In Spider-Man 3, director and co-writer Sam Raimi seems to have taken the line from the franchise’s old theme song — does whatever a spider can — to heart. He’s got Spidey doing practically everything, mixed up in a massively tangled web of plots, subplots, and back-story revisionism that threatens to crash under its own weight. But like the Webslinger himself, Raimi’s direction is nimble enough to dart through the mess he’s created and end up, if not entirely unscathed, pretty well-off. Spider-Man 3 swings both high and low, and though it isn’t always as graceful as its predecessors, it always stays up in the air.
To enter into the world of Spider-Man is to enter into a four-color fantasy realm culled from the pages of comic books. In it, every building in New York is a skyscraper, newspapermen are all gruff and pitiless cigar-chompers, criminals running from the police encounter chain-link fences with signs that read, “DANGER: Particle Physics Laboratory,” and shy nerds can slip into brightly colored underwear and save the world. Females are strange and mysterious, parental figures have all the wisdom, and day-to-day existence is marked primarily by high-flying adventure and everyday troubles. It’s adult life as simplified and romanticized by 14-year-old boys everywhere. Which means that, done right, it can be a lot of fun.
Maybe even too much fun. This time around, Spider-Man faces three villains: Harry Osborn (James Franco) taking on his father’s mantle as Green Goblin II, the Sandman, the aforementioned crook who stumbles into an experiment that turns him into a giant, shape-shifting sand cloud, and Venom, the product of a melding between an otherworldly symbiote and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a rival newspaper photographer. It’s a lot for old Spidey to handle, to the point that, after finishing one fight and sitting down to rest, he wonders aloud, “Where do all these guys come from?” This brief moment of spare existential questioning is about as deep as the movie ever gets.
That’s largely due to the fact that it has no time. It barely manages to cram all of its tangled threads into its almost two-and-a-half-hour running time as it is. In addition to fighting off a slew of costumed baddies with special powers, he makes time to try to propose to Mary Jane Watson (the always-endearing Kirsten Dunst), get some advice from his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), catch the eye of his bubbly blonde classmate, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), get an angry-emo Conor Oberst haircut and complimentary attitude, show off a dark new Spider-Man suit (which eventually joins with Brock to become Venom) and — wait, is this getting to be too much? Well that’s how it often feels watching the movie. By the time it hits the halfway marker, it’s so overstuffed with plot minutiae that you’ll start to sound like Spidey, wondering, “Where do all these plots come from?”
And it’s doubtful that it would work at all, except for Raimi’s endlessly buoyant, easygoing direction. For most of the movie, he strikes an appealing balance between too serious and too silly, capturing the simple moral universe of a cartoon drawing with zip and zest. Unfortunately, in the middle of the film, he lets his light touch take control and nearly suffocates the movie on its slapstick instincts. There’s a bizarrely goofy dance sequence that feels yanked from a parody of Saturday Night Fever or a direct-to-video sequel to The Mask. It’s the worst scene in the entire series, and it nearly, but not quite, derails the whole picture.
Fortunately, the scene quickly ends, and the movie returns to its main selling point: super-budget superhero action. One of the appeals of seeing Spidey on the big screen is watching him in glorious, 24-frame-per-second motion, swinging and leaping through the tower-lined corridors of New York City. Raimi’s action scenes are more dazzling and complex than in previous installments, whirlwinds of super-powered acrobatics performed 40 stories in the air, and they almost live up to the full promise of gee-whiz Spider-Man spectacle that every kid with a comic-book collection dreamed about.
Almost, because despite the megabucks spent on the film — a reported $270 million — they also feel mechanical. They’re impressive, but for no reason — like fireworks in the middle of January. Raimi, like George Lucas, has become obsessed with the virtuoso camera feats he can pull with an unlimited budget and an army of Hollywood’s finest effects technicians. He’s not content just to have Spider-Man do the impossible; he wants to do the same as a filmmaker. And so he’s adopted the liquid, free-spinning action aesthetic in which Lucas indulged in the Star Wars prequels. The result is a ride-like rush, devoid of any real connection to the story and lacking the whooshing, breathless grandeur of the clock-tower battle in Spider-Man 2.
Nor does the film return to the gentle themes of responsibility and seriousness that girded the first two films. Like those, Spider-Man 3 is set in present-day New York, or at least a shimmering, glossy variant on it, and there are numerous subtle nods to 9/11 (well, at least as subtle as one can be when villains are shown taking out the upper floors of downtown skyscrapers). There are no moments of Big Apple solidarity like those from the first two films in which ordinary citizens banded together to come to Spider-Man’s aid.
No, instead of a city full of residents ready to stand up to evil, this film’s final moments weirdly intimate that it’s time to forgive enemies — even those who’ve hurt us most — rather than fight them. It’s too brief a sequence to ruin the movie, but it’s vexing all the same. Indeed, along with the film’s many other wobbles, it may be a sign that the superhero genre that Raimi’s first Spider-Man perfected has started to weaken by falling prey to fashionable modern sentiments. No longer does Spider-Man struggle with the responsibility granted by his power to fight off a known villain before he acts again. This time, Spidey’s final act is letting the bad guy get away. How unheroic.
–Peter Suderman is managing editor of National Review Online.