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.
Ten Great Things about Spider-Man 3, In No Particular Order
1. Its action sequences and special effects.
Of course, a whole lot of superhero movies boast large-scale action sequences and serviceable-to-strong special effects. Then again, Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has exactly one semi-memorable set piece, where the Lizard and Spider-Man fight through the halls of Parker’s high school (and if I recall correctly, the set-up for this sequence is pretty weak, as it follows what seems to be either a solid fifteen hours or so of the Lizard knowing Parker’s identity but failing to attack him, say, while he sleeps at night; or Parker returning to school immediately following a major supervillain dust-up. I think it’s the former. Either way, kind of stupid).
Spider-Man 3, meanwhile, boasts a number of high-flying sequences with whip-crack editing, like the Peter/Harry battle toward the beginning of the movie, the runaway crane that threatens to demolish a chunk of Manhattan, and the Sandman’s armored truck robbery. Some of them suffer ever so slightly from computerized overload; Spider-Man 2 probably still has the series’ best-looking effects shots and action sequences. But Sam Raimi knows how to knock characters into each other with style.
2. Its focus on the central trio of Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry.
Spider-Man as a movie series presents an immediate and unavoidably structural problem in that many of the best-loved comics storylines of yore feature Peter Parker as a teenager, which he could safely remain for years in the funnybook pages (you know, like Luann). In the movies, though, casting even a young-ish actor as Parker and sticking with him means that even a relatively swift sequel will nudge the actor further away from his original age, necessitating some aging of Peter along with him. One might posit that the movies have actually failed to properly try out this tactic, as Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire were both in their late twenties when playing high schooler Peter Parker (even the younger 2012-edition Emma Stone and 2002-edition Kirsten Dunst were solidly past high school ages when they entered the Spider-Man universe). But starting with a younger actor would solve the problem for, at best, probably one more sequel.
Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, though, actually does a nice job taking its characters through five years or so of growth. They’re graduating high school in the first one; adjusting to life in college and/or the real world in the second; and by the third, approaching actual adulthood. The movie confronts this uncomfortable transition head-on when Parker’s gee-whiz approach to his relationship fails to comfort MJ when she meets real failure early in Spider-Man 3. Similarly, while her eye drifting toward sullen brooder turned happy-go-lucky amnesiac turned supervillain Harry Osborn might seem like an odd retreat of territory from the first movie, it also makes sense that MJ might re-evaluate whether she and Harry have cahnged in ways that Peter hasn’t. Hardcore superhero fans and even probably lots of casual movie fans scoffed at the scene where MJ and Harry flirt over omelet-making in his massive kitchen, but I admire a superhero movie unafraid to pause for some human interaction. Harry and MJ making omelets isn’t exactly one of the hallway-tracking shots from Elephant, you know?
3. Specifically, Franco’s performance, his best as Harry Osborn.
Franco has an odd presence on screen. He can be troubled and magnetic, like on Freaks and Geeks, but many of his traditional movie-star roles bring out his bland side (though his work as an Ash-like jerk of a phony wizard in Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful is undervalued). He can be hilarious in movies as varied as Pineapple Express and Spring Breakers, while being straight-arrow dull in ensembles like the upcoming Third Person. The part of Harry Osborn ostensibly calls upon Franco’s charisma, sincerity, and menace, but in the first two movies he sometimes gets lost in the flash of the more dominant villains. But due to the aforementioned journey from anger to happiness to Green Goblinosity, Franco gets a lot of stuff to play in Spider-Man 3. From a plot perspective, probably too much. It’s still satisfying, though, when he finally teams up with Peter for a showdown with Sandman and Venom.
4. Even more specifically, his smug pleasure and pie appreciation after observing the destruction he hath wrought over Parker and MJ’s relationship.
5. A superhero story that hasn’t really been told before.
Even before a symbiotic menace from outer space gets its gunky hooks into Peter, he’s experiencing some major ego boosts. Spider-Man 3 finds him balancing his love life, nerd live, and secret superhero life, and feeling pretty psyched about it. In other words, Spider-Man 3 isn’t about the costs of being Spider-Man; it’s about the costs of success. That is actually super-interesting, because the usual superhero sequel finds things getting worse for the hero due to bigger/badder threats, the death of someone close to him, or some other exterior force. Here, Peter Parker is the reason for a lot of the bad stuff that happens to him. He’s not even indulging in insane arrogance or hubris, just pride. He may face a severe punishment for it, but that’s still an interesting counterpoint to the first movie’s post-9/11 rah-rah stuff.
6. The parts where Peter Parker has an emo haircut and dances and stuff.
When Parker becomes infected with the alien symbiote, he turns bad, and many a proud dipshit have proclaimed how fucking lame it is that Bad Peter Parker wears his hair in emo bangs and struts around like a dork. But as Dr. Curt Connors explains to a cookie-munching, milk-guzzling Parker on his payphone, the symbiote amplifies characteristics of the host. So Parker’s unassuming dorkiness becomes aggressive dorkiness, much to the disgust of women on the street who recoil as Parker gives ’em the old finger guns. Of course Bad Peter Parker vaguely resembles a wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon; haven’t we always suspected that The Mask was also a portrait of extremely dorky superherodom?
Also: beyond entirely justifiable plot mechanics, these goofball dance sequences are delightful, standing with Dr. Octopus attack in Spider-Man 2 as the Sam Raimi-est of any scenes in the trilogy not involving Bruce Campbell. The quick hair-blowing zooms in the sequence at the jazz club, the smash cut to Parker’s lips as he whispers “now dig on this”… this is why you pay Sam Raimi to make his Spider-Man movies. Even a fraction of that playfulness would be nice to see from Marc Webb, who got his start making the stylistically bold 500 Days of Summer and brought almost none of that invention to his superhero movie.
7. Topher Grace as Eddie Brock.
Yes, the Venom stuff feels tacked on, and was allegedly included due to studio pressure. As played by Grace, though, the Eddie Brock character is pretty interesting. He starts off looking like a cocky jerk version of Peter Parker, reflecting the kind of aggression that Peter often eschews in his personal life. But though Grace doesn’t have much screen time, the movie is typically generous, as Raimi’s Spidey movies often are, about his transformation into a villain, framing it as coming from a place of hurt rather than evil. Brock may be an asshole, but there’s a real sadness to his pleading with Parker not to reveal his doctored photos, or the way he calls Gwen Stacy his girlfriend after a single coffee date. He doesn’t seek out the symbiote that turns him into Venom any more than Peter does (and yes, another problem with Spider-Man 3 is its bizarre reliance on coincidences for plot turns: the symbiote lands from space near Peter Parker; then, when he’s trying to get rid of it, Brock walks into the very same church — to pray for Parker to die! — and gets infected), and his creepy smarminess when he goes full-on villain is pretty funny.
8. J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson.
Obviously he’s in all three Raimi Spider-Man movies, but consider this: any movie with Simmons as Jameson has something going for it. One thing the Marc Webb movies could have done to win me over is to have Simmons play J. Jonah Jameson in the new series regardless of the continuity do-over, like how Judi Dench played M to Pierce Brosnan and then to a rebooted Daniel Craig. They have not, as yet, done this.
9. It doesn’t focus at all on setting up further sequels.
Raimi did allegedly have a plan to survive this movie’s unpleasant production and make a Spider-Man 4, which was eventually scotched by Sony for being too expensive and for using the unsexy villain the Vulture. But while I would have liked to see that movie, Spider-Man 3 doesn’t end with a cliffhanger for part four, nor a credit cookie promising further plot twists. It doesn’t even really tease the long-presumed possibility that Curt Connors (played by Dylan Baker in the movie) would become the Lizard, as must have been a plan at some point (the Lizard did make it into Amazing). As messy as the movie’s storytelling is, it’s actually trying to tell its stories in this movie, rather than abandoning story threads to be resolved in the sequel, as Amazing did with the mystery surrounding the death of Peter’s parents.
10. It ends, in fact, on a bittersweet note.
Lots of geeks — you know, sensitive types — complained that Peter Parker spends so much of these movies crying like a little pussy girl baby etc. etc. etc. Congratulations, geeks: you officially became Flash Thompson with this complaint. The movie’s climax ends not only with the Sandman giving himself to the wind and Harry Osborn dying in aid of his best friend, the movie itself actually goes for a low-key denouement that moves Peter and MJ toward reconciliation, but does no more than that. In the jazz club where she works now, they embrace, and the movie fades out. This is arguably the ballsiest of modern comic-book movie endings in that it emphasizes the human emotions of the movie, not how Spider-Man will be back in a jiff to kick some more ass.
So yeah, even a compromised and sloppy Raimi Spider-Man movie has more going for it than a lot of superhero movies. You can probably draw a line from some of the disgruntlement over Spider-Man with the general fan orthodoxy that has poisoned, sometimes faintly and sometimes fatally, a lot of adaptations in the years since: the idea that a movie is a gift to “the fans,” rather than a filmmaker expressing something particular. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t risk alienating Spider-Man fans because it takes very few risks at all with its material. I will allow that it is probably better than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and that Emma Stone is delightful. But that’s as far as I’ll go.