Following on the premise that villains can realize the difference between right and wrong, a notion that was touched upon with Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, the current movie wants to explore the shades of grey within both superheroes and villains, but its message about forgiveness and “having the choice to do what’s right” is sappy, simplistic and deeply questionable in light of the unclear portrayal of small-time crook and possibly cold-blooded murderer Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who turns into Sandman when he stumbles into a molecular test site while trying to hide from the police. The Sideways actor is not to blame here, even faring quite decently, but the screenplay by director Sam Raimi, his brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent has radical changes in how we should view his character (the final flashback about his involvement in the carjacking that ends with Uncle Ben shot dead is wholly unsatisfying on many levels).
Let’s rewind a little. The thrust of the story is manifold, but complications really begin when Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), spurred by his huge popularity, allows Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to recreate the upside down kiss he shared with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) in the first film. Understandably, Peter Parker now finds himself in the doghouse in a major way with the lovely MJ. Later, some black alien goo that came out of a meteor bonds with Peter, turning him into in a meaner, arrogant and unpredictable Spider-Man, complete with jet black outfit. Peter also humiliates competing photographer Eddie Brock Jr. (an irritating Topher Grace, but it’s not like I expected otherwise) by revealing him as a fraud, but that will come back to haunt him when Brock returns as the ferocious Venom and forges an alliance with Sandman. And then there’s the matter of Peter’s former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), who swore to avenge the death of his father, which he believes was brought upon by Peter as Spider-Man. Lots on the table, people. On the supporting side, comically rude editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) is once again barking orders at the Daily Bugle, although he isn’t as amusing this time around (we don’t see him that often); the beautiful Elizabeth Banks also returns as his secretary.
Maguire, Dunst and Franco have to do the heavy lifting by injecting some drama in there, and they succeed about as well as they can in a film where a lot of scenes, like the one where the hero rescues Gwen Stacy from a crane-sliced building, serve no real purpose other than showing just how much money there was for CGI. The bit where Peter gets all cocky and preens around Manhattan breaking some dance moves is just weird and silly, but Maguire remains excellent in his signature role while Dunst gains our sympathy with a winning balance of resilience and humanity. There’s nothing, however, that brings to mind the weight lifted from the hero’s shoulders in Spider-Man 2 when he decided he would be Spider-Man no more, nor the exhilaration we felt when he decided he would be Spider-Man, once more. The closest we get here to that kind of emotional relevance has to do with Franco’s Harry, whose role is expanded with a good measure of success. Parallel to the love story between Peter and Mary Jane, the Spider-Man films also chart the tortured friendship between Peter and Harry, ultimately revealing the enduring power of that friendship. Harry’s amnesia storyline after an early battle with Spider-Man as the New Goblin is not as much a cop-out as you’d expect, and their second fight, especially the outcome for Harry, gives us one of the few arresting moments of the film and imbues a final, four-way showdown with added meaning.
The second movie had a lot of depth, notably stemming from the wise words of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), “with great power comes great responsibility”, and it concluded with Mary Jane accepting the perils that may come with having a superhero as her boyfriend. The ending of “Spider-Man 3” is a decent attempt at showing the heavy cost of that dual life, but it’s overshadowed by the unconvincing message I wrote about at the start of this review. And while it definitely suffers when compared to its predecessor, the third outing is also missing sizzle and clarity as a stand-alone offering, ending up just OK when it could have spun a much tighter web.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay