Thursday Rethink: Spider-Man 3 Is Messy but Not a Disaster

When did Spider-Man 3 become the go-to superhero movie to bash? There are plenty of superhero flicks with more modest aims that still muck things up. And, in the seven years since the release of Spider-Man 3, there have been plenty of superhero blockbusters that try to do even more, and that are even less successful.

I have to point out, I was one of the defenders of Spider-Man 3 back in 2007. I claimed then that the film was a thematic success at the cost of character development and fidelity to the comics. After re-watching the movie the other night, I have to admit that many of the criticisms hurled at Spider-Man 3 are valid.

This piece is both a personal re-evaluation of Spider-Man 3, and an attempt to moderate the vitriolic criticism the film has received. As I rethink Spider-Man 3 and relinquish the hard contrarian stance of my youth, I invite you to rethink whether the film is really the disaster people seem to remember.

The First Half is Solid

The first half of the Spider-Man 3 is much better than you might recall. The multiple storylines and themes of hubris, self-interest, and revenge are carefully set up. The genesis of Sandman stands out for its composure and beauty. Re-watching the movie, I was surprised how slowly and even elegantly the first half of the movie develops, in contrast to the rushed and messy second half, which too often relies on abrupt encounters and TV news as narrative shortcuts.

It Has Personality

The solid first half owes a lot to the skills of director Sam Raimi, who, one can’t forget, also made the outstanding Spider-Man 2, a superhero film with character development to rival any drama.

But the delicate handling of more serious content is not Raimi’s only skill. His Spider-Man films are equally full of visual flair and goofy humour. For much of Spider-Man 3, the humour hits (think of Bruce Campbell’s maître d’) and the goofy charm works (such as when Spidey receives the key to the city). Even Peter Parker’s notorious dance scene in the jazz club is so bizarre I enjoy it. While some of the special effects look surprisingly poor today, much of this seems due to the overly-ambitious choreography of the action scenes.

On the whole, the film has far more personality than most superhero movies today.

The Problem: Too Much

The film is a telling example of how superhero movies go wrong though. While almost everyone would agree that the film has too many villains, most critics, online commentators, and fans seem to overlook the root cause of that problem: fan service.

Interviews suggest that Sam Raimi originally wanted the film to focus on Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, resolving Harry’s storyline, and introducing Sandman. However, producer Laura Ziskin suggested the “other girl” become Gwen Stacy, and producer Avi Arad petitioned Sam Raimi to add Venom for the fans.

With the additions of Gwen Stacy and Venom, the film tried to give fans what they wanted. It’s true that even if Gwen and Venom were added in service to the fans that the film bungles their inclusion. Gwen becomes the “other girl,” when she’s Peter’s first romantic interest in the comics. Venom becomes merely a foil for Spider-Man, an example of one with great power choosing the dark path of self-interest and revenge. But if the producers had trusted Raimi’s original vision, then the film would likely have been more unified and ended stronger. That’s not to say that the problem lies with the fans themselves, but rather with the studio’s desire to bend the creative process to serve the perceived desires of fans.

The final act of Spider-Man 3 displays conflict between competing interests, between spectacle and character development, between having goofy fun and telling a serious morality tale. While some of these mistakes must fall on the director, Sam Raimi, viewed in 2014, Spider-Man 3 appears even more so an example of studio marketing overloading the creative process, a problem which persists in blockbuster filmmaking to this day.