Superman III (1983) took a bad turn towards comedy that wasn’t helped by the casting of Richard Pryor in the role of the villain’s unwitting assistant. Batman Forever (1995), under the direction of Joel Schumacher, steered away from the dark tone of the previous two films established by director Tim Burton. Many fans were upset wit the lighter tone, which only grew worse with the franchise killing Batman And Robin (1997). After scripting two installments of the moderately successful vampire hunter series Blade, David Goyer slipped into the director’s chair for Blade: Trinity (2004), but turned in a messy, disorganized film that paled in comparison to the first two films. When Brett Ratner stepped into writer/director Bryan Singer’s shoes to direct the third X-Men film X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), much of the character work developed by Singer was tossed to the side in favor of rushed action moments.
And now comes Spider-Man 3 and the good news is that, for the most part, it breaks the “Part 3” curse that other films have succumbed to. A major portion of what works in the film can be laid at the feet of Sam Raimi, who has now become the first director to helm three installments of a superhero franchise. It is this continuity that assures that the story and tone of Spider-Man 3 flows organically from the plotlines and character arcs from the two previous films.
As the film opens, we find the all seems right in Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) world. After years of mistrust fueled by editorials in the Daily Bugle newspaper, New Yorkers have finally accepted Spider-Man as a beloved part of their city. He’s found a balance between his crime fighting activities and his “civilian” life, even enabling him to make it to the opening night performance of his girlfriend Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) Broadway debut. But things can’t be good for Peter for long and trouble seems to come at him from numerous sides simultaneously. The police discover that a different man, Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) may be responsible for the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben. Marko has just escaped from prison and in the process has accidentally stumbled into a scientific experiment which leaves him with an incredible power. Peter’s old friend Harry (James Franco) has finally learned that Peter is really Spider-Man, whom he believes responsible for the death of his father. Additionally, a meteor has crashed on Earth releasing an alien symbiote that will come to bind with Peter, unleashing some of his darker urges.
Raimi, as both director and one of the film’s three credited screenwriters, manages for the most part to successfully juggle the numerous story elements. Still, there is enough material here for two films and it might have been more advantageous to have split this story into a pair films, allowing more breathing room for a few of the character and story points that feel a bit rushed. The inclusion of the character of Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) from the comics feels more as a nod to fans rather than serving any real story purpose.
On the action front, several of the fight sequences, especially the ones that take above Manhattan street level, contain some of the most imaginative visuals seen in the series to date. Spider-Man and his foes twist, turn, swing, fall and fly dizzyingly through the concrete and steel canyons of New York spectacularly. Raimi has long been known for his crazy and kinetic camera work and he is certainly in top form here. There are times where the computer generated isn’t as photorealistic as one would hope, but it only detracts a little. The scope of the action has been opened up a bit more with two sequences involving some major damage to skyscrapers.
But Raimi still shows that getting the audience to relate to the characters on the screen is the best way to add extra energy to a scene. Case in point is the scene which first reveals the extent of Marko’s transformation. The shot begins with such an extreme close up of grains of sand we think we’re looking at average-sized rocks. As the camera pulls back, the grains begin to move, picking up speed, flowing like water. As the pull back continues, we see the sand slowly starting to pull itself into a vaguely human-ish shape only to fall apart and start the reassembly process again. We see a rough face form in the sand, features twisting painfully, unable to scream. Finally a hand finds the locket Marko’s daughter gave him with her picture in it, and that provides the anchor for him to fully form himself. It is a sequence that contains first an element of horror and than an emotional content that generates empathy for Marko.
Unfortunately, not all the character moments work in the film. The shallow and vain Mary Jane in this movie feels like a different character from the previous two films. The scenes where Peter is indulging his dark side don’t work either. Raimi appears to be trying a variation of Spider-Man 2’s “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” sequence, but it plays too broadly and feels a bit too jokey in relation to the rest of the film.
The script also takes a number of shortcuts to get the story to the next point it needs to be at. It’s a stretch of suspension-of-disbelief to have the meteor carrying the alien symbiote crash to Earth just yards away from where Peter and Mary Jane were spending a romantic moment in Central Park. More unforgivable, though, is the moment at the beginning of the film’s third act where Harry’s butler tells him something that Peter had been trying to tell him for most of the last film and this one, triggering a drastic character change.
For its flaws, Spider-Man 3 still flows along at a good pace, moving through its two hours, twenty minute length without too many slow points. While Spider-Man 3 is the longest entry in the franchise, it is not the best. But at the risk of damning with faint praise, Spider-Man 3 still manages to be better than any of the other superhero franchises to have made it this far.