I thought about dusting this review off a couple months back, during a weekend when a certain feature starring Tom Hardy became an unlikely smash hit. But then I realized the word “Venom” doesn’t appear anywhere in the few hundred words. That was perhaps a kindness to Topher Grace, or maybe just a tacit acknowledgment that director Sam Raimi didn’t really want the bulky marauder in his movie, a problem he recently noted was essentially insurmountable. So, there was really no point using this review to accompany the release of Venom. It was no real hardship. We now live in a universe that delivers a new Spider-Man movie approximately every six months, so I knew there’s be another opportunity. This review was originally written for and posted in my former online home.
For two films, Sam Raimi was a super-hero.
The director who inaugurated the Spider-man film franchise came to it equally accomplished in high art (A Simple Plan) and low genius (Evil Dead 2). Raimi achieved something wonderful that resided squarely in between those two extremes in adapting the amazing fantasy of milquetoast Peter Parker transformed into a web-slinging wisecracker who saves New York City from marauding goblins and metal-armed megalomaniacs. Bustling with energy, color and heart, Raimi’s first two films came closer than any other film to capturing the zippy appeal of four-color adventures of the utterly improbable. It helps that Spider-man is the epitome of the wish-fulfillment that gives super-heroes their resonant subtextual appeal: the bullied weakling who’s secretly a strong and dexterous daredevil, saving the prettiest girl in school. With that rich core, Raimi made a first film of uncommon urgency and a follow-up that maintained the drive while stripped away the shortcomings of its predecessor.
The third time is charmless. It may seem that Raimi has incorporated too many elements with villains old and not-as-old added to the mix (although, that “not-as-old” villain has still been around for about twenty years, a realization that had me reeling a tad) while still making room to have movieland’s Harry Osborn follow in the purple footprints of his printed predecessor. With classic supporting characters Gwen Stacy and her police officer father also debuting, the threat is clearly there for pure overload, but that’s not where the endeavor stumbles. It’s not overly busy, it’s just flat. It’s hard to think of another film with so much plot and yet feels like there’s very little actually going on.
The story itself is full of plot holes and strains credibility with its heavy reliance on coincidence. The attempts to explore Peter Parker’s darker instincts — fueled by municipal adoration and ego, and exacerbated by a sentient alien tar that contributes to a costume change — are marred by poorly crafted comedic digressions and muddled purpose. Raimi’s playing with ideas, but he has no real point to make with this side trip. The danger of the parasitic substance never comes across. Like many of the details, it’s just there. There’s nothing meaningful or memorable; it’s just filling space and killing time.
As opposed to the first two installments, Spider-man 3 suffers from a pronounced lack of humanity. The earlier films had ample FX house eye candy, but they also had the splendid schism of Peter’s joyous freedom and burdensome guilt in his super-hero role. His fearful longing for Mary Jane was as critical as the expertly crafted action sequences. Raimi still knows how to construct airborne battles with ingenuity and audaciousness, but his sure touch for the people populating the adventure is plainly gone. In its place is trumped-up conflict, hackneyed motivation and platitudes masquerading as wisdom (poor Rosemary Harris has to suffer through playing Aunt May as nothing more than a clucking dispenser of arduous advice).
This is hardly the first film franchise to fall apart when it gets to its third outing, but I had been a true believer in Sam Raimi’s eternal ability to shepherd the wall-crawler’s onscreen adventures, which makes it all the harder to see him spin a spectacular failure.