This third instalment of the Spider-Man story clearly demonstrates just how good Sam Raimi’s web-slinging franchise is. Compared to, say, X3, any other second sequel or just about any other superhero movie ever, Spider-Man 3 is a soaring success, a fine mix of background detail, inner turmoil and gusset-threatening excitement. Compared to Spider-Man 2 though, it feels like a slightly disappointing retread of the same old themes.
Spider-Man 2 finishes with a sense of hope. Peter Parker (Maguire) seems to have found a solution to his problems, particularly how to balance the instruction that "with great responsibility comes great power" with his desire for a normal life. The on/off nature of his relationship with MJ (Dunst) is now switched firmly to "on" after she abandoned her fiancé in favour of Peter. In the cons column, the fact that Harry (Franco) now knows that he’s Spidey and now blames Peter for the death of his father puts a slight downer on things but hey, nobody said it would be easy.
At the beginning of 3, that positivity’s still going. Peter’s making it to class and is the best student, Spider-Man is loved by the people of New York, MJ’s got a new theatrical role she loves… even Harry develops amnesia and can’t remember that he hates Peter/Spider-Man. Could life be more perfect? And how long can it last? Clearly not very as Raimi has 156 minutes to fill and three villains to shoehorn in. First up is Sandman, the criminal formerly known as Flint Marko (Church). Like so many Spider-Man "bad" guys, his backstory suggests that he’s a victim of circumstance. He only robbed to give his sick daughter a chance… although in the process of that, it transpires he’s actually the man responsible for Uncle Ben’s murder. He’s also just unwittingly taken part in a physics experiment and has developed the shape-shifting power of sand.
Sandman is backed-up with New Goblin, Harry’s alter-ego, because, inevitably, the amnesia fades and Harry wants revenge. Or he’s constipated — James Franco’s acting makes it hard to tell the emotions apart. Finally, and best of all, is Venom, a strange alien beastie that tags onto Peter’s moped and turns out to be a strange alien beastie that feeds on negative thoughts. It takes over Peter’s suit and then Peter himself, bringing out his darker, vengeful side. You can tell it’s his darker side because it makes him grow his fringe longer so he looks like the fourth member of Busted. When Peter realises the damage the suit – however cool it looks – is doing to his relationships, reputation and hairstyle it has to go. He succeeds… but it falls into the hands of rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a man that bad, floppy-fringed Peter’s just got sacked. He wants revenge, the icky black stuff likes the way he’s thinking and thus Venom is born — a jagged-toothed psychopath with most of Spider-Man’s abilities.
You following this? For a blockbuster action movie, this is as densely-plotted as an art-house thriller and, to some extent, you have to cheer such depth. Unfortunately, Venom seems a token gesture when there’s enough meat there for a full movie, and a whole raft of more interesting angst-related problems for Peter to process rather than the same old, same old. In the meantime, Sandman’s tortured existence feels very similar to Doc Ock’s unwilling / unwitting bad-guy, while Goblin is just a remould of Willem Dafoe’s troubled role from the first part. Only worse acted. Around this you have the usual Parker problems yet again – on/off love with MJ, his elderly Aunt May, etc. For all its innovation, and the effects and action sequences are mindblowing even by this franchise’s high standards, there’s an unshakeable sense of déjà vu running through this sequel.
It’s a strange situation. As mentioned above, Spider-Man 3 is an extremely well executed film. It’s just that by Raimi’s high standards and against the benchmark of number two, Spider-Man 3 isn’t the rip-roaring success and advance that the world was probably hoping for.
SECOND OPINION | Stuart O'Connor: Memo Avi Arad — when you hire a filmmaker as clever and talented as Sam Raimi, and said filmmaker delivers a pair of movies that pull in more than $1.5 billion worldwide ... you DO NOT interfere with his vision for the next one. It's no secret that Venom only appears in Spider-Man 3 because exec producer Arad insisted on it — Raimi was never a big fan of the extraterrestrial villian that's hugely popular with younger fans of the comic. But much of what's wrong with the web-slinger's third outing comes down to the presence of Venom.
Let's be frank — Spider-Man 3 is pretty disappointing. As the first summer blockbuster of the year, and with such high anticipation built up, it really is quite a letdown. On the plus side, the set pieces and action scenes are truly amazing and spectacular; the advances in CGI since the second outing have to be seen to be believed. And there are some nice comedic touches — particularly from Raimi pal Bruce Campbell as a French maitre'd, and the ever-reliable JK Simmons as Daily Bugle boss J Jonah Jameson. But the plot is too busy, and much of it a retread from Spider-Man 2. And with one too many villains, it's starting to move into (*shudder*) Batman & Robin territory.
Never mind. It really doesn't matter what critics say (and reviews so far have been very mixed) — Spider-Man 3 will rake in bucketloads of cash, and there will definitely be a Spider-Man 4 (and probably a 5 and 6, too). But whether Raimi, Maguire et al will be back remains to be seen.