The Good, The Bad, and the Venom: Looking Back at Spider-Man 3
It’s very likely that no film will ever be as disappointing to me as Spider-Man 3. Disappointment is a gap between expectations and the final experience, and since I love The Avengers and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I don’t think there another film where my expectations will ever be as high while also having a concrete notion of what the film “should” be. Spider-Man 2 is one of my favorite films of all time in any genre, and the original Spider-Man is a film I watched countless times on DVD. So going into the third film in Sam Raimi’s trilogy, I had the utmost confidence that we would get another great film. Same director, same cast...what could go wrong?
While watching the film, I was crushed. Afterward, I would point to this scene–in which Peter Parker (under the influence of an alien symbiotic goo) takes his date, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to a jazz club where his ex, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is a singing waitress and then proceeds to take over the spotlight and just ask like the worst person imaginable, as if you tried to imitate an Axe commercial in real life–as the nadir of the film series:
And yeah, that scene is uncomfortably bad. But the film does have a few things going for it in addition to some major problems. In light of Venom’s return to cinemas this week, I thought it would be an ideal time to revisit this film and see what a decade of perspective looks like.
Raimi’s films execute one of the most overlooked aspects of superhero films, that the villain should embody the film’s themes and also represent a philosophical/ethical challenge to the hero (Nolan’s Batman films execute this well also). The first Spider-Man deals with the theme of identity (Peter being an orphan contrasted to the Osbornes) and then Spider-Man 2 uses Doctor Octopus to contend with hubris and going it alone. These also underline the bedrock of Spider-Man’s character, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
So I really like how Raimi approaches this film’s two major themes of forgiveness and duality. Especially since–at least in my experience–the person often overlooked for forgiveness is ourselves. And certainly for Spider-Man given his ethical foundation. Each of the films’ two villians are tied to one of these themes, with Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) personifying forgiveness (and Peter wrestling with revenge) and the alien suit/Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grave) representing the dual nature of man. They’re powerful themes for Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) to wrestle with, and really worthy for a superhero film to examine.
Pretty much everything involving the Sandman in this film is great. It would have been easy for him to be a kind of bland villain, but Church’s performance really gives him the sense of tragedy necessary to draw out our empathy. Of all of the actors in this film, Church probably best blends in to Raimi’s melodramatic groove in these films, playing Marko’s emotions just shy of being so sincerely over-the-top they become funny. In the comics, Sandman has oscillated back and forth between being a villain and a hero over the last few decades, and the root of that is in this film. He genuinely seems remorseful, and cares about his daughter.
The Sandman effects have also aged really well (at least when he is person-sized). The scene where Marko becomes Sandman is horrific in an old-school monster movie way. Whenever he is dissolving or moving as sand, there’s a good amount of detail in the grains, and the blending between the actor and computer effect is wonderful. And they also use real sand. The sequence where Sandman attempts to rob an armored car that ends with Spider-Man standing in a pile of inert sand surrounded by cops is hilarious and wonderful.
Spider-Man 3 makes some major changes in order to fit Eddie Brock/Venom into being a more exact foil for Peter Parker/Spider-Man. This aligns perfectly with the Bronze/Silver age as opposed to the “Modern Age of Comics” that came about in the 1980s. The Flash’s arch-rival, Eobard Thawne, wore a costume that inverted the Flash’s colors, called himself the Reverse-Flash and literally wanted to replace the hero, even coming onto his wife. This is closer to Raimi’s interpretation of Eddie Brock than the comic, for better and for worse.
In this film, Brock is a new freelance photographer trying to out-hustle Peter Parker to sell pictures of Spider-Man to the Daily Bugle. He’s the opposite of Peter in many ways. He is a better photographer than Peter, more assertive (he not only haggles with J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson about the price of his photos, but tries to convince the grumpy newspaper editor that he deserves a staff position by plucking his heartstrings about proposing to his girlfriend and abject ass-kissing). In many ways, Peter still feels like the shy nerd from before he was bitten by a radioactive spider. It’s a great interpretation for this film, and even extends to Brock forging photos in order to get ahead. He represents a much darker path for Peter in a way that really resonates. All of this goes out the window when he becomes Venom, however.
James Franco and Kirsten Dunst dancing to “The Twist”
Brock’s escalation from “disgruntled plagiarist” to “kidnapper and would-be murder” is missing a link or two. The film should show us either Brock hitting rock bottom–he is either really lying to Jameson about the proposal or he and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), had a really fast and huge falling out since she is so happily dating Peter, but we don’t see any of this, but having them happen together would underline his descent–or the symbiote suit encouraging and escalating his behavior. But he just sort of shows up and recruits the Sandman from a dumpster (Marko is right for being mad about Spider-Man trying to dissolve him out of existence with water). There’s a beat of this story missing, and while the film is already plenty long, it really could have used it, since this leap underlines the problems with Venom in the film.
Sam Raimi doesn’t like Venom. He was included in the film because Avi Arad saw the merchandise potential and because some idea to ‘please’ ‘fans.’ And whether you like the film or not, Venom doesn’t belong in this version of Spider-Man’s world. The ‘alien costume’ wasn’t introduced until 1984, and Venom a few years after that. Raimi’s vision most closely resembles the Bronze Age of Comics, which begins in 1970, and goes until 1985 (when DC published The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen). While Bronze Age comics do have darker themes and generally longer plotlines than earlier comics, they don’t fetishize “gritty realism” or deconstruct the genre, still working melodrama and crisp theming.
The one specific choice made by the filmmakers that damns Venom to this section of the list. Because the suit doesn’t really talk to its host in this film, all of the influence it has over its wearer is essentially passive. It’s just not a very cinematic choice, and since the suit isn’t established as its own character, its influence is less clear. It would be fine if the whole film was about that, but by not establishing a change in Brock, combined with the poor way Peter is handled in the film (more on that below) makes it overall feel sloppy and overstuffed. So it ends up not an engaging way to tell this story.
Moreover, forcing Venom into the finale undercuts the theme of forgiveness and therefore the catharsis of the Sandman storyline. While Topher Grace plays an insufferable bro very well, the storyline ends up going nowhere, since the dramatic weight is on the Sandman and Harry (James Franco) and their relationship with Spider-Man. Since Peter only ever sees one aspect of Brock, and Venom is only in the film for about 15 minutes, there’s not enough time devoted to fleshing out who or what Venom is for it to matter.
Peter Parker’s characterization in this film is the albatross around its neck. Spider-Man 3 falls hard when it comes to Peter, and I think that’s why it was ultimately so disappointing a decade ago. The Peter from the last film learned the lesson of trying to go it alone, and how Spider-Man needs the city, as well as a trusted confidant in Mary Jane. But instead Peter acts like a complete jerk, even before he bonds with alien goop that makes him go full on toxic male. At least people react to him being a jerk by being disgusted.
The primary example is his relationship with Mary Jane. Peter doesn’t ever listen to her, he’s wrapped up in the love New York has for Spider-Man, which has completely gone to his head. He is isolated in his own world, and even proves MJ’s paranoia is valid when he upside-down-kisses Gwen (who is also his lab partner) in front of her, and then refuses to see what the big deal is. Again,. this is before he is being influenced by the symbiote. This regression, while potentially realistic, is frustrating. One of the best things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe films is that they keep finding new ways to spin Tony Stark’s biggest flaw. This feels more like Marty McFly suddenly not being able to handle being called “chicken” in the Back to the Future sequels.
The Love “Pentagon?”
Because of this, all of the relationship stuff just falls apart, since Peter is obviously just hurting MJ by being ignorant and self-absorbed, Harry gets amnesia, Gwen and Eddie’s relationship is mostly off screen, and in the end, everyone is truly obsessed with Peter. Spider-Man’s tangled web indeed.
“It’s all connected”
One more quick note. I really don’t like the idea of making Sandman the guy who shot Uncle Ben. It’s the same mistake that Tim Burton’s Batman makes. By making him a part of the origin, resolving his storyline also pretty much resolves Peter’s.
Spider-Man 3 is as messy as ever, though after four viewings (mostly in the last couple years), I feel like I’ve untangled what works and what doesn’t. It’s not an awful film, just weighed down by one or two bad choices. And it’s way better than Amazing Spider-Man 2.