Spider-Man 3 (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Spider-Man series, which debuted in 2002 and continued in 2004 and 2007, represents the first superhero cycle to complete a trilogy with the same primary cast and production team it had at the beginning. If nothing else, that assures viewers of a certain degree of continuity. However, while it could be argued that Spider-Man 2 had too little plot for its substantial running length, the opposite could be said of Spider-Man 3. It's really two movies crammed into one, the first of which is a lot better than the second. Spider-Man 3 starts out strong but before it finishes, many viewers will desperately wish it had called it quits an hour earlier.

One has to consider that the film's problems - and they are numerous - may be the product of the franchise's runaway popularity. In each of the first two films, director Sam Raimi was careful to limit the villain count to one (unless one counts Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, brilliantly played by J.K. Simmons). Here, it triples, and the focus on the bad guys limits the amount of time we have for the soap opera that is Peter Parker's life. Expectations for this movie were sky-high and one wonders whether the pressure to fulfill them caused the director to overreach his grasp and miss the point that bigger and louder do not always equate to better.

When the film opens, things couldn't be rosier for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). His alter-ego, Spider-Man, is a beloved icon. His girlfriend, Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst), is making her Broadway debut. And he's getting straight A's in college. The only downside is that his former best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), continues to harbor a grudge. Harry has discovered his dad's secret storage space full of bombs and body-changing chemicals and he uses those to pursue his goal of offing Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Harry isn't the only bad guy Peter will have to face. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), the con who killed Uncle Ben, has escaped from prison and fled into a forbidden testing zone where radiation turns him into a creature made from living sand. And a parasitic creature from outer space called Venom has infected Spidey's suit, enhancing his powers and aggression any time Peter wears it. Venom eventually makes its way into the body of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a photographer with a grudge against Peter.

The film's setup is effective and feels like a continuation of the previous Spider-Man stories. The most kinetic action scene is the first one, as Harry and Peter tussle through the streets of New York. Although Sandman's introduction is lame, Thomas Haden Church plays the character so movingly that might have been possible to ignore this plot device if it was the only weak one in the movie (which it isn't). The most glaring stumbling block is Venom. He's one bad guy too many. Not only is the creature poorly realized but its introduction into the story causes everything to be crowded, rushed, and overlong. Spider-Man 3 feels like it should end around the 1:40 mark, but like the Energizer Bunny on a rampage, it keeps going.

The climactic battle is a disaster. It's not exciting and it requires two contrivances too excruciating to ignore (one involves a butler that would make Alfred look dumb; the other involves Sandman's eventual fate). It's unforgivable that the film's last action scene should be so vastly inferior to the first one. The special effects aren't even all that impressive. There are several instances in which it's all-too-obvious that Spider-Man and his nemeses are computer generated. This is sloppier than anything in either Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2.

To a large extent, the movie seems like a regurgitation of motifs and ideas from its predecessors. The Mary Jane/Peter/Harry love triangle is back and it spends much of the movie spinning its wheels (although I will admit that the scene on the bridge is heartbreaking). Peter once again must battle his inner demons and bemoan how he handled Uncle Ben's death. Mary Jane gets to bait the hook for a third time and ends up re-playing the damsel in distress role. The fight scenes feel like they take a little from the first movie, a little from the second, and mix them together. They're more formulaic than exhilarating, and there's nothing in Spider-Man 3 that comes close to the train sequence from Spider-Man 2.

There are also unnecessary characters. I guess Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) has been added as a nod to comic book fans, but she serves no purpose other than to make us wonder whether Mary Jane is still an interesting character. Her father (James Cromwell) is equally underused. Bruce Campbell gets a nice extended cameo, but why do his scenes seem like Monty Python outtakes? And, as I have already mentioned, everything about Venom is a mistake. At the very least this villain deserved its own movie rather than being awkwardly shoehorned into a film that starts out being about Peter, Harry, and Sandman.

Audience reaction to the film at the midnight opening screening was negative, bordering on hostile, meaning that the core group of fans did not like what they were seeing. It's easy to understand their displeasure. Compared to the other two movies in the series, this one is a misfire. It's for completists only, and even they are likely to feel let down. Spider-Man and the first sequel were breezy adventures - easy and fun to sit through. Spider-Man 3 is a chore. The effective moments require a lot patience to uncover and some of what has to be shifted to get to them is not worth the effort. People love trilogies because it's said that good things come in threes, but this series would have looked better and felt more satisfying had the filmmakers stopped at two.

Spider-Man 3 (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2007-05-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1