I remember seeing the earliest extended previews of Spiderman 3 that included clips of the film’s three villains, “New Goblin,” Venom, and Sandman. My first thoughts were, “This is going to be amazing.” Over the past week, I noticed that earlier reviews were less enthused than I would have expected. This gave me pause, and I thought, “Three villains…this could be bad.” Unfortunately, some of the reviews and my latest fears were right. Spiderman 3 loses all the “spiritual punch” that the first two films contained and resorts to re-hashed series of web-slinging fights and a plot line that tends to forget the very spectacle it wants to offer with three villains in one film.
Again, Spiderman 3 picks up where the second installment left off. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) finally seems to have struck the balance between being a normal college student, photographer, and Spiderman that he longed for in Spiderman 2. He does well in school and even plans to propose to his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). If the citizens of New York had their doubts about whether Spiderman was a hero or villain in the first two films, they have rallied behind him with full support as children play with Spiderman toys and dress up like Spiderman while the city commemorates a Spiderman Day. However, all of this fame and popularity goes to Peter’s head and leads him to alienate those he loves the most.
One of the tag lines for the film is, “The greatest batlle lies within.” Actually, this would have been more appropriate for the first two films, as this film clearly emphasizes exterior battles that all start when a mysterious black substance from outerspace invades Peter’s life and takes control of Spiderman’s suit. On top of this, an escaped convict, Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), gets into a chemical accident that displaces his molecules with grains of sand, thus turning him into Sandman. Add to this Harry Osborne (James Franco) following in his father’s footsteps and becoming “The New Goblin” and a jealous, rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), and Peter Parker/Spiderman has a four-headed monster on his hands (unfortunately, so does director Sam Raimi).
As the film progresses, Peter/Spiderman battles with his mysteriously altered suit which taps into the darker side of his life, particularly feelings of jealousy and revenge toward Harry/The New Goblin who has convinced Mary Jane to break up with him. The suit makes Spiderman more powerful and Peter more attractive (when will we be able to purchase the Emo Peter Action Figure), to a point. Unfortunately, the film glosses over the internal battle that Peter must fight in order to rid his suit of the blackness. Spiderman finally flees to a church belltower in which he manages to rip the black substance away from his suit. However, he does not know that Eddie Brock has been in the sanctuary below praying for the death of Peter Parker who had recently humiliated him at work (Emo Peter revealed that Eddie had been submitting doctored photographs). The black substance binds to Eddie creating Venom, a fantastic evil mirror to Spiderman that we unfortunately do not get to see enough of in the film.
Meanwhile, Marko/Sandman goes on a bank-robbing spree in order to pay for his sick daughter’s medical expenses. In the course of the film, we (and Peter) learn that Marko actually killed Uncle Ben back in the first film as he was an accomplice in the robbery that lead to the fatal shooting. Peter/Spiderman vows revenge anew and nightly obsesses over meeting the Sandman at his latest heist. Spiderman meets the Sandman and Venom in a final showdown at an abondoned high-rise construction site where Venom has kidnapped Mary Jane. Unable to defeat them alone, he finally convinces Harry/”The New Goblin” that he did not intend to kill his father and to help him save Mary Jane.
The first two films’ spiritual effectiveness was their presentation of Peter/Spiderman’s clear internal struggle to do what was right and to pursue a higher calling at the risk of losing family and friends. This film downplays the internal struggle that Peter/Spiderman now faces in light of a renewed sense of revenge towards both Harry and Marko by introducing the mysterious black substance from outerspace. The substance taking control of Spiderman’s suit and his fight to rid himself of it might be a metaphor for Peter’s internal battle (a.k.a. Bob in What About Bob saying, “I get it…first I have to untie the knots inside, before I can untie the knots outside.”) but it is not one that Raimi explores (or exploits) fully. Rather, the battles that Peter/Spiderman must wage are all external, the suit, “The New Goblin,” Venom, and Sandman, and his crises of conscience all come in the form of audible dialogue that seems tacked on at best.
In the film, Aunt May warns Peter, “Uncle Ben wouldn’t want us living with revenge in our hearts, it’s like a poison. It can take you over and turn us into something ugly.” Unfortunately, Spiderman 3 turns out to be an “ugly” film precisely because it does not explore this ugly side of revenge seriously enough.