Did Batman & Robin teach us nothing?
Universally considered the worst superhero sequel ever, Joel Schumacher's bloated monstrosity temporarily derailed Warner's lucrative Dark Knight franchise when it tried in vain to fill gaping plot holes with a multitude of C-list villains and unnecessarily whiny sidekicks.
Spider-Man 3 never balloons to B&R proportions, though director Sam Raimi's third installment in Columbia's cash-cow definitely appears overstuffed. Three villains, two love interests, and one venomous drop of black alien goo compete for screen time in the longest (by 20 minutes) and most disjointed of the Spidey films. Factor in a costume change, multiple musical numbers for a warbling Kirsten Dunst, and an embellished dance routine in a seedy jazz joint and you're guaranteed plenty for your money, though in this case that's not for the best.
Cliffhangers attached to 2004's Spider-Man 2 would have provided Raimi with more than enough material to explore as he brought natural closure to this reported trilogy. A romantic riff still exists between mild-mannered Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his attention-starved girlfriend Mary Jane (Dunst). Meanwhile Harry Osborn (James Franco) continues down a vengeful path believing Parker's alter-ego, Spider-Man, had killed his father (Willem Dafoe), the original Green Goblin.
But sequels sell themselves on the promise of more, and so Spider-Man 3 crams in subplots with reckless abandon. Rival news photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) wants Peter's job at the Daily Bugle, while Parker is smitten with Brock's statuesque girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard). We're introduced to street thug Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), whose molecules are morphed into grains of sand when he stumbles into a particle physics test facility during a late-night experiment. Marko uses his new powers to rob banks because his estranged and sickly daughter requires expensive medicines. And because Parker's plate seems pretty full, it's hard to fault him for not noticing an asteroid that crashes in Central Park -- mere feet from where he and Mary Jane are star-gazing -- or the animated black substance that attaches itself to his motorbike as he speeds away.
As has been the case with the earlier Spider-Man movies, I'm bothered by Raimi's creative decisions, both large and small. You should know before you continue reading that I've always disagreed with Raimi's approach to the amazing Spider-Man because I grew up worshipping the original comic books and am irked by unnecessary character changes the director continues to make.
Believing Spider-Man needs deeper motivation to go after Marko, Raimi positions the crook as the real killer of Peter's Uncle Ben -- a ludicrous suggestion that contradicts a cornerstone of Spider-Man's history. Casual fans also understand the impossibility of a Gwen Stacey-Eddie Brock pairing. For one, they exist during different decades of Spider-Man's storyline. In addition, she was killed by the Green Goblin in a bridge-top confrontation reminiscent of the one Raimi desecrated during the first Spider-Man movie. And the alien symbiote that possesses Peter's body in this film, giving him the spiffy black suit and eventually creating the vicious villain Venom, didn't piggyback to Earth on a falling rock. Spider-Man actually obtained it during the Secret Wars, a 12-part comic series fans of these movies should read to see how the Venom saga really begins.
Not that Raimi ever concerned himself with the details of these cherished comic characters, a point I was reminded of when Sandman somehow flies in this film (that's new). The director makes Parker-centric movies, only including Spider-Man when it's absolutely necessary. And while there is more action in this film, Raimi counters five minutes of thrilling skirmishes with 25 minutes of mopey dialogue from dull Dunst or single-note Franco. Maguire, to his credit, has matured from film to film. His main co-stars, however, peaked in the first movie and have since relied on regurgitating their past performances.
As for Venom, his treatment is going to anger rabid fans. A popular villain from the comic side, the character comes to life when Parker removes the living symbiote and it attaches itself to Brock, creating a dark monster in Spider-Man's likeness. Raimi has said in interviews he was coerced to include Venom in this film, and the director's disinterest in the villain shows. We get -- at most -- 10 minutes of Venom footage, most of which has been seen online. For eight of those 10 minutes, the creature's mask is peeled back to show Grace's less-than-intimidating face. I thought I was going to throw up when Brock leers at a captured Mary Jane and growls, "I think my Spidey sense is tingling, if you know what I mean!" Sadly, we do. Of course, Venom rips Spider-Man's mask off during their final fight, which amounts to Tobey Maguire vs. Topher Grace -- not exactly the battle royale fans have been dreaming about. Add in the underwhelming resolutions conceived for Harry and Mary Jane, and the end of Spider-Man 3 can only be described as anti-climactic.
Back to Batman for a second. The franchise, long thought dead, enjoyed a creative rebirth when Christopher Nolan stripped away Schumacher's gloss for Batman Begins, a scaled back origin story that pleased audiences and fans alike. Spider-Man deserves a reboot. Should Columbia feel the need to continue Spidey's swinging adventures -- and plans for part four already are underway -- then it's time for Raimi to do what he should have done after the first misfire movie: Pass the torch.
Aka Spiderman 3.
Please Venom, don't hurt 'em.