There's part of me that doesn't really want to write this review. It's going to be a pointless endeavor on my part, to be sure. The Spider-Man movie franchise is a monstrous machine, and I am more of a Davey than a David when it comes to this Goliath. Perhaps if I was a big fan of the first two (I'm not), I'd feel more righteous in my indignation. Instead, I can only shrug and shake my head at you, and say, "I just don't get it."*
In this third installment of the series, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is feeling pretty good about things. He's doing well with his freelance photography (namely, taking pictures of himself as Spidey) and feels confident enough in his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) that he's going to ask her to marry him. Even his longstanding feud with Harry Osborne (James Franco) takes a lucky twist for the strangely better. After the webspinner brawls with Harry in his Green Goblin Jr. guise, the rich boy forgets that he thinks Spider-Man killed his father in the first movie and gets back to being Peter Parker's best buddy. A konk on the head isn't the nicest way to renew a friendship, but it will do.
Unfortunately, as with any movie of this kind, the better the hero feels about himself, the more the universe is going to conspire against him. Within a matter of days, a deadly alien parasite worms its way into Peter's life in the form of his black Spidey pajamas, Mary Jane is upset with him for not noticing her personal issues, Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) breaks out of prison and becomes the living embodiment of beachfront property known as Sandman, sneaky Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is trying to take over the Spider-Man photo business, and there seems to be some doubt as to who really killed Peter's Uncle Ben, the important catalyst that made him start fighting crime. That's a lot for one super-powered boy to take, and Peter goes off his rocker a little. Don't worry, though. It's nothing a big four-way melee can't cure.
Sequels can go one of two ways. They can either take what everyone liked about the first film and improve on it, giving us more of the good stuff and advancing the story, or they can take everything that was wrong and increase it exponentially in relation to what number is behind the title. By that logic, since I didn't like Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 was twice as worse as its predecessor, and now Spider-Man 3 has tripled how much I loath Peter and his amazing friends. This frustrates me to no end, because I really want to figure out how to like these movies. I want to see what everyone else sees because you all seem to be enjoying yourselves so much. Yet, Spider-Man 3 makes me want to rip out my eyes and shove them up my own butt so I can look at excrement that at least comes from someplace I can respect.
The Spider-Man movies are just stupid. They are. While I know the big draw is the action sequences and the special effects, if I wanted nothing but that I'd go buy a video game system. We go to movies, even action movies, to see stories, and the reason Spidey has been an enduring comic book character for over forty years is because people have identified with the personal plight of Peter Parker. From where I'm sitting, though, none of that charm ever makes it to the screen. Instead, all I ever see is bad writing. Nothing happens in this movie that doesn't hinge on some incredible coincidence. You'd think New York was the smallest town in the world, because the same five or six people always run into each other whenever something is going down. "Oh, look, Gwen Stacy is here! I don't just share a class with her, I'm going to save her life halfway across town, too." "Aunt May, Gwen's father is the one investigating Uncle Ben's death! You think he knows if Gwen likes me?" "How did Eddie even know Mary Jane was Peter's girlfriend, much less that she calls him Tiger?" When Brock gets Spidey's alien costume and becomes Venom, there really is no reason at all for him and Peter Parker to be in the same place. That alone might have been an acceptable leap in storytelling if the whole movie wasn't full of such leaps. Even Peter getting the alien symbiote is down to him being in the right place at the right time. Why him and not just some average dude who isn't a wallcrawler?
Beyond that, the characters have no motivation, no real interior life. All of them act on the thinnest of pretexts. Peter Parker is the biggest doof bag on the planet, and they play that up to a point of high camp in the picture. New and random explanations for things that happened two movies ago are introduced as cheap storytelling devices, including a sudden revelation from a secondary supporting character (that would make him third or fourth tier or something) that is of such great import, it makes no sense why he didn't tell everyone ages ago and save them years of heartache. I will say, the filmmakers manage the impossible in that, classically, I hated the comic book Mary Jane as a character and always found Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) more appealing. In this case, I find Gwen bland and can't help but love that adorable, snaggle-toothed Kirsten Dunst.
As if they can sense how dumb the movie is, most of the actors go for broke and see how outlandish they can make their performances. The new kids on the block fare the best. Thomas Haden Church labors for an overreaching earnestness, while Topher Grace goes to town as the sassy, cackling evil doer. As with most franchises, Spider-Man 3 is really a showcase for the side players, because the main stars just skate by on the goodwill the audience already has for their characters. Tobey Maguire is the biggest offender. He isn't just phoning the performance in, he's using one of those ridiculous hands-free things that you clip to your ear. That's how lazy he's gotten in the role. If the director (Sam Raimi) cared at all about what he was doing, he'd rein this stuff in and put his actors back on track, but he's bought the goofiness wholesale and is doling it out in huge, stinking scoops. When the black suit brings out Peter's dark side, the way they choose to show this is so bad, you'd almost think that Raimi was intentionally sabotaging this movie so he wouldn't have to make another one. I can't even begin to tell you how lame it is. Let's just say that Spider-Man 3 has finally created a dance sequence to replace the rave in Matrix Reloaded as the top example of how wrong a turn a movie series can take.
And what about the highly anticipated action? Meh. I've actually always found the special effects in the Spider-Man movies to be a little sub par. They display a lot of technical prowess but fall short of the mark of seamlessly melding the computer animation with the real life actors and environment. For a movie to create a convincing illusion of a fantastic world, I shouldn't be able to notice the linking points between what is real and what is animation. While a lot of those gaps have been filled in and the process smoothed out for Spider-Man 3, the choreography and set-ups for the various fights aren't as exciting. The battle between Spidey and Sandman on a moving armored car comes off like Raimi is chasing the same popcorn-chomping thrills of the subway fight from Spider-Man 2, but the magic simply isn't there. On the plus side, for a superhero franchise where the producers feel compelled to make the number of bad guys equal the numeral in the title, I'll give Raimi credit for being a director who actually handles it right (as opposed to, say, the old Batman series). Usually, the story gets overpopulated and the character arcs get short shrift, but I felt like Raimi actually managed to give Goblin, Sandman, and Venom all a good amount of screen time without overly favoring any one over another.
See? I can say something nice. I mean, I may not get these movies, but I get my position here. I'm just the grouch in the room, whizzing in the punchbowl while everyone else is trying to party down. The problems I have with Spider-Man 3 will probably be dismissed as me completely missing the point. I have to call it like I see it, though, and I can't sit idly by any longer while this junk is heralded as some kind of great popcorn cinema. I love fun movies, why wouldn't I? I also hate getting insulted, another point of view that seems like a given. So, why should I accept it when a movie that purports to be fun is really just half-assing it and expecting me to ignore that it's poorly constructed and full of flaws? Because if the filmmakers ask me to do that, that means Spider-Man 3 isn't just stupid, but they think I'm stupider than it is, and as much of a moron as I can be, there's some depths I just won't cop to.
Granted, having now seen all three entries in the series, I'm in the "fool me thrice" zone, so my own intelligence is getting harder to defend. For those of you out there who see what I so obviously can't (which, in turn, may make you simply smarter than your friendly neighborhood critic), I honestly hope they make Spider-Man 4 and it's everything you want it to be. I've learned my lesson, however, and I'll stay at home.
* And this isn't a Spider-Man hater talking either. I bought Amazing #252 the day it came out. That's when the black Spider-Man suit first appears, and I still know the number of the issue without looking it up. I haven't read much of the multiple Spidey titles in recent years, but I'm a comic book guy and I know the character.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.