The return of an SFX classic, as each Saturday one of our writers attempts to fight for the reputation of something generally considered to be a bit pish. This week, Steve O’Brien re-assesses Sam Raimi’s least-loved Spidey flick
Case for the prosecution: Can there be any greater condemnation of a film than that it effectively killed a franchise? Spider-Man 3 , m’lud, stands as a movie that put the full stop on Sam Raimi’s Spidey series. A series which, until this fatal misfire, stood as a franchise cherished by the comic book hardcore. The first Spider-Man was sublime: a day-glo-drenched love letter to the Spidey comics of the ’60s and ’70s. And then Raimi went a produced a sequel that was even better. But that third film? An overstuffed, overrich dog’s dinner of a movie, which jettisoned the focus and intimacy of the first two movies for a greedy three-villain CGI-fest.
Case for the defence: Interesting that you say that Spider-Man 3 killed the Raimi run of Spider-Man movies. Why – apart from simply wanting to give the series a fresh look – would a studio purposefully dump the team that produced the biggest grossing movie in America in 2007? Yes, Spider-Man 3 , for all its bashing from the critics, made around $100 million more domestically than the supposedly bullet-proof Spider-Man 2 . While the defence does not think the third Spider-Man is quite the equal of Spider-Man 2 , it is our argument that it is a film undeserving of the critical brickbats thrown at it, and that it is a worthy sequel in perhaps the best and most faithful comic book film series ever.
Prosection: So what is the Defence’s opinion on the inclusion of Venom? Even Sam Raimi had been vocal before the third film on his dislike of this latter-day Spidey villain. I give you this interview extract: “The more I read Venom stories, the less interested I became. But then [producer] Avi Arad said, ‘Look, you’ve got to be less selfish. You’ve got to learn what it is these kids love about Venom.’” Even the film’s director doesn’t approve of one of its chief baddies?”
Defence: You’ve cunningly left off a vital quote from that interview. Raimi went on to say, “I tried to open my mind up. Then [screenwriter] Alvin Sargent developed a character that I did understand, and did appreciate.”
Prosectution: But Raimi never really quite convinces on this, does he? He was quite clearly backed into a corner by the Marvel bigwigs into parachuting Venom into a script that was already finished and had enough villains in the new Harry-shaped Green Goblin and Sandman.
Defence: So you’d have Spider-Man 3 without that cool black suit?
Prosecution: We could live without it.
Defence: We accept that the Venom story might have been better suited to a film without two other bad guys fighting for screen space, but Raimi’s treatment of latter-day Spider-Man’s mythology is spot-on, while giving Tobey Maguire some acting challenges instead of just relying on his sweet dolphin smile.
Prosecution: But three villains is clearly too many. Why exhume the Green Goblin? The film has a “been there, done that” familiarity whenever Harry as the Goblin has his fights with Spider-Man.
Defence: To not have Harry don the mask wouldn’t have been true to the first two films. The Spider-Man film series really was a series and the Harry arc was the spine of it. And those fights weren’t dull retreads – there’s a real emotional anger behind those fights that Peter could never have had with a regular villain.
Prosecution: He makes a pretty weak-ass adversary though, doesn’t he?
Defence: Not at all. But isn’t it worth including Harry as the Goblin and to pit him against Spider-Man just for the euphoric team-up at the end, which obviously culminates in Harry’s death, bringing a sad but satisfying end to that story?
Prosecution: Yes, okay, we concede that one. But how does the Defence justify the frankly ridiculous dance number when a Venom-infected Peter takes Gwen Stacey to the jazz club, only to jump into an elaborate dance routine to impress MJ?
Defence: One of the highlights of the film! As great as the Batman or X-Men or Iron Man series of films are, you don’t get quirky moments like that in those movies! There’s always been something sweetly old-fashioned about the Raimi Spider-Man run and this blast of Busby Berkeley in the middle of a summer action blockbuster is a reminder why we love them so much.
Prosecution: It is a little embarrassing though, isn’t it? We come to a big film like Spider-Man to see fights and action, not a scene that looked pulled from Chicago.
Defence: Then you have no soul. Go and check out The Expendables instead.
Prosecution: I’ll ignore that. Onto Sandman now. What a whining, whinging weed of a villain. Look at Norman Osbourn and Otto Octavius – both witty and energetic characters that were right for a vivacious comic book film series like Spider-Man. But Flint Marko (Sandman) – what a dour, humourless, self-pitying grump he is.
Defence: You have no heart. It was brave to move away from the more cartoon villainy of the first two films. And both Osborn and Octavious were wealthy, successful people. Marko is just a poor, humble crook, which is much more in keeping with the world of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man.
Prosecution: But what the cack-handed retconning of Uncle Ben’s murder, included only to connect Marko with Peter Parker and also to give him that scene where he explains himself at the end.
Defence: But it was dealt with so skilfully that it doesn’t contradict or even dramatically neuter those scenes in Spider-Man 1. And now I will bring to the prosecution’s attention the Bruce Campbell cameo as the fawning maitre'd - surely the best of his three Spidey appearances.
Prosecution: We concede that point. But then we point out to the Defence how tedious Peter and MJ’s love story was getting by the third instalment. What was quite charming in the first film had become dreary and soapy by the third. It doesn’t help that Kirsten Dunst is an actress who sucks the energy out of every scene she’s in. And it doesn’t help her that Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy is here, totally wasted in a nothing role, but glittering away anyhow – the MJ that should have been.
Defence: It’s the intimacy of Peter and MJ’s story, set against the big set-pieces that marks the Spidey series out. And the chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst is perfect – both off-kilterly good-looking and delicate in their acting. Gwen Stacy may be prettier and flirtier but it’s all a bit obvious isn’t it?
Prosecution: We’re personally glad Marc Webb is taking over the series now. Raimi and his cohorts brought their version to a proper conclusion with Harry’s death, and now it’s time for fresh eyes to reimagine Spider-Man and to bring it back down to a human scale after the bloated CGI-fest of Spider-Man 3 .
Defence: We’re looking forward to it too, but would like to remind the Prosecution that Sam Raimi was working on a fourth and only walked when the studio insisted on an unrealistic release date. But he and his team went out on a high. If you’re looking for a rewarding superhero movie, you get more than you’re ever used to with Spider-Man 3 !