Sunday Slugfest - Spider-Man 3

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Shawn Hill, Kevin Powers, Jason Sacks, Caryn A. Tate
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent

Production Company/Distributor: Columbia Pictures/Sony

Michael Deeley

Peter Parker’s life couldn’t be going better. So naturally something terrible has to happen. Parker gets so wrapped up in his own life, he ignores Mary Jane. Harry Osborn comes after Peter to avenge his father’s death. Obnoxious Eddie Brock goes gunning for Parker’s job. And he finds out someone else killed his uncle, and that man becomes the Sandman. Suddenly, a black substance from space bonds to Parker. It increases his strength and feeds his feeling of anger. Peter must learn to forgive himself and let go of his anger before he destroys the people closest to him.

This film raised several important questions. Chief among them: Why does Harry become the Evil Flying Snowboarder instead of the Green Goblin? Whose idea was it to use the rom-com clichés of making breakfast at night, then dancing around the kitchen table to oldies rock? Was that Stephen Colbert in the crowd shot? And why does the hero always turn evil in the third movie? It happened in Superman 3 and Star Wars Episode III. (Batman Forever avoided it by bringing in Jim Carrey and Chris O’Donnell. Those absorb all the evil in the room.) Why do the great villains always die at the end? Joker, Green Goblin, and the Phantom Zone criminals have left us while Catwoman, Riddler, and Bullseye live on to annoy our heroes. Lex Luthor must be “the greatest criminal mastermind of this or any other century”; He survives the sequels! And can someone tell me why the villain always finds out the hero’s secret identity? Are filmmakers commenting on how hard it is to keep a mask on during a fight? Or how it’s inherently impossible to live a double life when someone is obsessed with killing you? Besides, the scene where the villain discovers the double identity loses its impact when we see it in every movie!

Despite these pitfalls and predictable plot points, this was as good as the previous Spider-Man films. It deals with the theme of revenge in a very mature and believable manner. Peter has to learn to forgive himself for the mistakes he’s made, like the bad haircut he gets when he turns evil. The black suit comes to symbolize hatred when worn by Peter and Eddie. Peter, and other characters, must learn to forgive themselves and others in order to build better lives. The Sandman’s role could have been cut entirely, but his involvement in Ben Parker’s murder fits into the overall theme of revenge and helps Peter work through his issues.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of fighting to make that weepy crap more bearable! The aerial fight between Peter and Harry was impressive, if a bit hard to follow. Sandman’s special effects evoked the power and supernatural creepiness of a good 50’s horror movie. The final skyscraper battle with all super-beings easily ranks in the all-time top 10. Great work from the stunt team and the CGI group.

After the movie, I’m thinking about all the little moments. Like Peter’s aborted marriage proposal to Mary Jane. The montage of Peter acting like a nerdy kid’s idea of badass. Campbell’s best performance yet (and a possible reference to Toby Maguires’ earlier film Pecker). James Franco acting like Willem DeFoe without copying him just like a crazy son would. And the final scene that brings Peter back to a happy place in his life. If they never made another Spider-Man movie, I’d be satisfied. This film brings closure to Parker’s anger and ends the Osborn story. There’s really nowhere to go from here, except an endless series of big-budget movies that are little more than long fights between stuntmen and computer generated special effects.

Of course, there’s still Gwen Stacy to kill.

By the way, I saw this movie in Japan and you might like to know how the experience differs from the states. For starters, in Japan you pick out a specific seat before you buy your ticket. The theater chain where I watched the movie showed a short claymation cartoon before the trailers. Trailers were shown for Pirates of the Carribean 3 and Stranger than Fiction (coming to Japan later this month). Sukiyaki Western was also advertised. It’s a western made with an English-speaking Japanese cast. The story is basically the same as A Fistful of Dollars, which was originally a remake of the classic Japanese film Yojimbo. So it’s an Eastern-made Western that will be subtitled with the actors’ native language when shown in the actors’ native land. And Quentin Tarentino makes a cameo.

You just felt your mind blown.

Shawn Hill

This series of films has been both revelatory and maddening. Taking Marvel superheroes seriously was something that literally took a lifetime for Hollywood to do. Whether we want to argue for Hollywood being dumbed down or comic books getting more adult, the truth is they were always good stories, and Hollywood has finally figured out how to tell them without treating spandex as comic relief.

Raimi was doing super-hero movies before he ever met Spider-Man, and it’s clear that he shares a sense of whimsy and fantasy wish-fulfillment with the two creators also given credit here, Lee and Ditko. Venom was well after Ditko’s time on the title, but you just know he’d have come up with a great version. Sandman has deserved some big-screen time for decades, and in this movie we also get Gwen and Captain Stacy, and a return of the Green Goblin as well. Raimi takes on all these classics with gusto, striving to stay as true as he can to his sources, and to remain consistent with the world he’s established so fully in two previous films. It’s a noble challenge, made no less so because he fails.

There’s just too much going on, but the problem isn’t one of incoherence, as in the two Schumacher Batman films. Here the problem is one of lack of resonance. The plot is complex, but what does it mean? Why does Venom fall like an avatar of evil from the sky, a black apple waiting to be tasted in the web-shrouded Eden that Peter creates for Mary Jane? As nifty as the animated black “oilien” is, as right as Raimi is to wait to expose its vulnerability to sound (not to mention Sandman’s challenges when facing fire and water), the creature has no real connection to Peter, and thus no real metaphor for its symbiotic nature in Peter’s life.

Similarly, Sandman literally stumbles into a molecular testing site and finds himself reborn as Particle Man rather than simply, fatally dissolved. There’s no time to develop either story further, but this cinematic shorthand abandons any attempt at thematic depth. In the first film Peter suffered from anger and impatience. In the second he suffered from guilt and insecurity. In this one he basks in the glory of a wildly approving New York (Raimi is happily focused on earlier Spidey eras than the current wreckage of Civil War), becoming an overbearing schmuck willing to burlesque his private life for more adulation.

And this is before he even dons the black suit of evil. Why does he need Venom again?

The actors salvage the script to the best of their ability (though James Cromwell is nothing more than a walk-on as Gwen’s father). I’ve always felt both Gwen and Mary Jane were miscast (my ideal Spidey series has Alicia Witt as Mary Jane and Kate Boswell as Gwen), but Bryce Dallas Howard nails Gwen’s grace and charm and fun-loving side, and Kirsten Dunst is the entire emotional relevance of the film, acting as Peter’s conscience when it goes missing.

Thomas Haden Church is great as Flint Marko, both gruff and tortured with a working man’s body and soul-scarred blue eyes. Topher Grace does all he can in a thankless role as a smarmy, callous Eddie Brock, but he’s woefully underwritten. Jonah and Robbie and Betty Brant have equal screentime, which amounts to a promotion for Elizabeth Banks (so great in the hilarious Slither), but demotions for J.K. Simmons and Bill Nunn.

Tobey McGuire is pretty amazing as he copes with each of Peter’s personality changes with endless invention, using his body, face and hair to the full extent while going from love-struck loon to guilt-ridden buffoon to a pantomime of a lady’s man that belongs in one of the better Saturday Night Live films. He does whatever the script calls for, but with so much to tell, why are we wasting time on Peter’s landlord, or silly hijinks at a French restaurant, or for that matter crane disasters and botched public appearances that recall the previous films? The heart of this story is really the betrayal Harry feels due to his mistaken belief that his father was murdered by Peter.

It’s really this tortured soul who has the most legitimate reason to feel as bad as he does in this movie of mopers. James Franco steps up his game, delivering more than just rage as he plots Peter’s demise, all without a magical alien suit to make him do bad things. Contrast his journey from darkness (due to an insane father) back to light and Sandman’s doomed (and completely unwelcome, as Theresa Russell makes clear in another strong cameo) attempts to connect to his own daughter with Peter’s struggles to grow up with no father at all, and there’s your movie.

This is one film where possession really had no place. There’s already enough going on with characters we’re already invested in. They needed more space to work their personal stuff out in this third outing, more than we needed neatly creepy FX.

Kevin Powers:

I’m just going to come out and say it: I liked Spider-Man 3 better than Spider-Man 2 but not as much as the original.

I was very wary going into this movie. The first two were excellent movie going experiences, and I had been hearing mixed reviews for about a week. I wasn’t sure what to think, but the die hard comic book fans that often flood the internet and message boards on various sites are probably the most difficult individuals to please. I’m not saying that I am not one of them nor am I saying anything negative, but some comic fans fail to realize that people like Avi Arad, Sam Raimi and Kevin Feige are not only trying to create an experience true to the character and fulfilling comic fans’ dreams, but they are met with the daunting task of creating an experience accessible even to those who have never picked up a comic book.

That being said, I have a unique perspective on comic book films; I’m a graduate of a top film school and a die hard comic book fan. Things register differently with me, and I can’t go into a film like Spider-Man 3 thinking about the art of film or how it measures up to the comics. The most important thing, as with any summer blockbuster, is to be entertained. And let me say that I was indeed entertained. I’ve never been a big Spider-Man fan, but I’ve loved the movies.

I thought the male performances this time around were fantastic. Tobey Maguire does a great job acting through the two personalities that Peter develops. While some have complained about the “emo” Pete, Tobey Maguire makes it work. The Peter Parker he plays is a bit theatric and melodramatic, and when his dark side emerges, he’s a complete jerk and a complete psycho at the same time. Yes, there are some ridiculous sequences like Peter strutting down the street John Travolta style, and it’s supposed to be ridiculous, and it is indeed absolutely hysterical. The black suit is fantastic, and Tobey Maguire gives probably his best performance as Peter Parker thus far.

The villains were perfect in this film. James Franco, Thomas Hayden Church and Topher Grace really brought a lot of new energy to the franchise. Seeing the deterioration of Harry Osborn is sad; he ultimately becomes the tragic hero of the story, driven mad by his own dead father only to redeem himself in the end. He gives his best performance yet and, as far as the villains go, ultimately steals the spotlight. While his character and story arc was the strongest, James Franco brings the saga of the Osborns full circle.

Thomas Hayden Church as Sandman was also stellar but wildly underused. He is there enough though that I really felt bad for his character and respected his intentions, but there could have been more. His motivations were simple and quite respectable and the idea of Flint Marko being tied to Uncle Ben’s death is obligatory, but it works in the context of the film and the way the story of the film plays out. Not to mention the Sandman looks pretty awesome. Imhotep has nothing on the Sandman.

And then of course, there is Eddie Brock. Topher Grace blew me out of the water with his performance. He played Eddie Brock perfectly, from the arrogance and butt-kissing to the sleazy and self-serving individual he is. Venom also could have been played up a little bit more, but I know Raimi has said he never really liked Venom. The design of Venom is great and in the sequences that Venom is featured, I thought he really stole the show. Given a bit more time and a few key elements of the character, such as Eddie Brock influencing the symbiote just as it influences him, Venom would have been perfect. I loved Topher’s Brock which really brought out the best in Tobey Maguire, but I wanted more Venom! Perhaps in Spider-Man 4. I’m hoping that this is not he last we see of Venom because Topher Grace really rocked the house.

And two of the best comedic performances in recent memory are provided by J.K. Simmons and Bruce Campbell. Simmons has always been a dead-on for J. Jonah Jameson, and with more screen time he really steals every scene he’s in. Everything from his tone of voice to his facial expressions is so perfect that he manages to keep the film rolling no matter how over the top he acts. And Bruce Campbell is possibly one of the funniest cameo men on the planet. That’s all I’ll say about him.

I’ll be honest, I’m all for the recasting of Mary Jane. Kirsten Dunst was great in the first film, not so great in the second film and here I could care less if she wants to come back or not. Her performance of Mary Jane this time around falls flat, as though she’s just not into it anymore. I suppose that happens but the melodramatic element she brings doesn’t help. I know M.J.’s got it tough being Spidey’s girl, but Kirsten plays her a bit too whiny and vain. On the subject of girlfriends, as great as she looks, I could have done without Gwen Stacy. She serves very little purpose besides serving as a necessary plot device at some points, and while Bryce Dallas Howard is stunning, I could have lived without Gwen Stacy being in this film. The best female performances came from the long-winded Rosemary Harris, the moral compass and Ursula, the awkward daughter of Peter’s landlord (who is also just as funny as in Spider-Man 2).

The script is okay. This isn’t meant to be the deepest and most profound film ever made; it’s meant to entertain, and it does just that. The dialogue is much stronger here than the second film, but the minds behind the movie seem like they wanted to fit everything they could think of into the movie, just in case this really is the last one. Some things were a bit contrived, and explanation and development were often put on the back burner. I will say while there is A LOT going on, I had no problem following the story and was entertained (as was my comic-book hating girlfriend).

What I didn’t like: Gwen Stacy has no real purpose in the film, Venom (not Eddie Brock) is criminally underused, Sandman needed more screen time, and Mary Jane needs to suck it up. Granted, there was quite a bit being crammed into this film, albeit successfully, there were indeed those moments where you are left wanting more. The black suit looks great, and the film does a great job explaining what it does, but why can’t we see Peter use that power more? In a spectacular battle with Sandman, it brings out Peter’s aggression, but there is more talking about the power of the suit than there is seeing that power.

I did however, like the appearance of the symbiote. It was very contrived that it magically landed in a meteorite next to Spider-Man, but it’s one of those small things that your suspension of disbelief lets you have. It works because throughout the whole film there are no answers as to where it came from, only how it works, and that’s all I needed. I can buy that it fell from a meteorite; we are dealing with a movie about a guy who shoots webs from his wrists. I also had absolutely no problem with the cheesy dance number Maguire performs or the Saturday Night Fever-like scene. In fact, I thought it was hysterical.

Lastly, the CGI. Sandman looks unbelievably amazing, Black Spidey is cool and sleek, Venom is menacing, and for the most part, the action is fantastic. But it really was a step-down from the CGI in Spider-Man 2. There were some sequences that did indeed look a bit sloppy or rubbery I believe is the term. Not sloppy like Daredevil vs. Bullseye in the church sloppy, but noticeable in comparison to other moments of the film. Overall though, the CGI was good, and it was fantastic when it needed to be.

Overall, I’d have to say that Spider-Man 3 is a trade paperback of a movie. It collects story-arcs spanning a collected storyline that all comes together in the end. These story-arcs, while having the potential and the desire to be further developed, are easy to follow and do move the story along at a fast and good pace. I liked the movie; I came out of the theater entertained and satisfied but wanting more, wanting the next installment which is what these films are meant to do. Spider-Man 3 is an entertaining ride, and it’s accessible to all ages, not catering to one specific fan base which is very important with a franchise of this magnitude. As with any film, comic book genre or otherwise, of course there are things that could be changed or done differently, but I feel that Spider-Man 3 has broken the curse of the super-hero trilogy by delivering a good and enjoyable third installment.

Jason Sacks:

I think six words sum up the way I feel about Spider-Man 3: too much loving, not enough fighting.

The action scenes in this movie were just fantastic, easily among the best super-hero action scenes ever shown on screen. Every fight is filled with action and energy. They feel filled with real drama and energy, real risk for things going wrong in a way that’s perfectly suited to a character like Spider-Man.

More than that, the fight scenes are fast, just the way they should be. The opening fight between Peter and Harry happens so quickly, so dramatically, that it’s breathtaking. It’s not that the scene is short - it’s very satisfying how long the scene is. Instead, the scene just flies along. It happens at the kind of speed that only a real hero or villain can live at. Only someone with the powers or madness that these characters have can live at that speed. Director Sam Raimi does a fantastic job with the action scenes in this movie.

I especially enjoyed the way Raimi portrayed the Sandman. A viewer can really empathize on some level with Flint Marko’s life, while at the same time feeling like he’s a bit of a lunatic. I don’t think he deserves Peter’s forgiveness at the end of the movie-- after all, we see Sandman commit some pretty terrible acts of violence in the movie--but there was some semblance of reality with the character. And hey, the special effects for him looked fantastic. I also thought that Thomas Hayden Church’s performance as the Sandman was fantastic, full of pathos and drama. Church as Marko looked like he was literally carrying the weight of the world on his face.

The movie pretty much moves like a house afire while the action scenes are happening. It only drags when the costumes are off and the characters get to act like normal people.

Even there, some scenes are clever. I liked Spidey and MJ lying in giant web in Central Park staring at meteors. It was a clever scene, a nice extension of what both characters are all about. I also thought that it was great seeing Gwen Stacey, the scenes with JJJ and Betty Brant were funny, and the scenes with Peter’s landlord’s daughter were pretty charming.

But in two other areas, the emotions of the movie didn’t work for me. First, why does everyone have to cry? The storyline with Mary Jane being fired from her Broadway show felt awkward to me. I had to wonder what kind of sleazeball producers would fire her after just one performance. Then her abortive love triangle with Harry seemed so passive-aggressive to me, so much against the bold MJ that we’ve seen throughout the movies. There were way too many tears extracted from those two events. Who needs it?

The other section I disliked was the section when Peter was possessed by Venom. If I never see Peter dance around Manhattan or humiliate MJ at the jazz bar again, it will be too soon. Those scenes are overplayed and lame. I was aching for those unfunny and stupid scenes to just go away. I wish Raimi had come up with less condescending ways of showing the same events.

But those complaints aside, this was a rousing and fun popcorn movie. The action scenes were tremendous, and the performances were mostly terrific, especially Thomas Hayden Church. Spider-Man 3 just could have been a better movie than what it ended up being.

Caryn A. Tate:

No harsh criticism intended, but frankly, if more superhero comics were this fun, I would be spending a lot more of my money every month on comic books!

Briefly, in this film Peter is contemplating taking the Big Step with Mary Jane, her singing/acting career begins to take off, and Spider-Man is now the apple of New York’s eye. Meanwhile, we see the back story of the man Flint Marko and his subsequent metamorphosis into Sandman, the arrival of an alien life form that will become Venom, and the return of Harry Osborn as the revenge seeking Green Goblin. (For the sake of brevity I’ve reduced this overview quite a bit, and of course I don’t want to spoil the story too much for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet.)

I’ve heard that some folks felt that this film’s storyline was overly complicated. Certainly there are several subplots going on throughout the movie, but it’s not complicated, and never, ever confusing. I mean it is Spider-Man we’re talking about here. The subplots provide enough action and story that there’s never a dull moment, yet there’s not so much going on that it overpowered the film. Director Raimi handled the pacing of the movie masterfully, and the result is that I can actually say that here is a movie that is worth going to see in the theaters. This is a rare occurrence for me.

For people who love the character of Spider-Man, or superheroes, or even just the idea of them, this is a superb example of the type of film portrayal we long to see. Spider-Man, as depicted here, is a true hero; he has no reservations about swinging out to save someone, anyone. He’s strong and capable, if only as Spider-Man (as Peter, he’s as good
and sweet as ever—some may call him nerdy, but it’s completely endearing). There’s no whining here about how he has such a hard life, about balancing his superhero life with his personal one. He definitely has problems and his slumps, but it doesn’t overpower him or the story. It feels so much like the classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics that at times I could have sworn I was reading a great comic book. Exactly as a superhero film should be.

The characterization and the acting is nearly perfect, with a few minor exceptions. Tobey Maguire again turns out a performance that left me feeling sure that he must actually be Peter Parker/Spider-Man. As Peter, the effortless way he exhibits every emotion he has on his face is a sight to behold. There’s a scene where M.J. reveals how he’s angered and hurt her. As he slowly begins to realize what he’s done and how it’s affected her, his facial expressions are priceless. They actually tell us far more than words could have. And of course, his performance as Spider-Man is amazing—I love how his body language changes, but often when he speaks, he still sounds so sweet and almost chipper, except that his voice sounds slightly stronger and more confident. He’s just so likeable in this film. Few actors can pull any role off this well, especially one that involves an iconic character like Spider-Man.

Kirsten Dunst turns in another…decent performance. I like her pretty well in the role, but I realized as I watched this film that there was something about the character’s depiction that was bothering me. I couldn’t figure out if it was the movie’s or the actor’s influence, but a lack of confidence and allure in M.J. was apparent several different times throughout the movie. I realize part of this is due to what happens in M.J.’s life during the course of the story that affects her poise and her outlook. But there are times when I have to admit that Gwen Stacy seemed more appealing and provocative than M.J., and I just wish that M.J. had been rendered in a more stunning light. She is, after all, the woman of Peter’s dreams.

The other actors’ performances are stellar, and the standouts for me included J.K. Simmons (as J. Jonah Jameson), a masterful actor who easily captures the comedic and outlandish quality of Jameson that you would expect from the character. Thomas Hayden Church was sincere and effective as Flint Marko, and he really seemed to grasp the whole concept of being a villain in the Spider-Man mythos. Bryce Dallas Howard, since she’s a new actor for me, was surprisingly great as Gwen Stacy, and it was even better that she portrayed the character with a personality (not just the looks).

Now, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with the storytelling involving Peter and M.J.’s relationship. In contrast to the way a lot of Hollywood style movies give a weak, one-sided demonstration of how a relationship’s problems came about, Spider-Man 3 gives us a realistic portrayal. Peter, swept up by New York’s adoration of Spider-Man, loses sight of M.J. and what’s going on in her life; M.J. in turn feels that she can’t talk to him about what’s happening and how she feels. When she tries, Peter seems completely oblivious to what she needs, and consequently M.J. begins to pull away from him emotionally. I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially in a comic based film, because it’s real. No matter how cool it is to have Spider-Man as your boyfriend, that can’t be portrayed as the only thing that M.J. needs to keep her happy. In real life, no one would always be okay with their husband or wife putting the world’s needs above their own; that this was portrayed so well in a superhero movie leaves me impressed and, again, wishing more comics followed this lead.

There are a few moments of awkward or cheesy dialogue that I could have done without (mainly between Spider-Man and Harry Osborn, and sometimes with Venom), but I really can say that was my only complaint. I would love to say that about more blockbuster movies.

While this film wasn’t as good as its predecessors, it’s still a wonderfully fun film with amazing special effects and great acting. Any superhero movie that makes me feel like a kid again, leaves me breathless during the action sequences, yet still delivers a great story, superb direction, and amazing acting, deserves all the hype it’s been getting. And I really hope that the comic book publishers out there start to put out more comics that follow in this classic superhero tradition.

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