Last week, a rumble could be heard throughout the world. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe let out a collective yell of joy as the news broke that Marvel and Sony had struck a deal that would bring Spider-Man into the Marvel fold. In the 13 years since Sam Raimi first brought Spider-Man to the screen, the character has gone from a cash cow for Sony to a character being lent out after a couple disappointing films left the character in need of some rehabilitation. But how did this fall happen? It started with Spider-Man 3. Though collective rumblings and grumblings of the fanboys and fangirls were almost entirely negative, Spider-Man 3 isn’t that bad, especially when compared to the two rebooted Spider-Man films to follow.
Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies were box office smashes that earned heaps of praise from critics and fans alike. Spider-Man 2, especially, was considered the high water mark for comic book cinema until the likes of The Dark Knight and The Avengers. For this third installment the hype reached a fever pitch. Excitement gave way to ridiculous expectations which, as usual, gave way to disappointment. And it’s not difficult to see why the film is widely considered a disappointment. The narrative, which had a razor-sharp focus in the first two films, is chaotic and way overstuffed. It contains multiple dance sequences and musical numbers. There are some questionable design elements with the second Green Goblin (James Franco giving a very sly performance). Most of all, the inclusion of Venom, an oft-demanded fan favorite, is shoehorned within a story that has little use or interest in the character.
Let’s just get this out of the way – Venom isn’t that interesting of a character. Eddie Brock, portrayed here by Topher Grace, is just the asshole counterpart to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). After first appearing about a half-hour into the film, he becomes a side character. His dark turn into becoming Venom doesn’t occur until near the film’s conclusion. More than anything, Venom’s popularity is a testament to the power of character design. He looks really cool and appeals to adolescent sensibilities, which is exactly why little or no thought has been given to character traits or motivations. Raimi wasn’t a fan of the Venom character and was practically forced to include the character at the behest of the studio. Watching the film for the first time in ages, it became painfully apparent how much Raimi signals to viewers just how little interest he had in the character. It’s a directorial decision, and the right one, but it’s not hard to see how it left fans unsatisfied.
Aside from Venom, the other aspect that draws the ire of viewers is Emo Peter Parker. As eloquently illustrated by Devin Faraci of Badass Digest, these moments are thematically sound. They fit with the idea that the black symbiotic costume that Peter Parker adorns is the opposite of who Peter Parker actually is. Yes, these moments are silly and awkward, but they’re silly and awkward in a sense that is antithetical to Peter Parker’s typical silly and awkward moments. More to the point, they show that Peter Parker isn’t the same Peter Parker we know. He’s basically an unrecognizable douchebag.
But Spider-Man 3 isn’t as dire a work as the internet, or your own sensibilities, might suggest. The inclusion of Venom is unnecessary and undercuts the heart of the film’s story, which is intended to conclude the tragedy of Peter Parker and Harry Osborne’s friendship. The emotional heart of the film is bringing themes of distrust and deceit to a head – and it does – however, the inclusion of Venom dilutes the impact of these situations. The lies and manipulation that Harry and Peter engage in have sorrowful consequences for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Had the film only included Sandman, and its inspired casting of Thomas Hayden Church, as its supplemental villain, we’d be talking about an entirely different film. Topher Grace has himself gained a bit of notoriety for his own edits of the Star Wars prequels, one could only wonder what he could do if he made a cut of Spider-Man 3 that completely removed his character – which isn’t to say that he’s the problem in the film; it’s his undercooked character forced into a narrative without room for him.
A lot of people like to point out the snowboard-like glider that the second Green Goblin uses, especially in his first fight with an out of costume Spider-Man. If we brush aside the regrettable design choice, we’ll find that this first fight sequence is quite wonderfully constructed. It moves at a brisk pace and Raimi allows the action to unfold before our very eyes – he always understood how to use CGI effects to get as close to comic book action as possible. And that could be said about practically all of the film’s action sequences – the first fight between Spider-Man and Sandman; the next fight between Spider-Man and Sandman with Spidey donning the black suit, etc. But Raimi also keeps the film grounded with its emotional elements. In just a few short scenes with a few short sentences, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) provides the film its moral center. The sheer efficiency that Raimi uses in these scenes to convey a thematic message is quite astounding. And Raimi keeps the film light, adding his trademark sense of Three Stooges inspired humor, like when Spider-Man removes his mask and shoes to empty the sand trapped within his suit.
Of all the overstuffed Spider-Man sequels that marked the end of their respective franchise run, Spider-Man 3 beats The Amazing Spider-Man 2 by a mile. It’s a messy film, no doubt, but it mostly has a coherent story, well-staged action, an emotional heart, and a good sense of fun. If only they didn’t try and cram Venom in a story with no room for him. Released one year before Marvel Studios would change the face of comic book cinema with Iron Man, Spider-Man 3 would’ve greatly benefited by having Venom be a post-credits stinger. But those weren’t a popular trend then and Spider-Man 3 is the only film we got. While not the piece of majesty that Spider-Man 2 was, Spider-Man 3 is a hell of lot better than given credit for. Don’t believe me? Watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and follow that up with Spider-Man 3. You’ll see.