Looking about at the ramblings of bigger film critics, i.e. ones you've probably heard of before three seconds ago, it would seem that Spiderman 3 was getting a welcome that was less than what one would charitably call warm, and I can't altogether agree with that. Now, I'm not going to say that the film is in any way perfect, but let's be objective here. The title has two words in it, and one of them is "Spiderman," which isn't even a real word, and the other one is some lameassed number. So if you're coming to this film with the hopes or foolhardy expectations of seeing some kind of high art statement, then either you're sniffing paint fumes, or "spiderman" means something different in your native language.
There's more than one way in which a film can be ambitious, and this film attacks two of them, with unequal levels of success. In the tradition of the two films that came before, it tries to be a big, slam-bang action film full of swinging and falling and throwing shit around and watching it go SMACK as it hits something, that something usually being Spiderman. In this sense, the film is an uncompromised success, upping the ante from the first two installments significantly; the effects pretty much kick some serious ass. Director Sam Raimi understands the visceral-just look at the Evil Dead trilogy that lauched him to cult fame-but the subtler effects, such as the birth of the Sandman, are equally if not more impressive, even after having seen so much in previous films that we can too often feel as though we've seen it all. In the other sense, that being the attempt to squeeze in almost every character from the Spiderman mythos yet to appear on the screen, the film's ambition falls somewhat short. By this I don't mean that they fail to get in damn near anyone you're likely to have heard of unless you're a total geek, I mean that doing so doesn't necessarily serve the story being told. As we rejoin our hero, Peter Parker/Spiderman is having an upsurge in his life: things are going well with girlfriend Mary Jane, and his super alter ego is finally being accepted as a hero by the city at large. Nevertheless, old friend Harry Osborne is still smarting for revenge over his father's death, and he embraces the mantle of the avenging son wholeheartedly, despite having learned of Spiderman's true identity. Complicating this are escaped convict Flint Marko, turned by some crazy experiment in physics into the Sandman, and an alien parasite that attaches itself to Peter and starts to bring out his more aggressive nature. With all that happening, one might think that also having Captain Stacy and daughter Gwen, future Lizard Dr. Connors, rival photographer Eddie Brock, next-door neighbor and possible future love interest Ursula, two love triangles and more angst over the death of Uncle Ben might be just about eight more things than this film can really handle, even at a running time of two and a half hours. Also, such a full plate doesn't leave time for enough Betty Brant, who gets the funniest bit in the film, at J. J. Jameson's expense.
It's in this area that the film gets into trouble: trying to do too much in too little time, without even the excuse of actually having too little time. The most emotionally significant story is that of Peter's conflict with old pal Harry; having two other villains doesn't give any of them enough time to resonate with the audience. The parasite that infects the Spidey suit is for much of the film just a part of Spiderman himself, before it finally separates into the alter-ego Venom, who probably gets literally fifteen minutes of screen time. Conversely, the Sandman gets plenty of setup but not enough closure. It's clear after a point that the film is trying mightily to keep way too many plates in the air at once, and just plain forgets one or two here and there until they've long since hit the floor, shattered, been super-glued back together and sold as collector's items on Ebay. For a while it's almost intriguing, as it's really impossible to tell where the film is headed, but there comes a point when you do start to want to know what it is that you're watching. If they couldn't make the film longer (which they shouldn't have) or trim the fat elsewhere, then what they really needed to do was, at the risk of infuriating Norman Osborne, take it back to formula and remove one or the other of the new villains. As cool as the Sandman effects were, the Venom story would've been the better focus, not because a black-clad evil double is a particularly creative idea, but because he's the one cinematic Spiderman nemesis who actually seems to enjoy being a bad guy, as opposed to being driven by circumstance, crazy steroids or cyber-jacked brains.
Despite such flaws, I still found Spiderman 3 to be a fun ride, perhaps because I didn't find the first two films to be especially brilliant pieces of work, either. Many of the flaws found here are present in parts one and two, including some awkward pacing and clunky sentimentality. Many of those films' good points are also found here: great action scenes, much fun made of Peter Parker and his utter lack of coolness, and Kirsten Dunst looking really hot as a redhead. Sorry Gwen, but I don't see a contest. Oh, and J. K. Simmons as Jameson, who still owns every scene he's in.
If you're looking to see a great film, well, there's plenty of them out there. If you're looking to see a fun film, this will do just dandy. Drop your expectations to what a film with the dubious word "Spiderman" in its title deserves, and you should do fine.
-review by Matt Murray