In Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi understood Tobey Maguire’s web-slinger as an icon. The film’s key scene had a small crowd of people gratefully hoisting an injured Spider-Man through a subway car—a representation of mourning that was not without spiritual resonance. That scene is the defining moment of the Spider-Man franchise, but its significance is traduced by this needlessly fraught third entry, its narrative trading in the desperate, almost acrobatic plot-tinkling of a daytime soap. History is rewritten to permit the existence of Thomas Haden Church’s escaped con, the action sequences are dull, and characters are hastily and insufficiently introduced, but it is the overstuffed story the leaves one weary—not one, not two, but three villains for Spider-Man to contend with, which doesn’t even take into account the horror of Spidey’s phenomenally inflating ego.
Spider-Man 3 sees Spider-Man not as a Christ-like figure but as a rock star who allows the public’s adulation of his heroism to go to his head. (Minor spoilers herein.) This has catastrophic effects when he kisses Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) on the lips during a photo-op, disrespecting Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and sending her into the arms of Harry (James Franco), who, after testing out his foxy New Goblin disguise, stops itching for revenge against Spidey because—get this—an accident wipes out his short-term memory. This ludicrous subplot exists only for convenience’s sake—a means of sedating Harry while the filmmakers fumble with the narrative elsewhere, setting up Flint Marko (Church) and the arbitrary accident that transforms him into the Sandman. By the time we learn that one character could have easily put Harry’s rage for Spider-Man to rest had he spoken up sooner, you half expect Willem Dafoe to pop into frame and announce that it was his twin brother who died in the first movie. Is this Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 or Aaron Spelling’s?
The Spider-Man-as-Jesus scene from Spider-Man 2 was poetic and highly sophisticated, but this new film’s evocation of Spider-Man’s journey into the “dark side” is unbelievably literal—almost George Lucas bad. As if the film’s plot weren’t tiring enough, a black, creepy-crawly substance spills out from a meteor that lands in Central Park, hitching a ride on Peter Parker’s motorbike before leeching on to the kid after he learns new information about his uncle Ben’s death. Peter comes to prefer his black Spider-Man couture because it encourages the feelings of revenge his typical goody-two-shoes self has learned to suppress, but this new disguise also turns him into something of a blaxploitation star—the difference being that Super Fly was actually watchable. Grooving to the soul music on the soundtrack, Peter turns heads on the street, buys himself a fly suit, does a little dance, and embarrasses Mary Jane at a jazz club for ditching his goth ass.
As if it weren’t enough that we understand the nature of Spider-Man’s moral crisis through the persistent haranguing of the film’s character’s about how evil “can take you over” and how it “can turn us into something ugly,” the character is transformed into an implicit stereotype for young children who can only identify evil by how black it is. (Venom might have been the scariest baddy in the film if the impetus for Eddie Brock, played by Topher Grace, to go black wasn’t so weak.) Three colors one can more righteously get behind are red, white, and blue—or, in Spider-Man’s case, in front of : After ditching his black self, he gets ready to kick Sandman and Venom’s asses, but not before hawkishly posing before a flapping CGI flag of the United States. As pointless as Peter’s blaxploitation fronting is embarrassing, Spider-Man 3 finds the franchise desperately grasping at straws.
What was fun, campy, and grave in the first two Spider-Man films has been transformed into something rather noisy, flippant, and explicitly declamatory. The heart of those movies, May Parker (Rosemary Harris), has even been stymied to make room for annoyingly senseless jokes: Why, for example, has J.J. Jameson’s (J.K. Simmons) desk been stress-inducingingly rigged to rattle for the sake of reminding him to take his medicine if the man suffers from high blood pressure? True Raimi fans will instantly recognize how Spider-Man 3 ‘s overzealous plotting and grade-school metaphor-play distract from what should have been the true focus of the film: the Sandman’s supernaturally-enhanced human torment. In the fine pebbles of sand that make up the character’s physique, Raimi recognizes the fragility of human goodness and the nature of our free will. His struggle is the closest the film comes to capturing the essence of Spider-Man 2 ‘s most iconic scene.