Comic book movies– more specifically, super hero movies– generally follow a specific line of progression starting from the very first film and continuing through the subsequent sequels. The opening installment is always an origin story; it is where we learn of and witness the events that lead to our protagonist becoming empowered with the special gifts that impel them to dedicate their lives to fighting evil and upholding the virtues of their society. We learn where they come from and what makes them tick. Inevitably (in most cases), all of the build-up required to introduce the hero’s origins mire the film down. It’s not that the first entry in the series is destined to underwhelm, it’s that the origin film is constricted by the critical need to portray the thematic birth of the super hero, which takes some drama and tension away from the hero’s inevitable confrontation with the piece’s villain.
When the franchise moves onto the sequel, things get better; without all of that tiresome “origin” stuff in the way, we get a story that is utterly unfettered by the need to dictate how our protagonist came to become a super hero. The result is a more satisfying super hero film; set pieces are vastly superior, the villain becomes more fleshed out, and dramatically the stakes are raised to greater heights. If you don’t believe this to be the case, try going back and watching the first entry in any of your favorite super hero franchises and then following that up with a viewing of the sequel. Even if the original film is engaging and entertaining, it’s often hard to argue that the sequel doesn’t feel like it has more to offer.
The unfortunate side effect of the sequel being so much more unhinged than the original is that the third film (if the franchise gets a third film at all) suffers. Sequels tend to set the bar incredibly high, often to the point where the third film can’t possibly hope to surpass it, failing to do so in one of two ways: Not being able to do enough, or doing just too much.
Spider-Man 3 falls into the latter category. It is not a film that fails to satisfy the expectations of the previous film despite actually being good; rather, it is a modest-to-bad film that falls apart because in its efforts to top Spider-Man 2, it goes in far too many different directions and sacrifices tension and focus for needless panache and empty spectacle.
When we meet our hero, the dorky but lovable Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), he’s on top of the world– everyone in New York loves the hell out of Spider-Man, his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), is debuting on Broadway, and he’s building up the courage to pop the question to her. Exciting! Of course, not all is well in Spider-Man’s neighborhood; Peter’s friend, Harry Osborne (James Franco), harbors desire for revenge after coming to believe that Peter killed his insane, super-villain father (Willem Dafoe), and he’s got an arsenal of weapons and gadgets left behind by dear old dad to assist him with settling the score (including his own personal Green Goblin Crazy Gas Chamber!). To make matters worse, Parker is at the mercy of a script that holds Murphy’s Law near and dear: The true killer of Peter’s uncle (Thomas Hayden-Church) is revealed to be alive, well, and composed of sand after an unfortunate foray into a particle physics test experiment, Peter’s fame as Spider-Man (and his enamorment with it) is driving a wedge between him and Mary Jane, Topher Grace is trying to steal Peter’s job as freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle, and a black, gooey alien symbiote that we see crash-land on Earth early in the film develops an attachment to our overwhelmed hero. (Rimshot.)
If that paragraph sounds rambling, unfocused, obtuse, and in need of trimming, then it’s only because there’s no succinct way to properly summarize the plot of Spider-Man 3 without seriously short-changing just how ridiculously decentralized it is. There are a handful of stories in here that could each make up the focal point of a single film. Forcing them together yields a disfigured mess of a film. Even worse, the pace at which story’s various disparate elements come together is never reigned in; once it exits the gates, the film recklessly barrels ahead totally unsupervised. This has the effect of robbing, literally, every significant moment in the film of the benefits of dramatic build-up. They happen, the film moves on, we don’t end up caring. More importantly the film doesn’t care, either. It’s almost as though the film isn’t concerned at all by its own inherent lack of suspense. When Peter, made aggressive and volatile by his relationship to the alien symbiote, brutally beats Harry in his high-rise and leaves him buried under rubble, we should care because it’s a major development in their story, but the film never pauses to let the impact of Peter’s actions sink in. The resolution of their thematic arc, like each side-story in Spider-Man 3, is rushed and completely unsatisfying.
It’s a frustrating experience, especially because there are severally potentially good films in most of the various plot arcs. I understand that the choice of featuring three villains was not exactly director Sam Raimi’s cup of tea, and that the decision was more of a studio decision. Perhaps for the inevitable fourth installment, the suits will let the director do his job and parse concepts down to make a much tighter and more focused film, but regardless of what happens with Spider-Man 4 it’ll be hard to walk into that movie without feeling disappointed at the opportunities missed in Spider-Man 3. Harry’s deep-seated anger and resentment towards Peter on its own would have easily made for an excellent, engaging super hero movie, and Thomas Hayden-Church’s reluctant criminal Flint Marko/Sandman is certainly a compelling enough character that a more fleshed-out story– even one that ret-cons the character into the story of Uncle Ben’s death– could have been equally captivating. Alas, the chance to do these stories justice is lost.
For its significant faults and shortcomings, Spider-Man 3 isn’t all bad. James Franco and Tobey Maguire never fail to entertain when they’re on-screen, though admittedly Parker’s cluelessness becomes something of a bore after a while. Franco really struts his stuff with Harry, who seamlessly shifts from vengeful to charming in the blink of an eye. The two actors’ screen chemistry is also phenomenal in spite of poor pacing and writing; it’s easy to see how the two characters became friends in spite of their various and significant differences, though this is a fairly pedestrian observation made all the more unimpressive by the fact that we’ve had two films develop that relationship already. If the chemistry didn’t show at this point, it would be a bizarre miracle. The film also comes, mercifully, alive in a completely unexpected way; as the symbiotic martian substance continues to influence and alter our hero’s behavior, he not only becomes more aggressive and much harsher as Spider-Man, he also turns into a nerdy lady’s man as Peter Parker. He meanders down a crowded street, strutting to the music in his head as he catcalls at various women; eventually he takes the police Captain’s daughter, Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard) out to a jazz club where Mary Jane waits tables and sings, and suddenly Spider-Man 3 breaks out into a pretty lively and undeniably fun dance number featuring Peter dancing across the bar in choreographed glory. The sequence comes out of nowhere and as much as the sheer random nature of a dance scene in a super hero movie is bound to throw off most, it’s undeniably refreshing.
Even that scene only serves to underscore just how misguided the rest of the film’s energy is. Directionless and purposeless, Spider-Man 3 is driven by a completely untethered energy. In some cases, a director’s choice not to restrain his creative drive benefits a film; here that lack of discretion sends the story off-course. More than anything, the film cries out for focus; excising even one plot thread would have given the film much more room to breathe. Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 is a film loaded with promise that is ultimately weighed down by its own bloat.