Because I am a marketing genius, I'm off-setting my reviews of movies few people have any interest in with a defense of movies people actively hate. I can just feel the thousands of page hits rolling in! Inspired by San Diego Comic-Con, which is happening now, without me, I thought I would start off this project with a film comic fans almost universally think is terrible, Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007).
Things are going pretty well for Peter P. Spiderman (Tobey Maguire). He has been enjoying the admiration and appreciation of the people of New York City ever since developing super powers due to a bite from a genetically modified and/or radioactive spider. Mary Jane (Kristen Dunst), his beautiful singer/actress girlfriend has the starring role in a Broadway play. Things are perfect. Except that weasely new photographer, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), is after Peter’s job at the Daily Bugle. And his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), wants to kill him because he thinks Peter killed his father. And Flint Marco (Thomas Haden Church), the guy who killed his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), has become a super science sand monster. And an alien glob (CGI) has latched onto him, making him an emo jerk who suddenly knows how to play the piano. All of these things, and somehow more, converge into one huge, confusing headache for our friendly neighborhood webslinger.
Back in 2007, when I my first son was 2 years old, and my second was still in the oven, I didn’t have much time to go to the movies. I got to see maybe two or three films in the theater all year. SPIDER-MAN 3 was not one of them. This is mostly because I heard really, really bad things about it. At the time, I was just developing my taste for underappreciated (aka: bad) movies, so that wasn’t the endorsement that it would be today. I only got around to watching it a couple of years ago when it came bundled in a cheap SPIDER-MAN blu-ray set. And guess what, it’s a total mess. But I kinda loved it.
The obvious problem is that the movie is enormously overstuffed. The villain in the first movie was Green Goblin, in the second it was Doctor Octopus. In this one, it’s Sandman, pre-Venom Symbiont, Venom, and Harry Osborn’s Greener Goblin. It also throws in Gwen Stacy, Captain Stacy, and the not yet lizardy Dr. Curt Conners. It’s like the reverse of LORD OF THE RINGS; they tried to stuff a trilogy into one movie.
For my money ($6.49), though, the real problem is that it isn’t stuffed enough. For a movie with so many competing plotlines, it is dragged down by a ton of filler. That filler is called Poor Peter’s Sad Love Life. Alternate title: Idiot Peter is a Bad Boyfriend (seriously, what kind of knucklehead stages a kiss for the cameras with a beautiful blonde when he knows his girlfriend is in the crowd?). I know that’s a theme in all of Raimi’s Spider-Movies, but it drags everything down. Granted, this was before the Marvel Cinematic Universe pepped up the pace of super hero movies (except for THE INCREDIBLE HULK, or as my youngest son calls it, THE INCREDIBLY BORING HULK). Add that to the dated CG fights and okay, Community At Large, I get it. It’s not a great movie. It’s not a total loss, either. There is some high grade Sam Raimi madness in there, too.
Start with the legitimately good casting of Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman. Physically, he’s a perfect fit in his trademark green striped shirt. He’s a bit of a sad sack, which is fairly appropriate for the good man on a bad path ethos of the character (Raimi is a sucker for that kind of guy). It’s laid on a little thick with his “doing it for his sick daughter” routine, but Church sells it. I never noticed how piercing his eyes are, probably because I’m used to him playing a total dickhole (see: DEMON KNIGHT). What I really love, though, is the absurd way he becomes Sandman. On the run from the cops, Flint Marco falls into one of those open air atomic demolecularization tests they are always having in Manhattan. He disintegrates in a fancy flash of science, only to rebuild himself later out of the sand that was in the bottom of the pit. I love that there is absolutely no explanation of what the fuck a “demolecularization” test is, why they were doing in on a pile of sand, and how it allows a dude to reconstitute flesh, hair, and clothing from sand. There is also zero public speculation on where this miraculous creature came from. He’s just, you know, a magic sand monster. Robs banks and stuff. What’s the big deal?
It’s also great that they retcon Marco to be Uncle Ben’s real killer in an altered flashback. “Hey Cliff Robertson, could you come in for an afternoon? We want to kill you again. You and Willem Dafoe can have coffee.”
A more baffling casting choice was giving the role of the muscle bound Eddie Brock to a man even smaller than Tobey Maguire. Topher Grace is so tiny he can’t even carry a full first name. He does play a great weasel, though, and an even better disgraced weasel psycho. I love his scene in the church where he prays for Jesus to kill Peter. After Peter rejects the alien symbiont, it seems fitting these two pathetic losers would find each other. The symbiont clearly has a better relationship with Brock than Peter. In addition to giving him scary shark teeth, it pulls up Brock’s eyebrow to make him look more arch, like a mom smoothing down her kid’s hair before a picture. It’s proud of him.
James Franco’s Harry Osborn is another absurd highlight. In the beginning, he uses his dad’s super green soldier mist treatment to become new Green Goblin and tries to kill Peter. At the end of the fight, Harry gets conked on the head and wakes up with amnesia, conveniently forgetting that he wants to kill Peter, and also somehow forgetting the Green Goblin juice make you psychotic. No worries, they are best buds again! A little bit later, his memories return and it’s back to wanting to destroy Peter. But friendship eventually wins out. They reconcile when Mary Jane is kidnapped by Venom and Sandman. Best buds again! Harry even overlooks the fact that symbiont fueled jerk Peter blew half his face off in their last fight. Bygones. It’s so ridiculous, but I love Franco’s performance. He ping pongs between evil genius and stoner moron through the whole movie. It’s a Gollum/Smeagol type deal. Tricksy spider.
Speaking of LORD OF THE RINGS, this movie is the RETURN OF THE KING of touching death soliloquies. Just when I thought it was done, bam, there’s another one. No one can kick it without a speech. Don’t want to drop any [spoilers], but the Osborn family should really lay off the bladed gliders from now on.
My favorite part of the movie is, unsurprisingly, everyone else’s least favorite: the dance sequence. Actually, the whole Jerk Peter section is fantastic. After bad again Harry forces (?) Mary Jane to break up with Peter (not that she needed the excuse), he drowns his broken heart in the oily seductive embrace of the symbiont suit. The alien boosts his confidence and lowers his self-awareness, turning him into the worst thing of all: a hipster. He struts down the sidewalk to a funk soundtrack, snap pointing at all the ladies, totally oblivious as they roll their eyes. He somehow manages to get a date with Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, who, it turns out, is not Jessica Chastain). She also went out with Brock, so she’s clearly into jerks. Peter takes her to the jazz club where Mary Jane is working as a singer/waitress. Just before Mary Jane is about to sing, Peter upstages her by playing an impromptu ditty on the piano. Then he launches into this elaborately flashy and acrobatic dance number, ending with him giving Stacy a sexy dip right in front of MJ. It is at once stunningly goofy and horribly vicious. In a weird way, it shows how nice a guy Peter really is. The alien suit didn’t make him evil, it just made him a schmuck. He even feels bad about it when he sees how badly he’s hurt both the women.
That scene was totally Rami. It could have come right out of CRIMEWAVE. We also get to see Raimi’s love of old-timey madcap comedies in the fantastic Daily Bugle scene with J.J. Jameson (J.K. Simmons, in the role he was born to play) and Ted Raimi (Ted Raimi is always Ted Raimi). It could seriously be a Marx Brothers routine. I would love to see a Daily Bugle movie focused entirely on those guys. And it can’t be a Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN without a Bruce Campbell cameo. It’s the best (and longest) one yet, perfectly casting him as a snooty and impatient French maître d'. Again, I could watch a whole movie just about him trying to salvage disastrous romantic dinners.
This is one of those movies that I love more in pieces than as a whole. Those pieces are pretty great, though. So I tip my hat to Sam Raimi. It might not be Spider-Man’s finest outing, but there are worse ways to spend two hours. Watching THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, for instance.