From the beginning the deck was stacked against Spider-Man 3.
Its predecessor was not only a perfect Spider-Man film, but is still to this day the most perfect superhero movie ever made. A film whose legacy looms large over the entire genre in a way that no other movie has since Richard Donner’s Superman. But even beyond the unfathomably high bar set by Spider-Man 2, this film was plagued by behind-the-scenes turmoil with a studio and a filmmaker essentially working against each other to craft two very different stories that were tonally and thematically at odds. There was no way that could produce a fully coherent film, let alone one that can hold a candle to the masterwork of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. However, when the dust settled and this conflicted Frankenstein’s monster of a movie was released into theaters, the result was messy, compromised, and deeply flawed, but not entirely bad. Not exactly good, but better than its reputation and, likely, your own memory suggest.
Spider-Man 3 was a let down upon its initial release, and that disappointment has only seemed to calcify over time. It’s not uncommon to see Spidey 3 ranked alongside the worst films the superhero genre has offered up, and although I take great umbrage with that assessment, I understand the impulse behind it. In a very real way, Spider-Man 3 represented the dying breath of the early 2000s superhero movie. Thanks to Marvel Studios upending the entire genre with their approach to a cinematic universe starting in 2008, our current era of superheroic blockbusters is – much like the comics they draw inspiration from – a rivalry between two gargantuan entertainment corporations with the odd X-Men flick thrown in every few years to keep things interesting. Prior to 2008, though, the superhero movie landscape was populated by virtually every major studio working with two or three different franchises at once, each existing as their own distinct entity, and virtually all of them stunk. Daredevil, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Superman Returns, Elektra, Catwoman, Ghost Rider – these were the pits. Sure, we all liked X-Men and X2 at the time, but even those have aged abysmally in the decade-and-a-half since their release (don’t @ me X2 apologists). It was Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man that formally established the category, and outside of Batman Begins (which was sort of off on its own doing something wholly separate from the wider landscape of superhero movies), Raimi was the only one who seemed to be able to make funnybook movies that were worth a damn. The fact that even he was perceived to have whiffed it with Spider-Man 3 was enough for most people to call time of death on the whole genre.
Poetically, it feels appropriate for Raimi films to serve as bookends for this era of superhero films – a rousing triumph that reinvigorated the genre, and a colossal failure that signaled its end – but the reality isn’t that simple. Upon reevaluation, Spider-Man 3 is fatally flawed in ways that Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 simply were not, but it’s still better by far than nearly all the dreck that we once called their contemporaries. If we’re being totally honest, even this post-2008 “golden age” has produced some bona fide disasters that make Spider-Man 3 look like an uncompromised masterwork. But comparison will only take you so far. After all, most movies look good when placed next to the likes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Purely as a movie, on its own terms, how is Spider-Man 3? Well, it’s not great.
Look, there’s no getting around it: Spider-Man 3 is deeply, fundamentally, undeniably broken. Every ounce of behind-the-scenes turmoil is visible on screen and it manifests in a movie that is tonally uneven, narratively inconsistent, and formally sloppy. At times, especially early on, it almost feels like the result of two or three entirely different films haphazardly cut together. Scene transitions are completely unmotivated, struggling to set too many story threads in motion that have no tangible connection to one another. One moment we’re watching as ER doctors try to resuscitate Harry Osborn after his fight with Peter, the next we’re cutting away to Flint Marko on the run from the police, a character we barely know, and one who at that point has no established link to either Peter or Harry. Spider-Man 3 is simultaneously about Peter and Mary Jane’s romance being challenged by Peter’s narrow-minded myopia; Peter and Harry having to confront the fracturing of their friendship that’s been brewing over the course of the previous two movies; Peter once again having to confront the realities of Uncle Ben’s death and the feelings of anger, guilt, and vengeance that spring from that; and Peter in a professional and personal rivalry with Eddie Brock, Jr. as the bizarro world version of himself. Some of these stories work better than others, but they are each shortchanged as the movie struggles to give attention to all of them. The almost memetic reason people cite for Spider-Man 3’s failure as a film is the fact that it has “too many villains,” but that in itself is a symptom of the deeper problem that the movie is being pulled in too many different, often contradictory, narrative directions. I mean, hell, forget a love triangle, Spider-Man 3 has a love trapezoid.
But even with all this messiness, there are elements to each of these threads that really, really work. The most successful among them being Peter’s romance with Mary Jane falling apart because Peter can’t get outside of his own head to see the way M.J. is struggling. Peter Parker has always been a character defined by the struggle between the selfish inclination to say “screw the rest of the world, I’m taking care of me,” and the selfless empathy of putting someone else’s needs above your own. It’s the lesson that’s baked into his origin story, and part of what makes Spider-Man 2 such a perfect Peter Parker story is the way it gets us to feel this struggle. The film is relentless in the way it knocks Peter down over and over and over again with every stupid, frustrating, mundane struggle of life. Losing your job, not being able to pay rent, failing in school, fighting with your friends, seeing the love of your life get engaged to someone else. We understand completely why Peter would want to hang up the cape and try to get his own life sorted out. What makes Spider-Man 3 so smart is that it flips this conflict on its head and puts Mary Jane through hell while Peter totally ignores the way she needs his help – not as a superhero, but as a boyfriend.
It’s easy to forget since Tobey Maguire was 32 by the time Spider-Man 3 came out, but the character he’s playing is ostensibly supposed to be in his early twenties. As much as the costume or the webs or the “with great power” mantra, youth is a defining aspect of Spider-Man, and a defining aspect of youth is being kind of an oblivious shithead. Peter’s a good kid, but he constantly has to learn and relearn this lesson of putting other people’s needs before his own. It’s a perfect understanding of the character to come straight off of Peter learning this lesson in Spider-Man 2 only to have him completely fail to empathize with M.J.’s struggles in Spider-Man 3. It also totally works that it’s Harry, the kid who never felt understood by his father, who is there to listen and empathize with Mary Jane in Peter’s absence. Harry’s amnesia story is a first draft idea that never really works, but the love triangle between Harry, Peter, and M.J. is a terrific culmination of the way these characters developed over the previous films.
Beyond that, the way Peter’s turn to the “dark side” manifests is about as perfect a take on that particular story as one could ever hope for. It’s no secret that Venom and the symbiote suit were foisted upon the movie against Raimi’s will by the whims of Sony and producer Avi Arad, and were he not saddled with these intensely stupid yet inexplicably popular artifacts of ‘90s comic book storytelling the movie would have almost certainly been better off. In spite of all that, Raimi manages to mine some interesting depth from these ideas. Venom and the symbiote suit reflect the post-Dark Knight Returns trending towards “dark and gritty” storytelling in comics that mostly manifested in a bunch of uninteresting, lunkheaded “badasses” filling up comic book pages. Juvenile posturing that tries to give the impression of being “cool” and “adult” but is ultimately stupid and hollow. What Raimi does that’s so smart is that he doesn’t turn Spider-Man into a badass when he wears the symbiote suit, but rather a dorky kid pretending to be a badass without any real context for what that means. Peter gone bad is pathetic and whiny and embarrassing and that works because that’s what this looks like in real life. Look at any of the fedora wearing GamerGate-types and you’ll see something that looks remarkably similar to Peter’s dark turn in Spider-Man 3. These people fancy themselves hyper-cool badassess, but in actuality, they’re pathetic, angry children limply lashing out at the world around them.
This is why, as much as they’re ridiculed in the popular conversation, Spider-Man 3’s pair of dance scenes are, in actuality, the best damn scenes in the movie. They’re a dressing down of both the empty posturing of the “dark and gritty” trend in superhero stories as well as the angry, immature people who gravitate towards those stories. It lays it all bare and reveals it as the big, embarrassing joke it is, and it’s perfect. No other superhero film up until this year’s The LEGO Batman Movie has even attempted to tackle this idea, and as much as I love LEGO Batman, Raimi did it better.
As for Venom himself, I think the fact that he’s barely in the movie reflects that Raimi had less-than-zero interest in using this character, but what little we get from him – especially in the character of Eddie Brock prior to being consumed by the symbiote – is perhaps the most interesting take on the character that’s ever been written. Granted, that’s not an especially high bar to clear, but it’s still worth mentioning. Instead of staying true to the source by making Brock just another empty, ‘90s tough guy, Raimi casts him as a weaselly, obnoxious mirror of Peter Parker. Essentially, “what if Peter had never learned the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ lesson?” Once he fully becomes Venom in the third act, the character goes back to being basically worthless, but prior to that there’s a modicum of something interesting in Eddie. It just took a filmmaker who despises the character to do anything interesting with him.
Sandman is played wonderfully by Thomas Hayden Church even though his story is shortchanged to focus on the symbiote drama, and even though the retconning of Uncle Ben’s death is unforgivable there’s a germ of an interesting idea in Peter having to learn to empathize with the person who has caused him the most pain. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention that Sandman’s origin sequence is as beautiful and pure a piece of cinema as has ever been in a superhero movie. As a complete work of entertainment, Spider-Man 3 fundamentally fails, but if you’re willing to go in and dig around in it, there’s a lot to like that’s unfortunately cast adrift in the mess of the movie. It’s a film that is less than the sum of its parts, but it’d be a tragedy to condemn the parts to spite the whole.
Spider-Man 3 may have marked the death of the early 2000s superhero film, but even as the film is a conflicted, compromised, mess, it understands its characters on a fundamental level that almost none of its contemporaries did. Even in the last decade, the genre has proven that that’s not as easy a thing as it may seem, as the pair of reboot movies in Raimi’s absence managed to get absolutely every aspect of who Peter Parker is as a person wrong. If even in its most derided sequence Spider-Man 3 can provide more interesting commentary on its characters and genre than a decade’s worth of superhero filmmaking, maybe the film deserves a better legacy than being used as shorthand for the worst of what the genre has to offer.