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When Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man premiered in July 2012, the general reaction seemed to be: well, it’s better than Spider-Man 3, obviously. A few passionate defenders called Amazing a better, more faithful representation of the Peter Parker and Spidey of the comic books than the Sam Raimi take, but for the most part, the movie seems to have been met with something between an affectionate shrug and an encouraging smile. But at least it was better than Spider-Man 3. Obviously.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (for serious, you guys still aren’t going with The Spectacular Spider-Man for a sequel title?) opens this weekend to kick off the summer movie season, and while the early reviews seem a bit more mixed than its predecessor’s, it almost certainly won’t be treated with the same level of derision as Spider-Man 3. Obviously.
Now, I haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet. There will be a SportsAlcohol.com editorial summit on Friday night to determine what the deal with this movie is. But I have seen The Amazing Spider-Man, and the thing about that movie is: it’s not as good as Spider-Man 3. Not nearly.
The thing about Spider-Man 3 is: it’s actually pretty good.
Not as good as Spider-Man and certainly not as good as Spider-Man 2. To be sure, Spider-Man 3 is the weakest of Raimi’s de facto trilogy, and has two major problems that feed into each other: overcrowding and retconning. Before we get to the good stuff, these problems should be addressed.
The supposed problem of villain overcrowding has been noted at least since Batman Returns in 1992, and indeed, the first series of Batman movies seemed to add bad guys indiscriminately for easy stakes-raising. But as Christopher Nolan’s Batman series has shown, multiple villains don’t have to mean jammed-up storylines: that trilogy managed to include Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Mr. Zsasz, Bane, Carmine Falcone, and Catwoman. Some had bigger roles than others, of course, but that’s pretty much the same number of villains that populate the Burton/Schumacher films.
Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 adheres more to the Schumacher model of villains, only it’s applied to the entire cast. Apart from the introductions and transformations of Flint Marko (the Sandman) and Eddie Brock (Venom) and the revival of the Green Goblin in the guise of Harry Osborn, Spider-Man 3 adds Gwen Stacy (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her police-captain father while continuing to utilize its beloved supporting characters (Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Curt Connors) and, if anything, upping the screentime afforded to Harry Osborn and Mary Jane Watson. The movie also serves its themes of internal conflict by having several main characters toggle back and forth between personalities, essentially piling on additional characters even when familiar ones are onscreen: Peter Parker bonds with an alien symbiote that brings out a dark side to his personality. Harry Osborn loses his memory (and thirst for vengeance against Peter/Spider-Man), then regains it. Mary Jane has a real flirtation with Harry, then is manipulated by him when he re-evils.
The movie has so little actual room for its characters that it ret-cons them into the earlier films whenever possible. Flint Marko turns out to be involved in the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, just to give him some convenient incentive to seek symbiote-encouraged revenge. Less of a direct retcon but perhaps even more ridiculous, Bernard Houseman (John Paxton), the Osborn butler for the entire series, decides late in the film to come forward and tell Harry that his father was a murderous lunatic and that Parker did not kill him, and for some reason this and only this can convince Harry to renounce his evil ways (and for some reason Bernard did not see fit to share this information sooner).
Individually, most of the movie’s characters get a moment or three where they shine. Narratively, though, Spider-Man 3 is a mess. Both of the overcrowding and retconning stem from a script that seems unfinished at best; check out that patchwork bit where local news narrates Spider-Man’s big climactic fight with Venom and Sandman. There is also, as mentioned, some whiplash-inducing twists and reversals between Peter, Harry, and MJ in terms of who is wronging who and for what reason.
AND YET: Narrative is overrated sometimes. Spider-Man 3 is a lot of fun and far more good than bad. It came out a year after X-Men: The Last Stand, and for some reason that movie got a pass as a mild disappointment from a lot of fans, while Spider-Man 3 is still held up as something as a disaster. It’s not a disaster! It’s a pretty good movie with a pretty weak script! Surely you’ve heard of this practice before. It also takes Spider-Man to some new places, which is a lot more than I can say for The Amazing Spider-Man insisting that it’s taking a different approach while more or less remaking the first Raimi movie with a minimum or imagination. If we’re going to say that Marc Webb didn’t make a terrible Spider-Man movie, then we as a culture need to admit that Sam Raimi never made a terrible Spider-Man movie.