As I write this on Friday morning, a consensus has formed that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is vastly inferior to its two predecessors. A litany of complaints is being levied against it: it’s poorly paced and disorganized; full of plot holes and sundry implausibilities; so busy and with so many villains and conflicts that nothing gets enough play. These criticisms are being made in reviews the world over, and they’re mostly uncomplicated and correct; you won’t have to look too hard to find a writer who goes through them in detail. Though I largely agree with what’s being said, I don’t think I have very much to contribute to this part of the discourse, except to affirm that a lot of what you’re hearing is actually true.
So instead, I’m going to tell you what I liked about Spider-Man 3, because for all its problems and miscalculations, the film is fascinating and gutsy in its sheer strangeness. Sam Raimi, manifestly not content with the emerging superhero formula, spends 140 minutes flailing around, trying all sorts of weird and different things. And though not all of them work, surely there must be something to a movie so willing to venture off the beaten trail.
I liked the film’s absolute dedication to its characters. There are really no stakes here beyond Peter Parker and his relationships with girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and friend-turned-mortal-enemy Harry Osborne, and while this would ordinarily be a demerit for a $250 million comic book extravaganza, it works here because Raimi (who co-wrote as well as directed) is so invested in this stuff. It’s heartbreaking how Peter is so deeply in love with MJ, and thinks this so obvious, that he’s oblivious to the ways that his actions are hurting her. It’s wonderful how patient the film is, how willing to talk, to leave room to breathe, to allow individual moments to transcend the confines of the story. And it’s interesting how every action scene — and there are plenty, though they come sporadically — has a hook in the characters’ psyches rather than just in the mechanics of the plot.
I liked the way Raimi mixes endearing comic book goofiness with earnest gravitas. Some have called Spider-Man 3 a soap opera, and that’s not entirely inaccurate: people cry and rage and occasionally launch into soliloquy. Others have called it self-important, but that just seems like an uncharitable way of saying that it thinks its story is serious business, and that, it seems to me, is healthy. But just as you think the movie might start to collapse under its own weight, Raimi launches into what must be the funniest five minutes of the year: think the second film’s “Spider-Man No More” montage, only on crack. What’s more, Raimi deploys this in service of the film’s most “serious” aspect — the emergence of Spidey’s dark side — thereby giving it the maximum possible undercutting effect. It’s a ballsy move (the midnight audience I saw the film with seemed almost too stunned to laugh), but somehow it’s right: the first two films skillfully infused crucial emotional beats with humor, and this, too, isn’t mere frivolity. It’s funny, but it functions as an important bit of emotional groundwork — which also goes for a hilarious cameo by Bruce Campbell as a French maitre’d.
I liked how the movie, for all its idiosyncrasies, seems to have brought out the best in the actors. Kirsten Dunst has never been better — MJ spends most of the film frustrated or annoyed, which sounds like a thankless part, but Dunst turns it to her advantage: the more exasperated MJ gets, the more desirable she seems to become. Tobey Maguire takes the film’s mood swings in stride, retaining the gee-whiz quality that has made him a hit in the role while adding a convincing mean streak. And James Franco delivers on the promise he showed in the first two films by nearly running away with the film: Harry begins as a terrific supervillain, undergoes an amnesiac transformation into a sweetheart and Peter’s best buddy, then does another about-face before resolving in a way I won’t reveal. It’s a fantastic, difficult performance.
Obviously I’ve underplayed the film’s problems, and make no mistake: as a follow-up to what I consider the finest superhero films ever made, Spider-Man 3 is a major disappointment. But many of the responses to it have been disappointing as well. Some people can’t get past the admittedly shoddy treatment of the two new villains; others seem to be getting hung up on plot holes and inconsistencies. But with a film that does as many interesting things with the genre and the story as this one does, I feel like we can be having a more interesting discussion than the one that seems to be dominating the internet. Spider-Man 3 may not be transcendent, but it’s food for thought.