4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Too Much Plot, Too Little Movie — Spider-Man 3

As was discussed in the comments of last week’s rewatch of Spider-Man 2, it’s arguable who would truly be considered Spider-Man’s greatest foe. The top spot alternates between the Green Goblin (seen in the first movie) and Dr. Octopus (in the sequel).

However, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the most popular villain in Spidey’s rogues’ gallery was definitely Venom. The character proved hugely popular when he first appeared in full on the last page of Amazing Spider-Man #299 in 1988 as this weird evil version of the black costume Spidey had worn for a while after the first Secret Wars miniseries. Venom appeared constantly throughout the Spider-titles, got his own miniseries and later an ongoing series, and was generally Spidey’s most popular foe for the final decade of the 20th century.

So it was inevitable that, having covered two of the biggies, Sam Raimi et al would go for the third in his third movie—which, by the way, was scheduled for May 2007 release before the second one even premiered…

The original treatment that Sam & Ivan Raimi put together for the third movie didn’t have Venom in it at all. Instead, Raimi brought in another member of Spidey’s huge collection of bad guys, the Sandman. Originally a low-level thug named Flint Marko who gained the ability to turn himself into sand, the character went through numerous changes in the comics, eventually reforming to become a good guy. In the film, the Raimis kept some of the more complex elements of Sandman’s backstory, but made him more directly responsible for the death of Uncle Ben.

Raimi also wanted a second villain, and was originally considering the Vulture (Ben Kingsley was apparently in talks to play the role), but producer Avi Arad convinced Raimi that Venom was the best choice, given the villain’s popularity.

Unlike the genesis of most of Spidey’s bad guys (the vast majority of which boil down to “accident involving science,” which is also Spidey’s origin, truly), Venom’s origin was a bit more complicated.

Okay, cast your minds back to 1984. Marvel launches Secret Wars, a twelve-issue miniseries that takes place between the May and June 1984 issues of Marvel’s titles. In the May issues, the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Hulk were whisked away to another world to fight against a collection of bad guys. In the June issues, the heroes come back from their sojourn, many of them changed: the Hulk was injured, Iron Man had fancy new armor, the She-Hulk had replaced the Thing in the Fantastic Four, Colossus fell in love with a woman who died (thus ending his nascent relationship with Kitty Pryde)—and Spider-Man had a new costume, which probably got the most press out of all the changes. Now in an all-black costume that obeyed his commands to change shape, and which even had its own web-shooters.

(Tellingly, every single one of these changes was reversed—the ones to the Hulk and Iron Man were dumped immediately, in fact. Spidey’s costume actually lasted for four years, and writer John Byrne got considerable storytelling mileage out of the roster change in the FF. Oh, and it took a loooooong time, but Colossus and Kitty did get back together eventually.)

Over the course of the SW miniseries, several heroes’ costumes get trashed. Spidey is shown a room where the costume-fixer is, but he’s not sure which alien doodad it is. He walks up to one and gets the new black costume that obeys his thoughts.

Eventually, we learn, as is hinted in the miniseries, that that wasn’t the costume-fixer. The new costume is actually an alien symbiote that leeches onto Peter Parker. The Fantastic Four figure this out when Spidey realizes that he’s sleeping but not resting (the symbiote is taking Spidey out for thrills when Peter Parker sleeps) and he goes to Reed Richards for help. The symbiote is sealed in one of Richards’s labs until it’s freed by one of Dr. Doom’s gadgets, and it goes after Spider-Man one last time. Spidey manages to kill it—seemingly—with a gigunda church bell (the alien is vulnerable to sonics).

When the costume reappears worn by someone else (and with a tooth-filled slavering mouth) tormenting Mary Jane (at the time, Peter Parker’s wife), we learn that in that same church was a man named Eddie Brock, a journalist for the Daily Globe, the main competition to the Daily Bugle in Marvel’s New York. Brock, we learn, did a story on the Sin-Eater, a bad guy who killed NYPD Captain Jean DeWolff, complete with an interview with the guy beneath the Sin-Eater’s mask. Except it turned out that he was a copycat, and Spider-Man captured the real Sin-Eater. Brock was disgraced and was in that church contemplating suicide when the symbiote bonded with him—both metaphorically over their mutual hatred for Spider-Man and biologically. (It should be noted that Brock is a total retcon, as he appeared in neither of the 1985  stories in question, not the DeWolff murder story in Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man—which more or less launched Peter David’s writing career—and not the death of the symbiote at the church—which was in the inaugural issue of Web of Spider-Man.)

Because Venom’s origin is so complicated, and tied into three different storylines that weren’t all initially related to each other, attempts to adapt Venom into other media have faced quite the challenge in distilling it down. The 1990s Spider-Man: The Animated Series did a decent job of seeding a rivalry between Brock and Parker, and also tied the symbiote’s bonding with Spider-Man to astronaut John Jameson, son of the Bugle publisher. Embarrassingly, I was thinking last week how clever it was to introduce John in the previous movie so he could be used to set up Venom in this one, only to realize I’d conflated Spider-Man 3 with the animated series. Derp. In fact, John isn’t even in this movie.

Not that there’s room for Jameson’s kid, as this movie not only brought back Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Bill Nunn, Ted Raimi, Dylan Baker, Elya Baskin, Elizabeth Banks, Mageina Tovah, Michael Papajohn, Cliff Robertson, and Willem Dafoe, they added Thomas Haden Church as Sandman, Topher Grace as Brock/Venom, Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy, James Cromwell as George Stacy, and Theresa Russell and Perla Haney-Jardine as Sandman’s wife and daughter, respectively. This would be Robertson’s last film role before his death in 2011.

 

“I like being bad”

Spider-Man 3
Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Sam Raimi
Produced by Laura Ziskin and Grant Curtis and Avi Arad
Original release date: May 4, 2007

Life is pretty danged good for Peter Parker and for Spider-Man. Peter’s studies are going well, he’s in love with Mary Jane Watson and she loves him back, and MJ is having her Broadway debut. Spidey is well loved—even the Daily Bugle can’t find much bad to say about him—and life is skittles and beer.

The one fly in the ointment is Harry Osborn, who still blames Peter for his father Norman’s death. (The fact that he now knows Norman was the Green Goblin hasn’t altered his anger.)

One night, after they have a romantic evening in the park watching the stars while lying on a giant web, a meteor crashes nearby. A black gooey substance oozes out of the meteor and attaches itself to the back of Peter’s scooter as he and MJ scoot out of the park.

Flint Marko, a new suspect in the Ben Parker murder, has escaped from Riker’s Island Penitentiary. He goes home to visit his daughter, but his wife wants him to go away. The cops chase him to a laboratory where they’re performing particle physics experiments. Marko goes into the testing field unwittingly and winds up being bonded with the sand on the ground in the field. The cops think he’s dead, but he’s now got the ability to turn himself into sand.

Reviews of MJ’s opening night are extremely poor, and Peter’s attempt to cheer her up by reminding her that Spidey used to get slagged in the papers all the time too fall on deaf ears. Peter now has a police radio, and he hears a report about a crane that’s out of control, and he heads there, rescuing a student and model named Gwen Stacy (who’s in Peter’s science class with Dr. Curt Connors), whose father is NYPD Captain George Stacy. During the rescue, we also meet Eddie Brock Jr., a new freelance photographer for the Bugle who is taking pics of the rescue and tells Stacy that he’s dating his daughter and tells Spidey that he’s the Bugle’s new Spidey photographer. This surprises Spidey, since he thought he had that gig.

Peter plans to propose to MJ, though his freelance photojournalism doesn’t leave much financial room for a ring. Aunt May comes to his rescue, though, and gives him her engagement ring. When walking through Times Square, he reads a billboard stating that Spider-Man is going to be given the keys to the city after rescuing a police captain’s daughter. A bystander who looks just like Stan Lee comments that he guesses one person can make a difference.

While riding his silly little scooter down the street, Harry swoops down in his purloined Goblin gear and grabs Peter. They have an extended fight, and Peter almost loses the ring (why didn’t he web it to his pocket?), but Peter wins by garroting Harry with a web line. He hits his head, and falls into a coma. Peter removes the Goblin gear (and puts it where????) and rushes him to the hospital. Eventually, Harry comes out of the coma, but he is suffering memory loss. He has a vague recollection that his father is dead, but nothing after that—which means he no longer remembers Spider-Man dropping his father’s corpse off, nor that Peter is Spider-Man.

At the Bugle, we find out that Brock overstated things a bit to Spidey, as he’s only sold a few pictures to the Bugle. Peter arrives, and is warned by Betty Brant that he has competition, and Peter enters J. Jonah Jameson’s office just as Brock is angling for a staff job. Jameson decides to give the staff job to whoever gets him pics of Spider-Man committing a crime.

MJ shows up for rehearsal only to find out that she’s been replaced due to the overwhelming negative critical response to her performance (which, I’m fairly certain, is a violation of union rules, but I’m sure MJ filing a grievance with Actors Equity happened off camera, ha ha). Not wanting to spoil Spidey’s big day, MJ doesn’t tell Peter about her job loss.

Gwen gives Spidey the keys to the city, and she also kisses him while he’s hanging upside down, a mirror of the kiss Spidey and MJ shared in the first movie, something that upsets MJ greatly. (With good reason.) Brock also chats briefly with Gwen, and we realize that they’ve only gone out for coffee once, not “dating” as Brock claimed to her father.

A sentient wave of sand zips through the ceremony as Sandman is robbing an armored car. Spidey tries and fails to stop him. Later, Peter tries to propose to MJ at a fancy French restaurant, but she’s still annoyed at the kiss, especially since she didn’t even know Gwen existed, even though she’s his lab partner. She walks out on him before he can pop the question.

Stacy later summons May and Peter to the police precinct to inform them that they have new information that Marko is actually the one who killed Ben Parker. Dennis Carradine robbed the wrestling match while Marko did the carjacking, but then Carradine left without him to be fatally confronted by Spider-Man. Both May and Peter are pissed.

Peter sits in his apartment on the edge of his seat, listening on the police radio for any news of Marko. MJ comes by to try to comfort him, but he rebuffs her. Eventually, he falls asleep, at which point the alien creature (which has been just sitting around his apartment up until now) covers him in a new version of his costume—it’s now all black. The alien creature also alters Peter’s personality somewhat, making him more aggressive and meaner. He tracks down Sandman and they fight in the subway, with Spidey able to wash him away with water, turning him into Mudman.

Brock sells a picture to the Bugle of Spidey robbing the armored car, which Peter knows is doctored—from one of his photos. Instead of getting the staff job, Brock is fired and disgraced.

Harry recovers his memory with help from the Norman voice in his head, and attacks MJ as she’s en route to her new job as a singer/waitress at a jazz club. He threatens her, forcing her to break up with Peter and say there’s another man. After MJ does so, Harry meets up with Peter and says he’s the other man. (This is also when Peter finally finds out that MJ got fired from the play, something she never did tell him.) This leads to another Spidey/Goblin fight, only this time Peter is nastier and webs a pumpkin bomb back at Harry. The explosion disfigures his face.

Peter, who now combs his hair forward (because, I guess, the best way to show that a guy is evil is to make him more emo?) and generally acts like a goofball, invites Gwen on a date to a jazz club—the same one MJ works at. He dances with Gwen for the express purpose of humiliating MJ. To her credit, as soon as Gwen realizes this, she apologizes to MJ and leaves. When the bouncers try to take Peter out, a fight ensues, and Peter backhands MJ—at which point he realizes something horrible has happened. He goes to a church and tries to remove the alien costume—but it won’t come off. As he struggles, he accidentally rings the church bell, which badly affects the alien.

Below is Brock, who saw Peter taking Gwen to the club, which is the final indignity. He goes to the church to pray for God to kill Peter Parker (nice guy…), and then he hears Peter’s struggle with the alien. Through judicious ringing of the bell, Peter is able to get the alien off him, and it seeks out Brock instead. They bond and the alien now has a tooth-filled mouth.

Brock seeks out Marko, who has managed to reconstitute himself, and convinces him to team up. They kidnap MJ and take her to a construction site. Peter sees on the news what has happened, and his first stop is the Osborn mansion—he’s hoping Harry will help him, for MJ’s sake if not his own. Harry refuses and Peter goes to confront them on their own.

Even as Spidey takes on both Marko and Brock, the Osborn family butler decides that now is a good time to tell Harry that Norman definitely died from being stabbed by his own glider. This convinces Harry to go help Peter, and the two of them take on Sandman—who is now able to make himself about thirty feet tall—and Brock.

In the end, Harry winds up impaled by the glider (irony!), Spidey uses large metal poles hitting each other to disrupt the alien and then blows it up with a pumpkin bomb—though Brock throws himself at the alien like an idiot and gets blown up also. Marko explains to Peter that he accidentally shot Ben, and Peter forgives him and lets him go, even though he’s a thief and a murderer and an escaped convict. Somehow, despite there being cameras with zoom functions all around the construction site, nobody catches Spidey with his mask off on camera, even though he doesn’t wear the thing for 85% of the fight.

Later, Peter goes to MJ’s club and they embrace even though she’s in the middle of a song.

 

“You’ve taken your eye off the ball”

You’d think Sam Raimi would have learned.

By all reports, he wanted two villains in Spider-Man 3, though the identity of the second villain changed several times—in addition to continuing Harry’s arc as an antagonist for Peter—and all I can think is, why? By this time he already had several example of multiple-villain films that at best were overcrowded (Superman II, Batman Returns) and at worst awful (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, X-Men: The Last Stand).

Yet even with all that, he wanted multiple villains in the third film, which was just a hugely bad idea.

Calling this movie overstuffed is a grave understatement. It’s The Last Stand all over again, as Raimi tries to cram way too much in there.

The best superhero movies are ones that distill decades of comics stories into a single film. The worst are the ones that try to compress decades of comics stories into a single film. Spider-Man 3 is one of the latter. As seen above, Venom’s backstory was complicated enough, and they try to shove it all in there, from the alien’s history as Spider-Man’s new costume to his getting rid of it to it taking over Brock, plus also giving Brock a proper setup instead of shoehorning him in the way David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane did in 1988. On top of that, Harry’s arc covers a ton of territory (which took the better part of two decades in the comics), from his learning his father was the Green Goblin to getting amnesia and forgetting to remembering again to taking up the mantle of the Goblin to redeeming himself in the end and sacrificing his life. Plus there’s MJ and Peter’s relationship drama and adding the Stacys to the mix.

Oh, and then there’s the Sandman. Hilariously, given that it was the original base of the film, the Sandman is utterly superfluous to it. If you excise the Sandman from the movie, it changes very little except for the climactic fight, in which Sandman is a boring CGI monster. And honestly, Venom has always been a tough enough foe that they could have kept it to just him and still challenged the combined might of Spidey and the Goblin.

It’s too bad, as Thomas Haden Church is actually perfect casting for the Sandman, but his story is so completely disconnected from the rest of the movie as it becomes irrelevant. To make matters worse, it adds an unnecessary layer to Uncle Ben’s death that didn’t need to be there, and the effect it has on Peter is completely muted by everything else happening in the movie.

Particularly Peter turning into an emo freak by the alien, which is some of the most embarrassing footage ever used in a superhero film. Seriously, him boogie-ing down the street finger-gunning people to music that’s only in his head while wearing all black may be the nadir of Tobey Maguire’s acting career.

Though he doesn’t cover himself in glory the rest of the movie, either. He’s not aided by a script that makes Peter into a smug, unfeeling jerk long before the alien shows up and makes him into an ass. Not that MJ is treated any better, as so much of the relationship drama could have been avoided if MJ (a) actually understood that Peter was trying to help when he reminded her about all the times Spidey was slagged in the papers, and (b) actually told Peter that she got fired from her play.

Including the Stacy family was just unnecessary, and winds up doing a major disservice to two of the major supporting comics characters of Spidey’s first decade, as Captain Stacy is a walk-on and a cipher, and Gwen is reduced to a ditzy model type (in the comics, Gwen was a brilliant student, and also one of the loves of Peter’s life).

Most of the rest of the cast, at least, does a decent job. J.K. Simmons continues to knock it out of the park in his final appearance as Jameson, Rosemary Harris remains the best Aunt May ever, and after phoning in his performance in the second movie, James Franco is superb as the tormented Harry. Would that I could say the same for Topher Grace, whose Brock is abysmal. In the comics, Brock comes across as threatening and delusional; here, he’s just pathetic and stupid.

Also the movie doesn’t actually earn its ending. It’s not at all clear that MJ even knows why Peter did what he did, and how much the alien was responsible, and if she doesn’t, why is she forgiving him after he hit her? There’s so much stuff to unpack in their relationship, and the movie doesn’t bother to even try, just telling us that it’s all okay now at the end.

Of course, by this time, you just want it to be over, as the movie is not only overstuffed, it’s horrendously paced. It simply takes forever, and characters disappear for long periods to the point where you forget about them. The alien attaches itself to Peter’s scooter early on, and is in his apartment thereafter, but it takes ages for it to finally attach itself to Peter. When Peter goes to Harry for help rescuing MJ, you’ve kind of forgotten that Harry was even in the movie, ditto when Marko reforms himself from Mudman back to Sandman. Worse, in the end, Spider-Man is indirectly responsible for Brock’s death, and he doesn’t even seem to notice—on top of that, he lets a murderer, thief, and escaped con go free just because he forgives him for murdering his surrogate father. Some hero.

Raimi would wind up not doing Spider-Man 4, as he couldn’t settle on a script he was happy with, though there were specific plans for subsequent movies (including Dylan Baker finally getting to be the Lizard after being Dr. Curt Connors for two movies). Instead, Sony would choose to reboot the franchise with a new cast and new origin story in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man, which we’ll cover down the line.

Next week, we’ll take a look at another red-suited New York hero as we rewatch the 2003 Daredevil movie starring Ben Affleck.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is pleased to announce that his high fantasy/police procedure series is back in print with a new edition of Dragon Precinct from eSpec Books. This new edition also has the bonus short story “Gan Brightblade vs. Mitos the Mighty.” Coming soon are new editions of Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, Gryphon Precinct, and Tales from Dragon Precinct, followed by the long-awaited next book in the series Mermaid Precinct.

citation

71 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.