Whoever coined the expression “third time’s the charm” had clearly never experienced the inevitable decline of a Hollywood action franchise. No matter how impressive a series’ first two entries—and Sam Raimi’s previous Spider-Man pictures clearly rank among the finest examples of Cinema Gargantua ever produced—the third effort will find its charm reserves thoroughly depleted and inspiration gradually devolving into desperation. By now, all novelty has worn off; characterizations—flimsy to begin with in this genre—have begun to calcify. This is the point at which folks start tossing out goofy ideas like, “What if his dad turns out to be James Bond?” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) or “Maybe Richard Pryor would attract a whole new demographic” (Superman III) or “What the heck, let’s just kill off almost everyone from the last movie in the first few seconds and start from scratch” (Alien 3). Spider-Man 3 has one plot development nearly that deranged, which I’ll get to in due course, but the overall game plan involves tossing so much sheer stuff at us that we’ll be too dizzy and distracted to notice that no single element is actually working.
You want villains? Our boy Spidey must contend not just with the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), an ex-con brawler capable of departiculating his entire body at will; not just with Harry Osborn (James Franco), who’s discovered his late father’s secret laboratory and refashioned himself as a junior version of the Green Goblin; but also with a malevolent hunk of symbiotic black goo from outer space, which first attaches itself to one of Spider-Man’s costumes and later transforms snotty rival Daily Bugle photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) into a fanged mutant Spider-Clone known as Venom. You want romance? Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is still around, but she’s now simmering with jealousy at the vapid blond advances made by Peter’s science lab partner, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard). You want inner torment? Action cinema’s reigning dweeb here finally discovers his dark side, alienating everyone who loves him in a misguided attempt at playing badass.
It’s in this sequence, which takes place not long after Peter’s psyche starts to be influenced by the proto-Venom space goo, that Spider-Man 3 curtails its trail-mix assault of random incident and briefly springs to some kind of nutty life. Few people saw Tobey Maguire effectively trash his boyish, nice-guy image in Steven Soderbergh’s unfairly maligned The Good German, but Maguire clearly relishes each such opportunity; this interlude is the comic flipside of that performance, as he struts and pimps with all the uninhibited flamboyance of Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller. I can’t say that the gambit actually works—certainly it lacks the concise elegance of the previous film’s sublime “Spider-Man no more” montage. But it does at least serve as a respite from the uniform blockbuster din that makes the rest of the movie feel like Spider-Mans 3-6, condensed and compressed.
Ordinarily, I’d now call for the franchise to be retired with its remaining dignity intact. Trouble is, I still kind of want to see the next installment, provided that Raimi—or maybe it’s time for somebody else to take a stab—can focus a little. Despite its manic approach, Spider-Man 3 all but ignores Gwen Stacy, who was the fulcrum of the original comic book’s most celebrated and unforgettable story arc. And Dylan Baker (Happiness) has now appeared twice as Dr. Curt Connors, a character who fans know will one day become the Lizard. Much more than Venom—an ’80s addition to the comic who feels out of place within the nostalgic, ’60s-derived universe of the movies—the Lizard truly is Spider-Man’s distorted mirror reflection; Connors is every bit as nerdy as Peter Parker and hence is Spidey’s ideal adversary. Just don’t give us the Lizard and Mysterio and the Hobgoblin.
Spider -Man 3
Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst,
Topher Grace, James Franco,
Thomas Haden Church, Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by Sam Rami