All the plot of a 6-issue comic book story arc cleanly edited into a 2-hour and 20-minute movie.
Unlike the beginning of Spider-Man 2, the third installment of this franchise shows Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) for the hero he is and always hoped he could be: popular, heroic, and iconic. While he’s still scraping by in his a tiny New York apartment, somehow he’s balanced his time to be a hero, woo his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and study his way to the top of his class in school. In typical comic book fashion, a trio of villains then suddenly appear one-by-one to do battle. Because this is a Marvel comics character, we get to see how these attacks affect our hero both in and out of his costume. Can Spider-Man survive against his enemies, or will Peter Parker destroy himself first?
To be fair, I enjoyed the second Spider-Man film more than the first. Being spoon-fed a story I know by heart wasn’t entirely fun, but I also know it was necessary to launch the franchise even with the embellishments made to modernize the plot. The second film launched head-first into moving past the first film while still referring to all the story elements and plot points. This unfamiliar yet well-characterized advancement of the story told me everything I needed to know about the people in charge: director Sam Raimi and company know these characters and it all shows on the screen. As clich?© as it may sound, “with great power comes great responsibility” is true for Spider-Man whether the mask is on or not (and for the filmmakers as well).
This is the secret that makes Spider-Man 3 work very well for audiences, but many critics who are not fans of the series (or comic books in general) may not buy into this. Things happen to Spidey that are beyond his control, and unlike other films that wallow in the how and why of villainy, hero Peter Parker must not only deal with these new threats, but also how they interrupt his life and the lives of those around him. The villains aren’t as important as the hero and his troubles, and in many parts of these stories, a careless statement is far more devastating to our hero than any pumpkin bomb or alien entity could ever be.
All this brings me to why I enjoyed this movie. From the moment the opening titles appear on screen, it’s the Peter Parker show, and we exclusively see everything through his point of view. Is it ridiculous that all these villains suddenly appear at this time in Pete’s life? Sure it is, and although none of these events are in any way coordinated, Pete still has to deal with them all, just like real life. Fantastic yes, but balancing school, a social life, a love interest, a freelance job, and even a secret life doesn’t seem too far fetched at all. So what that an alien creature, a guy made of living sand, and an old vendetta come to call; Spider-Man attracts natural disasters like a Midwest trailer park, and that he manages to pull through in the end is the hope we’re all counting on.
In addition to the regulars like Maguire and Dunst in this installment, James Franco gets more screen time than most and makes the most of it since his story arc has been three films in the making. Thomas Haden Church as Flint Marko aka Sandman has the least screen time, but Church pours on more genuine emotion in that small time than the combination of every other film I’ve seen him in. Topher Grace as Eddie Brock is a mirror of Parker in many ways but also a dark reflection; if there was a story element that could have used more time, it was this one. All the bit character parts (The Daily Bugle gang, Doc Conners, the landlord and his daughter) get their shots in, but I have to raise an eyebrow at how practically every single female is smitten with Parker, almost as if the female roles have been reduced to props and playthings. Fans of Bruce Campbell won’t be disappointed with his appearance as “The Maitre D'”.
Spider-Man 3 is fast-paced and wastes no time on screen. The editor must be thanked (and exhausted) for managing to keep all these characters and stories clear, separate, yet integrated. The screenplay clings to a warm moral center that fuels the term “hero” and makes it super. And director Sam Raimi can’t help but revisit iconic scenes from the earlier installments if only to remind us that these films are really one long story, the epic tale of a reluctant hero with greatness thrust upon him who’s still one of us deep down inside.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)