Spider-Man 3 director Sam Raimi has had a difficult task set before him: He has to follow himself. Spider-Man 2 is easily the best superhero movie ever made, and topping it is nearly impossible. For the third film, Raimi has waved the white flag and tried to make a bigger movie instead of a better one. He succeeded. Spider-Man 3 has more of everything. More villains, more love story, more fight scenes. It’s bigger, but it’s not better.
For a change everything is going right for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). The lovable loser from Spider-Man 2 has blossomed into a beloved hero. Peter has the adoration of the city and he has the girl of his dreams too. He and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) are dating, and Peter has plans for marriage. Sure, he still lives in that crummy little apartment but he’s found a way to make time in his life for everything he cares about. Things are going pretty well for Peter Parker, so of course it’s time to pull the rug out from under him.
Things may be going well for Peter, but that doesn’t mean he’s solved any of the problems created in the previous two films. They’re still there lingering and they come to a head in this film. For instance Peter has never really come to grips with the murder of his uncle, and then there’s his friend Harry (James Franco) who still blames Peter for the death of his wacked out, Green Goblin father. There’s a lot going on in Spidey 3, but at its heart Alvin Sargent’s script is about Spider-Man getting right all the things he’s been getting wrong. Unfortunately that sometimes gets lost in the noise of the film, which falls prey to the same trap almost every third superhero movie seems to, by trying to do too much at once.
Luckily unlike those other failed third superhero movies, Spider-Man 3 is the first of its kind to keep the same cast and crew together through three films. That’s enough to keep it swinging. Still there’s no denying that trying to squeeze so many different villains into a single movie hurts it. This time Spidey is fighting three bad guys instead of one and since Raimi is too good a storyteller not to, each has been given a complex back story to explain their evil motivations. But there’s just never enough time to explore each of them fully. All three villains are so good that each could easily fill his own movie full of Spidey vs. bad guy grit. Cramming them all into a single feature leaves you with a film that feels like it’s trying to do too much all at once, probably because it is. There’s just no way to make the multiple superhero thing work properly and Spider-Man 3 would have been better off avoiding it, or at least settling on two bad guys instead of three. Sadly that was not to be and all three: New Goblin, Sandman, and Venom end up splitting their bad guy screen time pretty equally until the film’s end when everyone and everything collides together for a big, spectacle packed finale.
With three super-powered bad guys though, they really take the action up a notch in this one and because Sony was willing to give them all the money they wanted, Raimi isn’t afraid to pull his camera back for plenty of spectacular, stunning, wide shots of what’s going on. Spider-Man 3 is easily the most satisfying of the three movies on a purely action oriented level. From his thrilling mid-air battle with New Goblin to the film’s massive cage match between Spidey and all three bad guys Spider-Man 3 really delivers on non-stop punches. The effects haven’t necessarily gotten better since Spider-Man 2, but there’s a lot more of them.
This is also the Spider-Man movie that has the most Raimi in it. Sure Spider-Man 2 had a few of those signature Raimi moments, but Spider-Man 3 is dripping with Raimi’s wry sense of humor and distinct behind the camera horror style. When Peter Parker goes bad under the influence of the Venom symbiote they’ve been pumping so much in the trailers, it’s then that Sam seems to be having the most fun with the movie. Peter goes emo and dances down the streets of New York shooting people with cool guy style in a sequence that’s a complete departure from anything we’ve seen in these movies till now. Bruce Campbell has his biggest cameo of the series in this one, and it’s every bit as genius as we’ve come to expect from any Raimi/Campbell collaboration. Spider-Man 3 is by far the most playful of Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies, and even though it may not be as dramatically satisfying it compensates by simply being a lot of fun.
The problem with the film dramatically isn’t simply that there are too many bad guys. Though that’s certainly a large part of it, there’s also too much of everything else too. Too many side characters, too many angsty romance flourishes. There are times when I think even Raimi gets lost in his own movie. In more than one place plot threads are started and then randomly abandoned without satisfactory explanation or resolution. The rift that develops between Mary Jane and Peter Parker for instance is never fully explored. Worse, Mary Jane’s behavior later in the movie becomes completely bizarre and inexplicable. Most of her actions seem to be dictated by what they need to happen in order for the plot to move forward, not by what makes any kind of sense for her character. Some are probably going to blame Kirsten Dunst for this; after all she’s always been the weak spot in Spidey’s pictures. But I think it’s simply an editing problem. It feels like there are big pieces of the movie missing, and most of them involve her. With so much to cram into the film, something had to be cut in order to keep the running time down at a manageable level, and it’s Mary Jane that suffers.
The biggest go-nowhere in the movie is their new female addition Gwen Stacey, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She serves no real purpose in the story, since they don’t have enough time to take her sub-plot anywhere. Worse, Howard’s simply not believable as Stacey. She’s supposed to be the super-model daughter of the city’s police commissioner, but let’s face it: Bryce Dallas Howard has cankles. She’s pretty in a girl-next-door sort of way and a decent actress, but to ask her to convince us she’s a model is beyond Howard’s ability to portray. As with Mary Jane, Raimi seems to have a problem with casting proper female leads. Actually, flip the two and you might have something. Bryce Dallas Howard would have made a perfect Mary Jane and Kirsten Dunst almost certainly would have been a better Gwen Stacey.
Despite it’s bigger isn’t always better problems, I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed in this third Spider-Man. It’s easily the best third superhero franchise movie ever made (of course it’s up against Superman III, Batman Forever, and Blade Trinity so it’s not like the competition is very fierce). Tobey Maguire is still brilliant as Peter Parker and most of the supporting cast, both old and new is so good that they leave you wanting more of them. There are three amazing movies wrapped up in Spider-Man 3. Instead of doling them out one a time, they’ve been webbed together and delivered as one pretty good one. The world would be a better place if Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire went right on making Spider-Man movies together forever.