‘More isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just more.’I can’t honestly remember the first time I heard that aphorism, but you have to admit, whether you’re talking about body-mass index or camelshit on your doorstep, there’s a certain truth there.
It’s a truth that often applies to superhero movie sequels. In fact, it’s a truth that applies to storytelling generally – the more fundamental elements or characters you have to invent to make your story work, generally speaking, the weaker the story becomes.
Not that that stops superhero movie writers – or their bosses – continually demanding more, more, more. It was a compulsion that put the kiss of death on the Schumacher Batman movies, when it was felt necessary to add Poison Ivy, Mr Freeze and Bane to a single movie, cramming Batgirl in for good measure. It was one of many such kisses that persuaded DC bosses to put Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in the same movie, when only one of them had been seen before, and in a turnaround, only Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman really earned her spot in the movie.
And it was the urge to fill the screen with villains that ultimately put a nail in the coffin of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies with Spider-Man 3. Pitting Spider-Man against Harry Osbourne as ‘the New Goblin,’ Topher Grace as Venom, and Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman in a single movie means you have three villains to take care of, as well as delivering the actual point, which is Spider-Man’s (or indeed Peter Parker’s) battle with himself, with his inner demons. It’s Villain Overload, and something has to give.
From the very first moment, Spider-Man 3 feels the weight of its own history, and transfers that weight to the audience – the credits are a boiled-down soup of moments from the first two movies. But then, bless it, it tries to do business as usual, with an unusual twist – having struggled for two movies with the public perception of him as a lone vigilante, Peter Parker has finally got both his lives together. He has the girl of his dreams, and everyone loves their friendly neighbourhood webhead. The theme of the next couple of hours is clearly set out: the challenges of the outsider are one thing, but the challenges of the success are another, more insidious thing altogether.
There’s some good work setting up Haden Church’s Flint Marko as ‘not a bad man’ – for all that involves him actively telling the audience ‘I’m not a bad man’ – but there are structural issues with Spider-Man 3 that are inherent to what it’s being asked to deliver. The first sequence of Harry as the New Goblin comes slamming out of nowhere, and leads to the kind of sequence you’d expect to close a Spidey movie, followed by a hideous cliché – Convenient Amnesia Alert, everybody, Harry’s going sleepy bye-byes for a bit and will forget all the really useful stuff he knows, so he and Peter can be pals again. You can almost hear Sam and Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent tearing their hair out, trying to get everything they want in their story to fit.
The creation of some of the villains is very strange too – the Sandman is created by Scientific People who’ve never appeared before, annnnd never appear again either once they’ve done the thing the script needs them to. Venom though is enormously laboured – we get a whole iteration of Peter Parker in the symbiote suit, allowing him to ‘kill’ Flint Marko as black-suit badass Spidey and humiliate Eddie Brock, Topher Grace’s ‘new guy’ as Bad-Peter. The lesson is clear – if you remove responsibility from the whole ‘power and responsibility’ equation as espoused at length by the series, then what you have is power for its own sake, power for pleasure, power leading to success, and on to conceit: the Parker strut when he grows emotionally bloated on the success brought by the black suit is hysterical and cringeworthy at the same time, and his humiliation of both true love Mary Jane and new love Gwen Stacy (introducing Bryce Dallas Howard to the series just in time to see it end) is almost laughably cruel.
By which point, you’re only about halfway through the movie.
Just when he’s needed to spin the storytelling on for another rotation, Harry gets his memory back, kidnaps MJ, forces her to end her relationship with Peter, and ‘admits’ to Peter that he’s ‘the other guy,’ so as to weaken Peter for their inevitable confrontation. Cos…sure.
Bear in mind, we still haven’t seen Venom properly by this point. When the humiliated Brock goes to church and prays for the death of Parker, while Peter finally frees himself of the symbiote, it finds its new host and Venom proper is born.
Well…we say ‘proper.’ In terms of the look of the thing, it’s not as bad as some hardcore fans thought it was. But when Venom speaks and sounds like Topher Grace, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching one of the Big Bang Theory gang doing million-dollar cosplay, and the threat of the Venom symbiote never really comes through Grace’s performance, meaning it’s cooler to watch with the sound off.
No, still not at the end, though by the point Venom really starts its storyline, you’re really wishing you were.
The final confrontation is a giant set-piece that underlines the problems with the movie – over-ambition, meaning a reliance on senseless character-choices and convenience to get the job done. The Sandman, so carefully established as ‘not a bad man’ now takes on the homicidal task of killing Spider-Man…for…y’know, Reasons. He spends almost all of his remaining time as a snarling mass of CGI, only returning to Haden Church’s form right at the end, for the Acting of his contrition and the proof that he really isn’t a bad man, making what’s just happened either meaningless or mad. Harry is finally convinced that Peter’s not to blame for offing his dad, and joins the fight on the side of the good guys, giving the series its circular grand Goblin finale, though killing him off in almost the flipside of the way his father died destroys its own power by its fundamental naffness. And the paper-thin Brock characterisation is delivered in a single line – ‘I like being bad – it makes me feel good.’ The joint destruction of Brock and Venom screams convenience from the top of its lungs. All in all, you’ve stopped caring about almost anything but how to regain the will to live long before the end of the movie, so when it comes, you feel released, rather than satisfied.
In itself, that’s a crying shame. Let me say, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Spidey fan: before I discovered Doctor Who, Spidey was my ‘Doctor.’ And the Maguire movies were really the first time Spider-Man had been delivered with all the scope and visual flair he deserved. It’s a crying shame too because a much, much simpler version of Spider-Man 3 would have been so much more focused and satisfying. Having built up the Harry Osbourne storyline in the first two movies, you probably couldn’t get away without concluding his story in Spider-Man 3, but a movie that focused most on Peter Parker’s adventure with the black suit and Brock’s creation as Venom would have allowed things to move much faster, and keep the theme much more clear – the perils of power without responsibility. You could still have weaved Harry’s New Goblin in, but sent him on less convenient and convoluted journeys through the story, involving less amnesia. He could still have made the right decision at the end, and it would have worked rather better. The Sandman really has no place in the movie, and his inclusion not only wastes too much time, it involves him in a character-arc that makes no sense, delivers some CGI that already dates the movie, and dilutes what could otherwise have been a tight final instalment in the Maguire movies about power, responsibility and doing the right thing.
The annoying thing about Spider-Man 3 is it’s still watchable, for all the overpadding, the seemingly endless loops of storyline, the bizarre character-arcs and the significant reduction of MJ’s humanity to ‘screaming female victim’ status in the final set-piece battle. But watchable as it might be, all along the line, each and every geek watching it knows instinctively that there was a better, tighter movie in there, screaming to get out from under the weight of the convolution and questionable characterisation of the movie that was actually made.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk