To me, the first third of the first Spider-Man movie and the whole of Spider-Man 2 felt like one great roller-coaster ride. Spider-Man 3 felt like The Pummeling. (Which is still better than The Quickening, I’m sure…)
I liked the first film (and thought some of the first act’s moments were audacious and perfect; I laughed out loud in delight when Peter Parker first felt his Spider Sense), and really liked the second, which I found more assured and more emotional (especially the train scene). The third film, though, was (for me) mostly unemotional and very frustrating. Probably it’s best to complain this way: Haven’t these characters grown up??!!
I mean, when my reaction to several scenes is to think “OK, I will NOT do that when I have a girlfriend again,” then I’d say something’s wrong.
Better critics than me have already complained about the third film’s coincidence-plagued storyline (“he’s standing in exactly that spot in that church so that can happen? Wow, convenient”) and the Schumacher-Batman overabundance of villains (even, briefly, Peter Parker himself – OK, the not-himself, symbiote-infected Peter, but it skirts the edge of Too Much). I’m also sure I’m not the only one who noticed that there’s a lot of selfishness and thoughtlessness among the characters, too. And I started obsessing over it, and spotting it throughout the flick.
Signs of characters wrapped up in themselves: Peter only saying “I love you” when prompted, never when leaving those phone messages for M.J. or even just when he’s with her. M.J. hiding the sudden change in her work situation from Peter. Peter turning every crisis M.J. goes through into a “that’s like this problem Spider-Man has…” speech. M.J. being surprisingly thin-skinned for a Broadway vet (and by the way, Kirsten Dunst’s talents don’t quite include singing). Petty, immature moves by almost every major character (such as future villain Eddie Brock violating journalistic ethics big-time and not even being smooth about it, and who gets caught almost immediately and then asks the help of Jesus Christ Himself to get revenge by killing Peter Parker (seriously)). But, really, it was mainly selfishness that was sabotaging the relationships in this film. I don’t need the relationship stuff in a summer blockbuster to have the depth of what’s in, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it helps for films to try. (I still remember fondly the way Nicolas Cage and Vanessa Marcil relate as a couple in The Rock, of all things. See, it’s possible, even in the middle of a huge deranged action flick!)
It got to the point that I tried to justify the moment when Spider-Man’s at a ceremony, receiving the Key to the City from Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), and gets Gwen to kiss him, even though M.J. is in the crowd (he knows! He talked to her!) and sees this and gets mad. (“Who was she kissing, Spider-Man or Peter?”) I decided “OK, maybe Peter got caught up in thinking like a photographer – ‘Ooo, this would be a great photo! It’s an iconic moment! It’ll play great to the crowd, and it’ll look great in the papers, too!’ – and didn’t stop long enough to think how it’d look to M.J. And he could try to justify it that way to M.J. later.” But he basically behaves like an asshat in front of the love of his life, and gets mopey when she calls him on it instead of admitting that yep, he made a dumb move. He doesn’t even try to say “Hey, she’s just somebody I met, you’re the woman I love, and we should be OK.” But the easier explanation is that he’s just being selfish and thoughtless, when everything he’s been through in the other films should’ve made him less likely to be that way. There’s just not enough going on onscreen to really justify that interpretation, though (so I should see how Peter David explained it in his novelization).
Ultimately, generally, Spider-Man 3 didn’t ring emotionally true for me. One moment I thought did – Peter’s outburst in the police station over new evidence in Uncle Ben’s death (it’s likely close to what my reaction to such news would be) – is, annoyingly, tied into a twist that requires that the first film’s plot get revised, then, later, revised again (he was killed by this guy; no, he was killed by THAT guy; no, that guy did kill him, but he didn’t mean it), and that annoyed plenty of other people. Peter’s reaction feels natural; the flashbacks to Uncle Ben are appropriately sad; the plot machinations behind all this are clunky.
And too much of the plot relies on people not telling other people key pieces of info until a crucial, sometimes embarrassing, moment. And it happens again and again and again. (Late in the flick, when the bleeping Osborn family butler says a certain something at a certain time, I was reminded of the lame “I was An Eyewitness!” gag from Hot Shots! And that is, um, not good.)
All that said, I did enjoy parts of the film. I first got to really laugh when Bruce Campbell (Oregon’s greatest living B-actor!) appeared as the maitre d’ who tries to help Peter and just keeps making an awkward moment ever more awkward. Rosemary Harris as Aunt May kicks ass, metaphorically; she’s a joy onscreen, and remains the Voice of Loving Reason she’s been throughout the series. Bryce Dallas Howard is winning and appealing as Gwen Stacy (she apologizes to M.J. when Peter really needs to be the one apologizing; she’s a caring sweetheart!). As Sandman, Thomas Haden Church pulls off the pathos. I think I’m a little in love with Elizabeth Banks as Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant; she actually seems to be having fun making this film. I found it surprisingly amusing that Dr. Connors realizes the symbiote is “aggressive” because the symbiote’s cells are butting into other cells. And Stan “The Man” Lee, in his standard cameo, sums things up in two lines. (His lines apply to his real-life self, too. Excelsior!)
For the record, I waited to be a wet blanket about this film. See, when I left the screening room, people were sitting outside waiting to enter for the next show. One of them asked me “Is it over?” Then she asked me what I thought of it. “I…I don’t like to say right after seeing something,” I said. “Thumbs up or thumbs down then?” she asked. “See, I don’t even like to do that,” I answered. “OK, neutral,” she replied. And I got on with getting to the bathroom.
Finally, by the way, random thought: anyone else think that the Sandman at the end looked a little like Rockbiter from The Neverending Story?