it, and its predecessors, had genuine heart. This trilogy was created with the belief that it could usher one of comics’ greatest heroes to the big screen in a way that would resonate with audiences like other superhero movies that came before. While “Spider-Man 3” didn’t exactly end the trilogy on a high note, its place in film history has been cemented and I believe more and more people will come to re-examine it over time. There may have been an ill-fated reboot in “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies that followed, and now another reboot which this time integrates him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe where he belongs, this franchise will endure much like Peter Parker himself does after every setback.

Deal with the tragedy, pick up the pieces, and carry on with life stronger and smarter than before.