The pre-release headlines forecast doom. “Peter’s pride destroys everything that means anything to him!” screamed director Sam Raimi. “It’s like Peter Parker. But twisted!” went Tobey Maguire’s gloomy prediction. And toothy mega-menace Venom? “He’s insane!” roared Topher Grace, kids cowering in the corner. Believe the hype and the bleakness of listening to Joy Division in a Siberian funeral home would be like picking daisies compared to Spider-Man 3. Death and double-crossing: blockbuster season was apparently set to kick off with some damaged goods...
This though will be news to anyone who’s just watched the movie. As switch-off holiday fodder, Raimi’s trilogy kiss-off has set the summer standard. Angst? What angst. From Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) scrapping with The New Goblin/Harry Osborn (James Franco), through the webbed one’s titanic altercations with Sandman/Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) to the emergence of Venom/Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), this is one huge action vehicle, slamming the accelerator down in pursuit of the Big Thrill. And consistently hitting the mark.
Whereas Spider-Man 2 only concentrated on one villain – Doc Ock – 3 is maniacal, cramming three baddies into a run-time only 10 minutes longer than its predecessor. Keeping track here can be a headache, but at times the breathlessness is exceptional, Haden Church especially bringing fresh life into the franchise, giving his character real pathos as Marko and real punch as Sandman. “I’m not bad, I’ve just had bad luck,” he laments. Damn right, as his convict stumbles into the world’s only molecular transfer machine. Revealed as the true killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben, it’s Marko who helps push Parker towards the Dark Side, one hell of a back-story to thrust upon a newcomer. Unsurprisingly, the Sideways man excels, bringing his acting heft to an already talented party.
At Spider-Man 3’s core, though, are the returning heroes and the Parker/ Osborn/Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) love-triangle. After listening to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) – still fond of story-telling, still old – our besuited hero plans to wed his struggling actress lover once he’s able to put her before himself. Between them stands dripping-tap Osborn, all love for MJ and loathing for Parker.
As the New Goblin, he’s desperate to get his old buddy back for ‘murdering’ his dad, but with an evil range that stretches no further than a raised eyebrow, Franco blows the chance to inject his character with any sympathy. We know Spidey didn’t kill The Green Goblin and sometimes it’s hard to care.
So, as with 1 and 2, the story’s the golden couple, with love, or rather miscommunication, tearing them apart. They’ve been with us for five years now, but with Parker infested by a mysterious black gloop, it’s going wrong. In actuality, though, his new get-up gives the boy a pair of balls and a moody indie rocker’s fringe (Google “Conor Oberst”) rather than any insidious malevolence. Under the influence of ‘evil’, Parker makes a cheating MJ jealous (fair cop), punches out his uncle’s murderer (top lad!) and exposes photography rival Brock as a fraud (crime-stopper!). What’s more, in an extended montage, New Parker swings an attractive swagger, winking at girls and showing some chutzpah. Fresh and funny, this is hardly the “twisted” man Maguire spoke of.
So what of Venom, the “insane” one, the second symbiote host and the chaos-loving alter-ego of Brock? Grace – a man this magazine insists should make more films – gives him plenty of funny-quip build-up as the struggling snapper overcome by jealousy for... about six minutes of Venom screentime. Unfortunately this cult creation also has a tendency to disappear during the thrilling all-involving climactic ruck, perhaps hinting at Raimi’s indifference to a character the comics love. That said, it’s a mighty final set-piece, one that makes X-Men: The Last Stand’s Golden Gate-gubbins look positively hack-job.
Moreover, as with the first two films, there’s a lightness of touch that sets Spider-Man apart from adap rivals. This is the film the comic-book faithful will lap up, hitting a tone most reminiscent of Stan Lee’s heyday. Sod all the portents; from Parker’s flirtation, to a tongue- firmly-in-cheek cameo from the creator himself, Spider-Man 3 is a blockbuster that knows how to have fun – never more so than with an extended appearance from Evil Dead legend Bruce Campbell. Playing an iffy-accented French waiter, his five-minutes are more Saturday Night Live sketch than summer money-spinner.
That such indulgences are to be laughed with, rather than at, is a credit to Raimi’s craft, honed over the course of the three movies. If 1 was the set-up and 2 the dark, testing times, then 3 is the carnival, a no-holds barred finale that crams so much in it almost beggars belief that it rarely feels disjointed or loose. By following the accepted rules of trilogies, Spider-Man cements its shelf-life. Love interests, villains, comedy... it has it all. At a break-neck pace. No matter that allusions to dark days being ahead prove disingenuous, this is the first feelgood hit of the summer. The standard has been set. Sheer entertainment doesn’t come much more accomplished than this.
A comical comic-book kiss-off to a much-loved trilogy. Not as sinister as expected, but Raimi has spun a deft exercise in popcorn thrills. Hold on and enjoy.