A summer blockbuster doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be silly, it can be empty, and it can even be unoriginal as long as it’s not boring. Spider-Man 3, the latest entry in Sony’s popular superhero franchise, has enough bad guys and plot to fill three movies yet somehow it all adds up to nothing more than a painful exercise in tedium. As a summer blockbuster, it’s a complete dud.
When it comes to comic book movies, I’m something of a tourist. I enjoy them, but they’re not an obsession. I read comics from time to time but I’m not going to start leaving angry posts on message boards when a movie diverges from the source in some way or makes an odd casting decision or doesn’t get the hero’s costume just right. They’re not a passion, but I always find a good superhero movie to be something to look forward to. I loved the original Superman; the first and most recent Batman movies; the first two X-Men movies; and perhaps best of all, the 2nd Spider-Man movie.
One of the appealing things about them is that they’re pretty simple. The classic superhero stories are broadly drawn tales of good vs. evil with plenty of action and some thematic kinks thrown in for interest. The main failing of Spider-Man 3 is that it tries to cram too much into a structure that just can’t support it. There is no shortage of characters or plot threads, but none of them ever amount to anything.
At the core of the movie you have Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who has embraced his role as Spider-Man and left his ambivalence about being a superhero behind. By day he still leads a fairly normal life as a poor college student and Daily Bugle photographer. His biggest worries are a new rival in hotshot photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) and figuring out the best way to propose to his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Unfortunately, Mary Jane’s singing and acting career is floundering. She feels neglected and misunderstood by Peter who is more focused on his exploits as Spider-Man. She’s also jealous of a perceived new romantic rival, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard).
As Spider-Man, Peter has to contend with his former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who, as the new Green Goblin, is bent on avenging the death of his father, the original Green Goblin vanquished by Spider-Man in the first film. Also, there is escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) who is transformed into shape-shifting sand monster The Sandman following an unfortunate run-in with a particle physics experiment. Marko robs banks in an effort to pay for medical treatments for his sick daughter. Finally, as if all of that weren’t enough, a symbiotic alien life form crash lands on earth and attaches itself to Peter giving him new power (and a new black costume) while also magnifying his more negative and dangerous instincts and threatening to turn him into a monster.
How can all of this turn out so boring? Taken individually, many of these odds and ends work nicely and this superhero stew could’ve worked if there was some kind of unifying element or through line; a master plot to tie it all together. Unfortunately the whole thing seems haphazard and disconnected. The Harry Osborn/Green Goblin bits feel like loose ends left over from previous installments in the franchise and they’re handled in an unsatisfactory way. Marko/Sandman is a compelling character and this storyline alone should’ve been enough to make a movie, but instead the character has nothing to do but rob banks and fight with Spider-Man whenever the script needs some action. On top of all this mess, the symbiote storyline seems tacked on. Like the others, it would’ve been enough for a whole movie on its own, but once again it’s handled half-heartedly and its potential is never fully explored.
An additional note about the problematic screenplay: there is some business involving the Flint Marko character that essentially rewrites a key event that gave weight to the first two films. There also appear to be changes to the circumstances surrounding the original Green Goblin’s death in the first film for no other reason than the current screenplay demands it. Sticklers for continuity are sure to be annoyed though more casual fans probably less so.
As for the acting, it’s the same as it was in the first two films. Those who never liked Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane will be disappointed to learn she sings here…twice. James Franco doesn’t help matters much as Harry/Green Goblin. Franco appears to come from the Hayden Christensen school of evil that consists mainly of a lot of petulant frowning. Tobey Maguire’s squeaky-voiced “gee whiz” Peter Parker character has now become kind of tiresome and his brush with the dark side is played more for laughs than for drama. The only actors that rise above it all and generate any interest are the underutilized Thomas Haden Church and a funny cameo by Bruce Campbell.
Some of the effects are nifty. I especially liked some of the Sandman work and the inky black symbiote effects as well. There were a few good action set pieces but not enough to carry interest over the film’s long running time.
Despite a few bright spots, the film is a mess. It’s as though it was constructed by a committe of people who each had a say into what would go into the story. Everyone is accommodated, but there’s no focus, no direction, no point and ultimately no payoff. Worse still, there is nothing really new here. If there had been something fresh it might have all been worthwhile, but in the end it was just more of the same served up in a poorly assembled jumble.
Spider-Man 3: USA 2007. Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Topher Grace, Thomas Haden Church, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris and James Cromwell. 2 hours 19 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence. 2 stars (out of 5)