Spider-Man 3 seems like a shoo-in to join Spider-Man 1 and 2 in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time
, but reviews have been mixed. Right now it's running about 60% positive at Metacritic
and 61% positive at Rotten Tomatoes
So is it any good? I thought so, but this isn't a movie review. As an internationally-recognized expert in Spidey Studies, I thought it would be important to point out where Spider-Man 3 gets it right, and where it get things wrong. I'll start with the bad news first, with the good news to follow in the next day or two.
Please note: this is not a series of gripes over deviations from the "cannon" of the original Amazing Spider-Man comic books or anything like that. Spider-Man, like many of his his comic book and other literary brethren, has been written by many different people over the years in many different media. Instead, I hope to point out where Sam Raimi deviated from the crux of the characters or missed opportunities that presented themselves.
1. Spider-Man is never that popular.
As the film opens Spider-man has been embraced by New York as one of their own. After a dramatic rescue of the police chief's daughter, he gets even more kudos. The problem is that Spider-man never gets that much praise.
Oh, he might occasionally save a falling construction worker and get cheered by a crowd, but he's invariably doubted and dogged by naysayers. And not just the muckrakers at the Daily Bugle. He certainly doesn't get the key to the city and a marching band. This is one of the reasons he's such a great character.
I understand that the plot required some overconfidence on Pete's part so he would miss how troubled Mary Jane had become, but it shouldn't take much to make Pete feel appreciated, given all the negative press he's used to. Near the start of the movie Peter Parker notices his alter-ego on a jumbotron TV screen and is soon joined by a gaggle of cheering children. When the clip ends, the kids run off, not nearly interested enough to wait for it to start over. This is a perfect example of how Spider-Man's popularity has been treated in the comics for virtually his entire career - kids and the occasional falling construction worker might love him, but the powers-that-be (and the many people just opposed to vigilantism) are generally sour on Spider-Man no matter what he does.
2. Eddie Brock is too shallow a character to be interesting
Venom has seen some pretty dodgy writing over the years (i.e. "I want to eat your brains"), but as a general rule, villains are much more interesting when they have a little character development behind them. Lots of little hints about motivation were dropped, but we spent so little time with Edward Brock, Jr. that it was hard to see anything more than "I'm shallow paparazzi guy, hate me."
Brock did not have to be a sympathetic antagonist, like the Sandman, but with a little more development we could have gotten a better idea of how he could hate Peter so much and see himself as the victim.
3. Unexplained psuedo-scientific super powers good, ridiculous coincidences bad.
Action movies almost always require a little suspension of belief, and comic book movies draw from that well often. That's fine. I'm more than willing to buy into a genetically-engineered spider bite causing super-strength, a completely unexplained physics experiment turning a man into living sand, and a malevolent alien goo bonding to a human host.
But when the alien goo just happens to arrive on earth via a meteorite that just happens to land in New York City just 10 feet from the one-and-only Spider-Man, I call foul. There are plenty of perfectly reasonable ways for Pete to come into contact with the symbiote - maybe it was discovered and brought to the science lab at his college, or maybe it moved from person to person before finding Spider-Man and becoming attracted by his potential for violence. Whatever. The point is that the introduction of the symbiote seemed like a last-minute addition, "oops we forgot to mention where the thing came from, just have it land in his pocket."
How does this violate the spirit of Spider-Man? One of the interesting things about Spidey is despite having several titles devoted to him, he is almost never shown as the center of the world. Super Man might have supporting characters like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, but ultimately everything happens in his life and he always saves the world/universe. Spider-Man's supporting characters have always been more independently interesting than that, and very often he's just a bit player in stories (and world-devouring menaces) much bigger than himself. Pointless coincidences undermine that.
4. Harry Osborn needs to grow a pair
The rather abrupt flipping from enemy to amnesia-addled best friend to enemy and back to friend of Harry Osborn actually fits the treatment of his character in the comics fairly well. Green Goblins are constantly forgetting who they are and whether or not they hate Peter Parker due to bumps on the head, effects of the goblin serum, or even just continuity hiccups.
When Peter asks Harry for his help saving MJ, though, the film goes down the wrong route. Instead of facing his conflicted feelings for MJ, Peter, and his father, struggling to face his father's influence, and deciding to act, his butler just tells him "your dad killed himself so forget all the emo crap and go fight the bad guys."
5. Spider-Man 3 should have been two movies
Like Batman before him, Spider-Man has caught a case of multiple-villain disease. The cause is pretty easy to understand - characters that have been in print for over 40 years build up a backlog of rouges and story arcs, while most movie franchises end at three or four films. It can be tempting to try to cram more in, but it's a mistake.
The end result is that we don't have enough time to adequately explore Harry / Green Goblin, the Flint Marko / Sandman, or Eddie Brock / Venom. The fight sequences in Spider-Man three are all amazing, thrilling, a joy to watch, but with so many fights to get in they don't necessarily lead up to a climax.
Here's how it should have worked:
- The first one starts on a high note, with Spider-Man getting a bit of positive press for the first time and MJ starring on Broadway. With Harry's memory gone, Pete even has his best friend back. But MJ is fired, Pete finds out that Marko is the real killer, and try as he might Spider-Man can't defeat the Sandman. To add insult to injury he loses a staff job to Brock. Despite his misgivings, Pete uses the strange black substance to augment his powers and take on Sandman. With the black costume, Spider-Man is able to seemingly kill Marko, a hollow victory since he has compromised his principles along the way. The movie ends with MJ breaking up with him and Harry regaining his memory and putting his plans back in motion.
- To start the second movie, Pete lashes out as his troubles by exposing Brock and humiliating (and striking) MJ. Shocked at himself, Pete tears off the suit, leading to creation of Venom. Pete returns to red and blue costume, apologizes to MJ. In the mean time, Brock goes through something similar to Pete in Spider-Man 1, discovering his powers, but he doesn't have the basic human decency and attitude about power and responsibility that Pete does. He goes after Spider-Man, and Pete can't seem to beat Venom. Venom lets him go, making it clear he's toying with Spidey and can attck again at any time. Harry continues to drive a wedge between Pete and MJ and makes sure Venom is mistaken by police for Spidey. Finally, Brock kidnaps MJ. Pete starts to figure out how to fight Venom and is just getting an edge over him when the Sandman appears. Harry has a crisis - he does care for MJ, is he just his father's puppet? He comes to realize that he should be his own person and flies in to help.
Then everyone cries. The end.
The advantage of breaking it into two parts is pretty clear - you can devote an arc to a single main villain in each movie, with large arcs for Pete, MJ, and Harry. In addition there's the change to end the first part on a low note, like Star Wars did in Empire Strikes Back or Lord of the Rings in The Two Towers.
So enough complains. Coming soon: five things they got right in Spider-Man 3.