Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: yes, there was an enormous backlash against Spider-Man 3 when it swung into theaters this past summer, but it's hardly the disaster so many people have made it out to be. I'd shove the blame onto the last couple of superhero summer tentpoles -- Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand -- which had been so disappointing that hardly anyone seemed to hold out much hope for Spidey. Admittedly, it doesn't come close to approaching the dizzying heights of Spider-Man 2, and Sam Raimi seems much more interested in squeezing every last cent out of his massive effects budget than bothering with...y'know, characterization or a barely passable story. It's a big, dumb summer blockbuster, but as big, dumb summer blockbusters go, Spider-Man 3 really is an okay flick.
Spider-Man 3 picks up a few months after part two left off. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is beaming -- Spider-Man has become as beloved a part of the New York landscape as the Empire State Building, and he's on the verge of popping the question to the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) has given Peter both her blessing as well as the engagment ring she'd been handed fifty years earlier.
...but hey, this is a summer superhero flick, so things aren't gonna stay bright and cheerful for all that long. Peter hopes to slink his way into a full-time gig as a photographer at the Daily Bugle, but a smug freelancer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is gunning for the job and has already sleazed his way into pole position. He learns that the man the police once believed murdered Uncle Ben was merely an accomplice, and the real killer -- a two-bit thug named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) -- is on the lamb after busting out of Rikers. The homefront's not looking any cozier; Mary Jane's dreams of a life bathed in Broadway's lights are crushed, leaving her jealously seething over both Spider-Man's newfound popularity and Peter's friendship with fashion model-slash-lab partner-slash-police-captain's-daughter Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Oh, I haven't even gotten to the superhero stuff yet. His one-time best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) still blames Peter for the murder of his father, and as we saw the last go-around, Harry has stumbled upon the cache of bleeding-edge weaponry and chemical stimulants he needs to exact his revenge. Flint Marko trips his way into an open-air particle acceleration experiment on the outskirts of the city, transformed into an unstoppable sentient mass of sand. An alien symbiote crashes to earth and bonds with Peter, amplifying his powers and drawing his darkest inhibitions out to the surface. He's not exactly your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man anymore, ravaging everything that stands in his way, and when Peter inevitably rejects the symbiote...well, you already saw the name Eddie Brock a paragraph or two up, and any comic book nerd with his salt knows what that means...
After diving through the audio commentaries and the other extras on this disc, director/co-writer Sam Raimi makes it pretty clear that Spider-Man 3 was a movie that had a sprawling effects budget and a release date well before there was anything more than an outline to the story. The digital effects work was well underway before the script had been fleshed out, and Spider-Man 3 feels as if Sam and Ivan Raimi half-heartedly slapped together outlines from a couple of different sequels into one screenplay to loosely string together a bunch of lavishly budgeted, meticulously choreographed action sequences. Spider-Man 3 ought to be a big movie, but there's so much going on in this overloaded screenplay that it practically collapses under its own weight.
As Gwen Stacy, Bryce Dallas Howard infuses the movie with a warmth and bubbly optimism, but her charms are almost entirely squandered, showing up a couple of times to either be rescued or throw another stumbling block into Spidey 3's love triangle. (It's more of a dodecahedron than a triangle, but...you know what I mean.) The script tries in vain to squeeze out some sympathy for Flint Marko. He's not a bad guy! He just isn't well-funded enough to nurse his daughter back to health, so he knocks over a low-rent wrestling joint and steals cars at gunpoint from kindly old men. The Sandman is too thinly-written and saddled with too hopelessly generic a backstory for his weepy, anemic subplot to resonate the way Doc Ock's did. On the other hand, Eddie Brock fits in seamlessly, with Topher Grace striking that perfect balance of smugness and sleazy charm for Brock to hide behind. It's his transition to Venom that flops and flounders; the symbiote-empowered Brock feels bolted on, and if the rumors are true, the studio had Venom shoehorned into the screenplay at the 11th hour instead of giving Raimi the latitude he'd earned with the previous two movies.
As for the carryovers in the cast...? Kirsten Dunst really doesn't want to be there, coming across as such a cold, shrill harpy that if Columbia Pictures does churn out another sequel, they'll hopefully bench Mary Jane and let Gwen Stacy fill the Obligatory Romantic Interest slot. There's no real forward momentum for Tobey Maguire, but he does alright. Even if you haven't caught Spider-Man 3, you've probably seen those clips of Peter strutting down the street as they were making the rounds on YouTube a while back. That smarmier, emo-coiffed, My Chemical Romance-patch-on-his-satchel Peter isn't as doofy as those clips make him look, though. That scene works surprisingly well, and there's a brilliant, hysterical bit with Pete completely disinterested in an exposition-heavy phone call about the nature of the symbiote, barely paying attention as he schmoozes his skeletal, quirky-cute neighbor into feeding him milk and cookies. The only of these cocksure scenes that really sputters is a bizarrely over-the-top dance number in a jazz club that seems like it was yanked out of another movie entirely. Even though Peter and Mary Jane aren't all that cheerful or charismatic this time around, they both light up whenever they're around Harry Osborn. James Franco wasn't quite able to pull off some of his budding supervillainy in part two, although really, it's hard for even an actor of Franco's talents to make a line like "Kill Spider-Man, and I'll give you all the Tritium you need!" sound convincing. His amnesia subplot is soap opera hackery, but there's something so upbeat and instantly endearing about Massive Headwound Harry...radiating with a warmth that brings out something in both Peter and Mary Jane that no one else manages to do in the entire movie...that wouldn't have been possible otherwise, so I'll give it a pass.
A few other characters do pop up again, although there's so much going on that familiar faces like Rosemary Harris' Aunt May are only left with a couple of minutes of screentime. J.K. Simmons and Elizabeth Banks land Spider-Man 3's biggest laughs as J. Jonah Jameson and Betty Brant, fumbling with blood pressure medication as it leaps a couple feet off Jameson's desk and suffering through Ted Raimi shemping his way through a marketing pitch. Sam Raimi's partner in crime Bruce Campbell has had bit parts in all three Spider-Man movies, but in the first two flicks, he seemed to just hang around to torture Peter. This time around, The Chin plays a snooty but well-meaning Maître d' in an overpriced French restaurant, playing off Tobey Maguire as if they were part of a goofy Vaudeville act as he continually misreads Pete's cues to deliver his end of a sappy romantic proposal.
Okay, a lot of the characters are kinda thinly written, the sense of humanity from the previous couple of movies has been shoved down the garbage disposal, and the screenplay leans too heavily on soapy mainstays like amnesia, love icosidodecahedrons (sorry, I have this chronic inability to write "love triangle"), and an overabundance of coincidences. (Y'know, the butler who'd been pointlessly holding onto a bit of exposition just in time for the climax...the police suspecting for a couple of years that they pegged Uncle Ben's murder on the wrong guy but didn't get around to telling the Parkers about it until now...that sort of thing.) That's almost beside the point. Yes, it's a disappointment that this sequel isn't nearly as substantial and sharply written as Spider-Man 2, but that's not what Sam Raimi and company are interested in this time around.
Spider-Man 3 doesn't really bother to be a film; Raimi knows he's helming an event, and that's how he plays it. The effects work is astonishing, boasting a set of groundbreaking digital effects and dazzling aerial acrobatics. Many of the key fight sequences have Spidey tumbling hundreds of feet, leaping off crumbling walls as they spin and plummet towards the ground, diving through the latticework of a tumbling crane, and deftly navigating a gauntlet of sewer pipes as he squares off against the Sandman. Flint Marko is the centerpiece of the movie's most visually dazzling sequences as he undergoes his transformation into a creature of sand. Jaw-droppingly beautiful and masterfully executed, these two sequences are a landmark achievement and an absolute lock for the Best Visual Effects statuette once Oscar time rolls around. I feel as if I'm giving the effects short thrift by devoting so little of the review to them -- I could easily double the length of this already massive write-up by if I didn't rein myself in -- but I'd hate to spoil the grandeur of the movie's most spectacular scenes. If nothing else, give Spider-Man 3 a rental, skim past the dialogue and anemic characterization, and marvel at the special effects and stuntwork.
No, Spider-Man 3 isn't the movie it could have or probably should have been. It fumbles with the humanity and emotional resonance that had won the previous installment such an endless amount of praise, too much of the writing is lazy and lifted from a C-list soap opera, and the script fails to truly seize hold of the concept of a darker, more vengeful wall-crawler. With Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi waves goodbye to the franchise he spearheaded with a summer effects spectacle. The story may be clichéd and overloaded, but Raimi's unparalleled team of digital effects wizards and stunt supervisors have crafted some of the most dazzling action sequences I've seen in thirty years of obsessive moviegoing. Spider-Man 3 is the weakest of the three movies in the series, but taken on its own and viewed purely as a borderline-mindless action flick, there's more than enough to make it worth seeing at least once. Recommended.
Although Spider-Man 3 is available in its own separate Blu-ray release, completists might want to shell out the extra few bucks to pick up a set sporting the entire trilogy in high definition. Note that the first two films in the series don't carry over any of the extras from the DVD editions, and more elaborate re-releases are almost certainly waiting in the wings.
Video: Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using Sony's preferred AVC video codec, Spider-Man 3 is the sort of reference quality disc you can grab off the shelf to show off just how spectacular high definition video can look. Fine detail is consistently dazzling throughout, particularly in any shot with the Sandman; the distinctness and clarity make it seem as if each individual grain of sand is clearly rendered. I found myself continually impressed by the tremendous level of detail, depth, and dimensionality that are constantly on display. The encoding is remarkably adept as well, something I'd imagine would have to have been a challenge considering that one of its main characters consists of millions of fine particles that must've been a nightmare to compress. There's no trace of edge enhancement, and although film grain remains tight and unintrusive throughout, I didn't spot any sign that its grain had been digitally smoothened away either. Spider-Man 3 has a consistently film-like appearance to it from start to finish. Black levels are deep and robust, with the image holding up flawlessly even in its most dimly-lit sequences, and its spry, vivid palette frequently pops off the screen. I have absolutely nothing negative to say about this high definition presentation of Spider-Man 3; the disc is a showcase release for the Blu-ray format and shatters even my highest expectations.
Audio: No matter which of the Blu-ray disc's lossless soundtracks you choose -- a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix or its uncompressed PCM track -- Spider-Man 3 sounds unbelievable. The audio is backed by a muscular low-end, which can be so tight and punchy during some of the brawls that it feels as if my subwoofer's slugging me in the gut, while such scenes as Flint Marko's transformation into the Sandman roar with so much bass that everything within a block or two starts to rattle violently. The mix is exceptionally immersive even outside of the action sequences, teeming with ambiance and very effectively fleshing out the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. It goes without saying that the titanic battles are bolstered by an exceptionally aggressive mix, with chaos unrelentingly whirring from one speaker to the next. The detail and clarity so pervasive throughout these soundtracks highlight just how outstanding the sound design of Spider-Man 3 is, and this is easily a five star effort.
The Blu-ray disc also features Dolby Digital soundtracks in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. The long list of subtitles includes French, Spanish, Chinese, Cantonese, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, and both traditional English and SDH streams.
Extras: Spider-Man 3 marks the first two-disc special edition that Sony has issued on Blu-ray, devoting its second disc to a feature-length assortment of high-def making-of featurettes.
The extras on the first disc are primarily in standard definition, though; its only high-def extras are a 'coming to Blu-ray' promo reel and trailers for Surf's Up, Ghost Rider, Across the Universe, and Casino Royale.
The movie itself is accompanied by a pair of commentary tracks, the first of which has director/co-writer Sam Raimi piling into the recording booth with Thomas Haden Church, James Franco, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Tobey Maguire, with comments from Kirsten Dunst spliced in from a separate session in London. Like most actor-centric commentary tracks, this is the fun one of the two. It's upbeat and kinda jokey, maybe leaning a little too far towards the everyone-and-everything-was-wonderful end of things, but it's a strong commentary overall. One of the most frequent topics of discussion is how in flux Spider-Man 3 constantly was, with a different villain attached at one point instead of Venom (The Vulture, to have been played by Ben Kingsley), swapping out which of Peter's love interests would be in peril in the climax, describing the very collaborate effort that went into making the film, and noting how the movie had a release date well before it ever had a script. Church's fantastic sense of humor really makes it worth a listen, pointing out how determined he was to punch a dog on-screen and poking fun at a movie he's probably long since slashed off his résumé. Raimi is coaxed into describing his visualization process, delving into his approach to storyboards and animatics, and there are some great stories such as Howard's impromptu reading for the part of Gwen Stacy, the amount of time her immensely famous father spent skulking around the set, and Franco taking lessons to flip omelettes and learn to do The Twist (I'm guessing not at the same time).
The other commentary is the more serious of the two, featuring editor Bob Murawaski, visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, and producers Avi Arad, Grant Curtis, and Laura Ziskin. It's much more focused on technical details, particularly Spider-Man 3's visual effects work, which consisted of around 900 effects shots tackled by a team of some 500 artists. Some of the more intensely technical notes include the evolution of 'the goo', the sheer scale of what went into the memorable shot of the Sandman lurching to life, and the lighting challenges associated with shooting a character in a black suit at night. There are plenty of other topics touched on throughout the track, though, such as the use of a one-armed martial artist as a double, Peter's proposal lifted from a story Ziskin was told repeatedly and by far too many different people during her stint working on The Newlywed Game, and how the film was originally supposed to be set during a snowy winter. Because a fair amount of this material is covered on the extensive set of featurettes on Spider-Man 3's second disc, this is the less essential of the two commentaries, but it's a solid track.
Snow Patrol's music video for "Signal Fire" (letterboxed in a 4x3 frame) veers away from the usual soundtrack video formula. Instead of alternating between clips from the movie and performance footage by the band, "Signal Fire" is set against the backdrop of a gaggle of kids putting on a Spider-Man themed play. The song's somewhere in the neighborhood of Sad Bastard Music™, but at least the video's clever. The first disc also includes a set of high-res still galleries, making use of the colored buttons on the remote to toggle between shots of paintings, sculptures, sketches, the special effects work, and director and cast shots. The galleries are fairly extensive, and I particular dug a glimpse at some of the conceptual art. Rounding out the first disc's extras is a six minute blooper reel (also letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen). It's pretty standard stuff but for whatever reason struck me as a lot funnier than usual, jumping back and forth between spontaneous bursts of laughter, flubbed lines, fumbling with props, and even a couple of CG gags.
The set's second disc is anchored around an extensive selection of featurettes, all of which are impressively provided in high definition. All of Spider-Man 3's villains -- the Sandman, Venom, and the new Goblin -- each get their own behind the scenes piece, clocking in around 40 minutes in total. These three featurettes take a look at the revised design of the characters as well as touching on their comic book backgrounds, backed by comments from quite a bit of the talent on both sides of the camera. The Goblin's is the shortest of the three since he's not as effects-intensive as the rest of the film's rogue's gallery, although his 11 minute featurette does delve in great detail into the design of his glider and weaponry as well as how his enormous fight was a difficult mix of CG imagery and live action photography. "Covered in Black: Creating Venom" describes the difficulty in coming up with the look and movement of an amorphous alien symbiote. The small army of interviewees also note how the symbiote is a metaphor for substance abuse before running through costume design, Topher Grace's elaborate make-up, the extensive digital effects work, and the several different stages of Venom that are seen throughout Spider-Man 3. Sandman is the most effects-intensive character in the movie, so it follows that "Grains of Sand: Building Sandman" is the most technically oriented of the featurettes. There are some character notes in here as well, but the emphasis is on the startling effects work, from the meticulous research Sony Pictures Imageworks did shooting reams and reams of reference footage of numerous types of sand to the technical challenges behind rendering a character that consists of untold millions of gritty particles the size of a pinhead. Interspersed throughout all of these interviews is a tremendous amount of behind the scenes footage, both on and off the set.
"Fighting, Flying, and Driving" (19 min.) serves up a lengthy overview of the film's numerous stunts: vehicular mayhem, smothering one of the movie's producers in thousands of pounds of corn, enormous fireballs, elaborate wire rigs, and Spider-Man 3's emphasis on stunts set hundreds of feet in the air. Several key effects sequences also get a close look with their own featurettes. "Wall of Water" (7 min.) focuses on the practical effects behind a vengeful Spider-Man finally finding a way to slow down the Sandman, backed by one of the largest scale water stunts in motion pictue history. "Hanging On..." (10 min.) takes a look at the elaborate physical stuntwork, impressive scale model tower, enormous hydraulic gimble, and all of the different visual elements that went into the sequence with Gwen Stacy struggling against the collapsing floor of an office tower. Aside from the intricate look into how this scene's effects were pulled off, there are also shots of all the rubber props that extras at ground level were pelted with to further flesh out the scene. "Cleveland - The Chase on Euclid Avenue" devotes seven minutes to the movie's biggest chase sequence, with Spidey running into Marko as the armored car he knocked over is careening down a busy street. The featurette follows the crew as they come up with as many different ways as they can to smash eighteen cars, show off a beefed-up version of Sam Raimi's old Ram-o-Cam, and are forced to quickly improvise after one key shot doesn't go nearly as expected.
While the Cleveland featurette is primarily focused on what went into just one scene, "New York: From Rooftops to Backstreets" (13 min.) casts a wider net, touching on all of the photography in the Big Apple, how New York is an integral character in the movie in and of itself, the dizzying aerial camerawork, and the crew's constant struggles with some inescapably rainy weather.
Two other making-of pieces step aside from the visual effects work and focus on other elements of production. "Inside the Editing Room" (4 min.) features editor Bob Murawaski running through the previsualization process and how that gradually transforms into a finished feature film. Murawaski also notes the challenges of detailing with so many different elements that are composited together into the final product. "The Science of Sound" (16 min.) has its audio beefed up to Dolby Digital 5.1 as it delves into Spider-Man 3's score and sound design. Composer Chris Young describes his writing process, followed by a lengthy series of shots of the recording of the orchestral score. Mixing is also touched on in detail, setting aside the time to highlight the design of one of the movie's most aurally impressive sequences, with Flint Marko caught in the swirling particle accelerator gates. I'm always fascinated by featurettes that take a look at Foley work, and "The Science of Sound" takes care to show just how much work goes into even an ordinary, undemanding scene, playing footage from one early sequence and listing the many different sounds that had been added in after the fact.
As much as I enjoyed the rest of the disc's featurettes, the only one that's completely focused on Spider-Man 3's characters really seems like an afterthought, kind of in keeping with the film itself. "Tangled Web" spends 9 minutes running through the movie's web of romantic entanglements, but there's not really any insight flailing around in here, playing more like a recap than anything else. There is a decent look at the choreography behind the dance number in the jazz dive, and that was interesting enough to salvage an otherwise pointless featurette.
An ad campaign gallery features the original teaser and a set of three trailers in high-def. Also included are TV spots from throughout the world -- Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy, Chile, Russia, Brazil, and the United Kingdom -- with those naturally presented in standard definition.
Several deleted scenes are mentioned throughout the disc's audio commentaries, but nothing like that has been provided on here. I guess they're being held back for a re-release down the road, and that's kind of a drag. I'm surprised that for such a flagship title, Sony didn't go to any extra lengths to show off Blu-ray's beefy interactivity. The menus and extras are all fairly traditional, which is fine -- I'm not really one to cry out for flashy bells and whistles -- but they don't show off what Blu-ray is capable of in the same way that the video and audio do.
Conclusion: Spider-Man 3 knows its a summer effects spectacle, shrugging off the strong characterization and emotional resonance that helped make the previous film stand out as among the best...if not the best...comic book adaptations of the past thirty years. Spider-Man 3 only bothers with a script as an excuse to string together a bunch of truly dazzling action sequences and some exceptional, groundbreaking visual effects, and even if the writing and story are weak, at least they don't get in the way. As far as the video and audio go, Spider-Man 3 is a reference quality Blu-ray release, bolstered by a reasonably strong set of extras, nearly all of which are offered in high definition. Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.