What if Spider-Man were an asshole?
That’s the proposition that takes up too many long, cheerless minutes of Spider-Man 3’s running time. Though he intends to marry his beloved Mary Jane Watson, Spidey is barely interested in her failing career as a Broadway singer. He saves a pretty blonde from a skyscraper disaster and then makes out with her in public while M.J. watches from the crowd. And then, after she tells him to get lost, he turns into a stalker with a flair for theatrics in a scene that sees director Sam Raimi reaching toward musical comedy.
Anybody who knows The Evil Dead, or its more transparently farcical sequels, knows Raimi can do comedy. But even though Tobey Maguire does self-regarding jackass pretty well, he lacks a comedian’s light touch — and these scenes demand a comedian. Unfortunately, the screenplay for Spider-Man 3 (credited to Sam and his brother Ivan plus Spider-Man 2 co-writer Alvin Sargent) leans more heavily than either of its predecessors on comedy and romance, starting with an opening scene that has Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane strolling toward the camera and singing.
Well, just as Maguire is no Buster Keaton, Dunst is no Betty Grable — it’s no surprise that M.J. can’t keep her stage gig, but Raimi & Co. keep laying on the high jinks, eventually sending Peter Parker out onto the city streets to leer at women from beneath Peter Murphy bangs and into a nightclub where he comes on like a cross between Crispin Glover and the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This is all due to the dark influence of Spidey’s sinister new black suit — comic-book fans know it’s really an alien parasite seeking to take over Peter Parker’s body. In an effort to please those readers, who’ve made Venom one of the most popular supervillains in comics history, Spider-Man 3 has been crammed full to bursting with exposition.
The movie does have a strong plot throughline — it’s all about Flint Marko (Michael Haden Church), the two-bit hood who becomes the shape-changing Sandman, a classic Marvel adversary who’s rewritten here to become the killer of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. It’s a sloppy screenplay move, and flies in the face of existing Spider-Man mythology, but it sets up the melodrama Raimi needs to drive the film toward the Venom storyline. On his own, the Sandman is probably the most interesting Spider-Man-film villain so far, with a human dimension that’s encapsulated in one great shot. Having reconstituted his form following the particle-physics accident that disintegrated his body, Marko tries to retrieve the locket he’s dropped that holds a picture of his ailing and estranged daughter — but can’t pick it up because his hands are now made of sand. It’s that kind of almost absurdly poetic image that has made the Spider-Man films the most supremely effective of contemporary blockbusters, focusing the story resolutely on character.
But the Sandman story, along with the redemption of Harry Osborn (James Franco), is compromised and defocused as the film works its multiple narrative threads up to allow yet another villain into the mix. By making Sandman culpable in the murder of Uncle Ben, Raimi is able to show how the black suit amplifies Peter’s worst tendencies, including un uncharacteristic bloodlust. That ties into the introduction of Eddie Brock, Peter Parker’s bitter rival at the Daily Bugle, who plays host to the alien costume after Spider-Man rejects it and comes after him for revenge as the muscular, toothy, black-suited Venom. How many super-villains does a Spider-Man movie need, anyway?
One of the charming aspects of the Spider-Man series has been Raimi’s rejection of the rules of thumb for crazy-expensive blockbusters — that you have to open an action movie with a large set piece that sets the stage for bigger action to come; that you can’t spend much time fleshing out characters, or on story beats that don’t move inexorably toward the next action scene; that, essentially, you have to assume that your audience’s attention span has become shorter with every passing year. But the signal-to-noise ratio is lower than ever in this film — the misguided screwball comedy balances poorly against the action sequences. Only a scene early in the film where Peter Parker takes a mid-air beating from the Goblin and the climactic showdown, channeling King Kong, really bring the action, and the film’s comic potential gels only briefly, when Bruce Campbell shows up as a maître d’. The movie’s swings toward formula feel especially lame this time around — of course the ineffectual Mary Jane will be taken hostage and held as bait for Spider-Man in the film’s final act, and of course M.J. and Peter will eventually reconcile.
Raimi took another gamble that doesn’t quite pay off. Only rarely in this film does Peter Parker actually pull on the Spider-Man mask — a declaration that character and performance are more important in Raimi’s universe than costume and spectacle. Sadly, while Maguire and Dunst are both cute as dogs’ ears, they’re decidedly limited in emotional range (at least within the confines of this scenario). Even so, I suspect that wouldn’t matter so much if they were supported by the kind of slam-bang set pieces that defined the first two films. Remember the scene from Spider-Man 2 where our hero had to figure out a way to stop a runaway subway train before it shot off the end of the track? Maguire played much of that scene with no mask on, the better to highlight the wide-eyed combination of determination and desperation his version of our savior brought to the screen. I don’t think Maguire is a technically great actor, but that bordered on a great performance because it so fully drew an audience up into the mind of the character on screen.
Audiences root for Spider-Man not solely because he’s a superhero, but partly because they want to be Spider-Man — because the sensation of swinging in between buildings, climbing walls, and thwipping webs from rooftop to rooftop just seems so damned cool — and Maguire was able to communicate something of what that might feel like on a not-particularly-good day. This time around, there’s a little less derring-do and a lot more derring-don’t, which means kids are less likely to get a vicarious thrill than to ask their parents, “Why did Spider-Man do that?” Of course, Raimi didn’t intend for Spider-Man 3 to be heartless — it’s clearly meant to play as a cautionary tale about the necessity of empathy, humility and forgiveness, even among superheroes. But even so, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience wanting to be the callous, womanizing dork that takes up too much screen time this time around. And that’s bad news for a Spider-Man movie. C+