Bad or Rad?: Spider-Man 3

Few people will admit to loving Spider-Man 3, but not our Ben. He wears his shame with pride.

Spider-Man 3
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We all have our favourite Spider-Man and for me, it was Tobey Maguire. I remember being a young lad of eight, religiously watching the Spider-Man animated series on Fox Kids. I remember my excitement that there was going to be a movie – a proper movie, live-action and everything – about my favourite superhero. I remember the highs and the lows: my devastation upon learning that it would be rated 12 in Britain by the BBFC; my joy when it was re-released as a 12A and my dad agreed to take me. I remember the cinema that I saw it in, and the goosebumps as Danny Elfman’s iconic theme began to play over the opening credits. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man was simply the best movie I’d ever seen. And though I’ve grown older and my horizons have broadened, I still remember the love I felt for the webslinger’s first foray.

Spider-Man 2 was just as spectacular; many people considered it better. All the hallmarks of the original were back with bravado: the campy humour, the genuine heart and pathos, the creative action set pieces, the brilliant casting…

Then along came Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man 3 is the black sheep of the franchise, panned by critics and un-loved by fans. I was thirteen when it was released: older, and perhaps more cynical in the way that teens are. I remember rollerblading home from the cinema (yup) with a friend after the movie, and all we could talk about was how stupid it all seemed. I remember thinking: why did Venom get so little screen-time, but so much of it was given to that awful dance scene? Like many Spider-fans, I felt betrayed: they had misrepresented my favourite characters. Back then it seemed likely that this was the only time we’d ever get to see Venom on the big screen, and they blew it. For crimes against Spider-Manity, I banished the film from my mind and resolved not to watch it again.

Well, that was over a decade ago, and things have changed. Plans for a fourth movie fell through; the franchise was eventually rebooted in 2012 with Andrew Garfield in the lead, then rebooted again in 2017 starring Tom Holland. We even had a solo Venom movie come out this year (which, sadly, wasn’t very good, but I digress). Despite all of this, Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies remained my firm favourites. Yet I could never quite bring myself to re-watch the third one.

Until recently, that is.

Who can say what caused me to do it. Perhaps beating Marvel’s Spider-Man on the PS4 left me hungry for more wallcrawling. Maybe it was a full moon, or a cursed tide. Whatever the reason for my lapse in personal integrity, I watched it. I rewatched Spider-Man 3.

Let me tell you what I found.

When the movie first came out, one of the biggest criticisms was the plot: that it had too many villains; was contrived, messy, overwrought, and all manner of negative descriptors. Admittedly, this is true: the plot is driven by contrivance. The symbiote just happens to crash land on Earth next to where Spider-Man is chilling in the park. Harry Osborn just happens to get amnesia near the start of the movie, taking him out of action for a while so that the rest of the plot can catch up. Eddie Brock just happens to turn up to the same church at the same time as when Peter Parker is shedding the symbiote, leading to the birth of Venom. These are all huge coincidences that read as textbook examples of bad storytelling. However, I cannot disregard the film based on these contrivances alone because – hear me out – somewhere, lost among incongruous parts, it contains a solid and even heartfelt narrative about love, friendship and responsibility.

It’s quite simple really. Mary Jane is feeling low, but Peter prioritises a slew of personal distractions and this leads to uncertainty in their relationship. Harry, Peter’s friend-turned-enemy, takes advantage of this uncertainty to tear Pete and MJ apart out of spite. This sends Peter into a spiral of self-destructive behaviour in which he pushes both Mary Jane and Harry further away. But, choosing love over hate, Peter buries his personal demons, reconciles with Mary Jane, and even manages to make amends with Harry along the way.

That’s the plot of the movie, summed up in one paragraph and with no mention of the symbiote, Sandman or Venom. When you boil away these superfluous elements, there’s a remarkably pure narrative at the core of Spider-Man 3. Imagine if they’d omitted just one of the three villains from the story. How much clearer it could have been.

The trouble is, you can’t simply remove these elements from the movie as it exists and be done with it; their inclusion is woven into the fabric of the plot in ways impossible to remedy without a rewrite. Sandman and Eddie are the personal distractions that Peter prioritises over MJ – if you remove them, Pete fixes his relationship, Harry sees no weakness to exploit and the plot never gets off the ground. Furthermore, Venom is what ultimately motivates Peter and Harry to bury the hatchet and save Mary Jane – remove him and there’s no final act. The plot of the movie, though sturdy enough at a glance, is built on a foundation of superfluous elements. You cannot rid this script of contrivance with a simple fan edit or director’s cut.

Is contrivance always an evil when it comes to storytelling? We should remember that real life can often seem contrived at times: seemingly impossible things have been known to happen by sheer, random chance. What we should really be asking is: how much contrivance can we forgive? And does it really matter if there’s still a decent story built around it? I would argue that Spider-Man 3 is permissible, but your mileage may vary.

However, I should admit that there are some genuine problems with this movie’s plotting; some of it just makes no damn sense. For example: Harry clearly knows that his father was a villain and doesn’t care that he tried to kill Peter. He refuses to accept Peter’s version of events – that his father accidentally killed himself during their fight in the first Spider-Man movie. Yet, towards the end of this film, Harry’s butler mentions that Norman definitely did kill himself, and just like that Harry forgives Peter. If that’s all it took to stop Harry from being a murderous psychopath, why didn’t the butler say anything during the entirety of Spider-Man 2? The blood is on your hands, Bernard.

Additionally, retconning Sandman to be the killer of Uncle Ben is a rotten trick. While it plays quite well within the movie itself (and sets up a beautiful moment of closure for Peter), this movie does not exist in a vacuum – it is a continuation of a story that has happened over two movies prior. To effectively undo Peter’s arc from the first movie – to bump him back to square one and have him be the angry vigilante acting out of self-interest again – feels disingenuous and deceptive. The fans were understandably pissed.

These flaws seem pretty damning, and for many they are reason enough to discard the movie outright. Yet for all the bad in Spider-Man 3, I just can’t bring myself to dismiss it. Because watching it for the first time in over a decade and with a fresh pair of eyes, I made a pretty shocking discovery: there is a lot of good in this movie.

Despite being half-superfluous to the plot, I don’t hate Sandman. His introductory scenes give him a clear (if a little heavy-handed) pathos and actor Thomas Haden Church does a fantastic job of garnering sympathy for the character. Director Sam Raimi said in an interview that “we felt it would be a great thing for [Spider-Man] to learn a little less black and white view of life and that he’s not above these people”. Sandman exists as a communication of this theme – that lawbreakers can be complex and kind people, motivated to do wrong by bad fortune and circumstance – and I think it’s handled with a surprising amount of nuance. And while we’re talking about Sandman: how great is the scene where he first reforms his body after gaining his powers? It is often cited as one of the film’s best elements, with good reason: seeing the newly-transformed Sandman literally pull himself together, motivated by love for his daughter, is genuinely touching.

And Venom. Look, I know people don’t like him in this movie, least of all the casting of Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, but I respect what they were trying to do. Everything about the character’s portrayal is made to mimic that of Spider-Man: Topher Grace and Tobey Maguire share a similar screen presence as two affable and unimposing everymen; Venom’s costume is designed as a mimicry/mockery of the one worn by Spider-Man. These decisions reinforce a very clear thematic thrust: that Peter Parker could easily become villainous like Venom, but he chooses not to. That choice is the crucial element – the only thing that separates the two characters. This is even laid plain in a mid-battle discussion between them: Peter pleads with Eddie to take off the symbiote suit, telling him that he will lose himself to it. How does Eddie respond? “I like being bad”, he says. “It makes me happy.” The difference between them is that Eddie has chosen to indulge his negative impulses, whereas Peter chose to rise above them. And when Eddie meets his demise, it is his own doing: even when pulled from the symbiote suit by Peter, he chooses to jump back in right before it is destroyed. The various themes of this movie may be a tangled web, but when you trace each thread individually there is a lot of substance to be found.

Another thing people tend to ignore is how earnestly and intentionally funny this film is. I’d say it’s the most overtly comedic of Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies by a country mile. Some people may consider this a negative rather than a positive (arguing that the film doesn’t take itself seriously enough for the audience to make a proper investment in the more serious moments of drama) but I’d argue that these movies were silly from the beginning and Spider-Man 3 was just a little bit bolder with it. Bruce Campbell gets his best cameo of the entire trilogy (“Romance! I am French!”) and every moment that J. K. Simmons is on screen as the chronically furious J. Jonah Jameson is absolute gold. And – can we talk about the dance scene? Because, so help me God, I am about to justify the dance scene.

How can you not love emo Peter Parker strutting his stuff to James Brown? It’s no sillier than the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” montage from Spider-Man 2. In fact, it feels like a direct homage. It is, perhaps, frustrating that so much of the movie became dedicated to this scene instead of other, less refined elements, but the scene itself is achingly funny in a post-ironic kind of way that’s definitely in vogue nowadays. Maybe 2007 was too early a cultural climate for emo Peter Parker. Maybe Spider-Man 3 was just ahead of its time.

And that’s the point I come to rest on, that this movie (though panned on release and swiftly forgotten) is perhaps more welcome in our modern and increasingly complex world. Since 2007 we’ve had other Spider-Men. There’ve been attempts to make the character more serious with Andrew Garfield, and then to find some sort of middle-ground with Tom Holland, but I think the silliness of Tobey Maguire might appeal to people these days. Since Millennials and Generation Z have started shaping the cultural landscape in their image, humour has become increasingly self-aware, surreal, even Dadaistic. In the age of memes and shitposting, I think a film can very acceptably grind to a halt and force us to watch Peter Parker thrust his hips at the camera for five minutes. It’s funny.

So, re-visit Spider-Man 3 if you’re feeling bold. It’s a mess; I’ll admit that. The plot is marred by contrivance and some of it doesn’t make sense. But like Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 before it, there is a real heart and soul to Spider-Man 3, lifted by genuine moments of humour and pathos. It’s not as good as the first two. Lord, no. But, you know what? I’m going to say it:

It’s fuckin’ rad.

A footnote:

I started writing this article before Stan Lee’s passing, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the man who, along with Steve Ditko, created the character of Spider-Man and changed our world forever. We will remember Stan and his creations for centuries to come; the effect he’s had on our culture is baffling – incomprehensible, even. We will never truly understand the full significance of his work in our lifetimes.

What I can understand is the significance that Stan’s work had (and still has) on my life. I already mentioned my love of Spider-Man as a boy, and it’s no mystery why I was drawn to the character: the idea of a hero who is just some kid at school – quite an unpopular kid, actually – was something that I identified with. In retrospect, Spider-Man was something of a role model and a moral compass, because Spider-Man always tries to do the right thing, even when he doesn’t want to. I’m not saying that I’ve been a paragon of virtue my entire life, but I like to think that having Spider-Man to look up to as a child helped me to become kinder, and happier for it.

So, what can I say except thank you, Stan. And – excelsior.