After two movies of reluctant hero Peter Parker learning that “with great power comes great responsibility,” it is a nice change of pace that “Spider-Man 3” is about something else entirely—forgiveness. It also takes a little bit of the audience’s forgiveness to accept this third installment as a worthy successor to what remains the best superhero movie ever made.
What 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” had that this new chapter lacks is economy of story. An early version of the script for “Spider-Man 3” was so long that there was talk of splitting it into two movies. Seeing the finished product, this is no surprise. “Spider-Man 3” juggles so many storylines and fits in so many amazing action sequences that it feels like three movies all by itself. That said, bigger may not necessarily be better, but it’s still pretty damn good.
What a feat that this is the third film that accomplishes the goal director Sam Raimi set for the movies from the beginning. It grounds Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) in emotionally real situations, even if extraordinary things are happening all around them. Despite a complicated plotline that introduces three new villains, the “other woman,” and an inner conflict both mental and physical, “Spider-Man 3” is really about three friends finding their own identity and having the courage to forgive.
“Spider-Man 3” assumes by now that one recognizes the conceits of the superhero movie and dispenses with some minor details. While Peter and MJ’s relationship falls on hard times, a meteor falls from the sky and a mysterious black substance attaches itself to Peter, amplifying his feelings of jealousy and anger. Raimi and his co-writers, Alvin Sargent and brother Ivan, barely have enough time for everything else, so they certainly aren’t wasting it on an explanation of the where’s and why’s of alien goo.
There’s also escaped convict Flint Marko, perfectly embodied by the bulky frame and damaged eyes of Thomas Haden Church, whose singular drive to steal money for his sick daughter leads him to a test facility of some sort. There his body is somehow combined with the molecular structure of sand—think “The Fly” but without all the nasty side effects—and he sets off to New York City to rob banks. Raimi’s motif of keeping it personal extends to the Sandman too, when we learn he is the actual shooter in the death of Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben.
As if these trespasses upon the sacred text of comic books weren’t enough, hardcore devotees will certainly be angered further by the inclusion of Peter’s classmate Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and rival Daily Bugle photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), whose characters also fail to follow the plots established in the Marvel comic. Like any good adaptation of a longer literary work, the best screenplays are the ones that put the characters through the same emotional journey as the book, even if the hoops they had to jump through to get there are different. “Spider-Man 3” pulls this off, and it is no small task considering all the dangling storylines that need to be resolved.
Even the story thread that is the most clumsily executed—that of best friend/sworn enemy Harry Osborn (James Franco)—feels like a satisfying conclusion when it is all said and done. “Spider-Man 3” is the longest film in the series, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, but dare I say it should have been longer in one respect. Harry could have used more screen time to convincingly cover the vast spectrum of his character arc. One key moment with his butler is over way too soon and feels especially false, like a last minute addition to save time and move the narrative to the final showdown more quickly.
The sense of humor that was such a welcome addition in part two is back in “Spider-Man 3.” Some lighthearted fare is showcased with another very funny cameo from Raimi’s “Evil Dead” comrade-in-arms Bruce Campbell as a wry maître de in a French restaurant. But when Peter’s dark side takes over, things go from silly (Maguire’s mock disco moves and emo haircut) to scary (cruelly mocking MJ at her lowest point) real quick, and it gives Parker welcome and unexpected depth. The goody two-shoes hero is suddenly testing the audience’s loyalty like never before, resulting in a more well-rounded and imperfect stature.
Pardon me for getting sidetracked with theme and character as long as I have—“Spider-Man 3” has the “big event” kind of special effects that you crave out of a summer movie and then some. Raimi’s camera is again constantly spinning around during every fight scene, to give the audience a dizzying and complete perspective of the action. This time around, however, they are longer and more impressive—and not just the super-battles. A vertigo-inducing rescue mission with an out-of-control crane on a Manhattan skyscraper is as unsettling as Marko’s sand transformation scene is beautiful.
Although “Spider-Man 3” bites off a bit more than it can chew in the plotting department, it doesn’t skip on character development, which is a hallmark of this series and the thing that sets it apart from its superhero kin. Raimi and crew have crafted a movie that feels like the fitting conclusion to an exciting story, even if it can’t quite match the dramatic heights of its immediate predecessor. Let’s hope that if Spider-Man does return, that it is with this same visionary team.