“You want forgiveness?” snarls Peter Parker, mashing a manipulative rival against a wall. “Get religion!”
That Spider-Man 3 is a morality play won’t surprise anybody who saw the first two movies, both of which pivoted on the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” Morality plays are pretty much the only thing the series’ director, Sam Raimi, makes. From grossout fests (the Evil Dead films) to postmodern westerns (The Quick and the Dead) to gothic thrillers (A Simple Plan) to comic book adventures (don’t forget Darkman), certain elements remain constant: the vigilance required to be decent in an indecent world; the difficulty of defining one’s self-image apart from the opinions of others; and most of all, the struggle to resist evil, a force that Raimi depicts as supernaturally malevolent—a creeping menace that invades the soul in a moment of fear, anger or jealousy and possesses it.
The epic-length, wildly overpopulated Spider-Man 3 literalizes Raimi’s preoccupations and foregrounds them to such an degree that his major characters—including the triumvurate of Peter (Tobey Maguire), his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter’s friend-turned-nemesis Harry Osborne (James Franco)—seem less like living, breathing, realistic people than emblems of various moral and psychological states; as the film’s jumbled plot unfolds, they slide along the good-to-evil scale depending on what successes and failures they’ve suffered. Like the first two installments—and like the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films—Spider-Man 3 is a popcorn-and-Junior Mints fable aimed at the young and young-at-heart. But to enjoy it, you have to first accept that by the standards of its genre—the hyperexpensive, marketing-driven summer blockbuster—it’s an ambitious movie, and not all of its ambitions are realized. Spider-Man 3 wants to be an evolutionary step up—tonally similar to its predecessors but structurally different. It achieves more of its goals that the dog-pile of mixed-to-negative reviews might indicate, but you can still feel the franchise’s growing pains.
The plot picks up with Peter having settled into both his Daily Bugle photographer gig, his romance with Mary Jane and his alternate identity as the webcrawling, wisecracking Spider-Man. Now that the public and its appointed panderers, the media, have decided that Spidey’s a white knight in red-and-blue long-johns, Peter’s carrying himself with a sense of entitlement, even entreating some kids in Times Square to check out an image of Spidey on a Jumbotron. (They shrug, crack wise and move along; superheroes are so ’04.) When Peter’s with his girlfriend, he brags on Spidey without realizing (consciously, at least) that he’s actually bragging on himself. Each self-satisfied statement is like a thumbtack in the heart of Mary Jane, whose own acting career is faltering.
Peter’s blissed-out contentment is shattered by a perfect storm of bad guys: escaped convict Flint Marko (a bulked-up Thomas Haden Church, looking like Burt Lancaster in Trapeze), who wanders into a Hulk-ish nuclear test and reborn as a shape-shifting bruiser known as The Sandman; Peter’s best buddy Harry Osborne (James Franco), who resents Peter for landing Mary Jane and blames Spider-Man for the death of Harry’s dad, psychotic industrialist Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe); and a new professional rival, shutterbug Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who brags to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) that he’s a much more exciting news photographer than Peter—and a more reliable employee, too. (Warning: Many spoilers ahead.) Peter’s also distracted by a new potential love interest, Eddie’s paramour Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, whose shiny blond hair and slightly stoned expressions of wonderment make her seem like Anne Heche’s kid sister). Gwen’s probably the most extreme example of the wank-off dream girl in the history of comic book movies: a brilliant chemist who dominates Peter’s class at Columbia, and a high-fashion model who conveniently has to be rescued by Spidey when one of his nemeses sends a high-rise construction crane flailing around Manhattan.
The latter sequence contains many examples of directorial misjudgments that plague Spider-Man 3. For one thing, it juxtaposes 9/11-like terror (a skyscraper ripped open, people and furniture plummeting to the street) and standard wisecrack-laden derring-do in a manner that more jarring than beguiling. Raimi’s good about maintaining a consistent tone—when he mixes them, there’s a clear and often defensible reason, like the mix of black comedy and grisly horror in A Simple Plan when the greedy trio implodes—but this sequence and others feel so misjudged that it sends the film’s moral compass spinning out of control. You’re not sure how seriously the movie wants to you take the action—a marked contrast to the similarly evocative falling shuttle setpiece in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which I’ve seen several times now, and which increasingly strikes me as the most mature, emotionally complex, morally serious superhero movie yet made. When Gwen and her colleagues are ducking beneath the arm of the runaway crane as it tears through their building, it seems that Raimi wants you be terrified (and it is surely an awesome spectacle). But when Spider-Man commits one dazzling rescue and then pauses on the ground to have his picture taken by the smarmy manipulator Brock, the film seems to have temporarily lost its mind. This moment can’t be defended as evidence that Peter cares more about PR than his responsibility as a superhero and a public figure. No matter how full of himself he became, I don’t believe that Peter would interrupt himself so blithely, and at such length, during a moment of potential mass death. (Collecting and critiquing the tabloids later? That I can believe.)
There’s a similar, even less defensible misjudgment in the final showdown pitting The Sandman and Brock’s razor-fanged, goo-infected bad guy Venom against Spider-Man and Hobgoblin, Harry’s revision of his dad’s super-villain character. It’s a surprisingly resonant sequence, packed with religious imagery that feels germane to a story that’s sincerely interested in the self-destructive aspect of vengeance and the moral and emotional imperative to forgive. The setup—a prior sequence where a guilt-ridden Peter seeks absolution for his arrogant misbehavior in the same church where Brock will become infected with the goo—pays off visually when Spidey defeats Venom by imprisoning him inside a makeshift cage of steel pipes and then ringing them like church bells, creating a holy cacophony that seems to exorcise the demon from Brock’s personality. I also admired how Raimi seemed to be setting us up for a replay of one of the most famous single events in comics history, the death of Gwen Stacy, only to pull the rug out from under us and kill the newly-redeemed Harry instead, adding one more corpse to a franchise that’s more concerned with death and remembrance than any other blockbuster series, except maybe the Rocky films.
But the button on the end of this sequence—the scene where Peter has a deep conversation with The Sandman up on the I-beams of a skyscraper while Harry is dying in Mary Jane’s arms down below—nearly destroys everything else Raimi has achieved. By this stage in the script, Peter’s realized the error of his ways and recommitted himself not just to goodness, but diligent, ego-free goodness. That he would behave this way makes both the character and the film seem as tacky and weightless as Batman and Robin. It’s unconscionable: an example of moral forgetfulness (exemplified by the regrettable Harry Osborne amnesia business) that unfortunately dovetails with the film’s tendency to get fixated on some subplots while forgetting about others that are theoretically just as important. (There are a couple of moments where Spider-Man 3 seems to slap itself out of a torpor and remind itself to check in on certain characters.) Screw-ups like this define what “plausibility” means in fantasy film. I’ll accept a world where a super-villain can instigate a crane accident that just happens to imperil a young woman who just happens to attend the same science class as our hero. For that matter, I’ll accept that a meteorite containing parasitic goo that amplifies a person’s dark tendencies would just happen to land a few yards from Peter and Mary Jane when they’re canoodling in Central Park, and that the same goo would just happen to land on Brock later, and that Peter’s uncle’s murder—an event established as the work of one crook in the original film—would turn out to have been committed by a duo, half of which is Flint Marko. But I can’t accept that the same protagonist that, in the climax of Spider-Man 2, calmly convinced a homicidally depressed Harry Osborn to shelve his grudge long enough to help save Mary Jane, would suddenly start behaving as if the world were just a big TV show that he could drift in and out of with no repercussions. (If Spider-Man’s vanity resulted in multiple deaths and made him into a pariah again—well, that would be a different story, and likely a more unsettling one than Sony would be willing to green-light.)
None of this should suggest that Spider-Man 3 isn’t worth seeing, just that it’s frustrating—alternately brilliant and cloddish. Every lead-footed misstep is followed-up by a sublime moment of broad slapstick or pained romanticism. Peter’s swanky restaurant proposal to Mary Jane, with Raimi regular Bruce Campbell hamming it up in the background as a French-accented headwaiter, mixes the two modes, to dazzling effect; and there are some surprisingly spontaneous moments elsewhere, especially in the section where Peter and Mary Jane drift apart (mainly due to Peter’s self-centeredness) and hook up, respectively, with Gwen and Harry. As in Robert Altman’s The Company and Mark Rydell’s James Dean film for TNT, Franco proves himself an irresistible man-boy scoundrel-saint, a bona fide movie star archetype. His seemingly improvised decision to have Harry try to impress Mary Jane by flipping an omelette feels just right; it’s like a bit in a Mike Leigh film. A mid-movie gloss on Spider-Man 2’s wonderful “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” montage finds a goo-infected, vengeance-obsessed, raccoon-eyed Spider-Man pulling a Superman 3 and strutting around the city in a black suit to a funk soundtrack, ogling women and using his superpowers to gain advantage over mere mortals. The sequence ends in a demented musical sequence at the supper club where Mary Jane ekes out a living; Peter literally steals the spotlight from Mary Jane, jamming on the piano like Bill Evans on crack, dancing around the club with Gwen, even leaping from table to table in defiance of gravity. It’s a giddy rebuke to both Peter/Spidey’s goodness and the superhero’s obligation to keep a low profile (he looks like Peter but moves like Spidey); it’s a crazy-admirable puncturing of audience expectations.
Raimi is one of a handful of Hollywood power-players that wants to make light yet serious movies. His sober (if inexact) examination of two key themes—the moral yin/yang of vengeance and forgiveness, and the difference between a true self-image and one created by peers or the media—makes third installment much weightier, and more deserving of respect, than it needed to be. Hype being what it is, the film would have made money even if it had recycled the second film wholesale; instead, it’s consistent with, but different from, its predecessors. The first two Spider-Mans were knowingly grandiose and silly, but the melodrama was played straight, to the point where the unselfconscious earnestness of Raimi’s actors (particularly Maguire, who turns on the waterworks faster than Gwyneth Paltrow) made some viewers snicker. If you see Spider-Man 3 in a theater, you’ll hear plenty, and if it occurs within earshot of Raimi, I hope he takes it as a compliment. In an era when graphic bloodletting, badass posturing and bitchy sarcasm are considered edgy, the most radical thing a director can do is to wear his heart on his sleeve—to show his or her characters feeling things intensely and present their emotions at face value, without mockery. Spider-Man 3 does that even as it swings in the opposite direction of Spider-Man 2, dinging lampposts and smacking walls along the way.