Last night, before heading off to watch Venom, some friends and I gathered to behold the modern-day masterpiece known as Spider-Man 3. I’m half being ironic here because we expected to cover our eyes out of cringe-inducing embarrassment. What we found instead was a much more watchable film than any of us remembered. Spider-Man 3’s problems, like its unaffecting villains, are still there, but they are no more outrageous than the sins committed by some of today’s biggest studio misfires. Spider-Man 3 may have emerged as an unexpected gif-sensation, but it is also an interesting case study as far as where Sony was with its veritable Spider-Man franchise and, unfortunately, where it still is.
Let’s see if I can describe the plot of Spider-Man 3 in one coherent paragraph: Peter Parker is enjoying fame as his alter ego while Mary Jane’s career in Broadway declines. Their relationship is tested by Gwen Stacy’s noted interest in Spider-Man, while Harry Osborn – suffering from amnesia after a brief scuttle with Peter – rekindles an attachment with Mary Jane. Peter’s guilt, however, reawakens when Flint Marko resurfaces, and the Venom-symbiote brings that resentment in full force. Also there’s Eddie Brock who is kinda-sorta going out with Gwen Stacy and gets mad at Spidey for breaking his camera so he decides to slander Spidey which gets him fired and thus starts a half-cooked vendetta between the two.
Spider-Man 3 deals with…a lot. The film actually sacrifices its own continuity to tell this bloated story. That’s why the Flint Marko-retcon is so forced, why Gwen Stacy and Eddie Brock feel like an afterthought, and especially why James Franco’s turn as Goblin Jr. registers little more than a playground scuffle. Don’t even get me started on Mary Jane’s arc (which feels like such a trial of emotional torment that it’s no wonder Kirsten Dunst went on to star in a Lars Von Trier film.)
Spider-Man’s greatest archnemeses had an air of old school-mad scientist to them. Which is why their turns to villainy, whether it’s Norman’s desperate plunge to save his research or Otto Octavius’ strive to fulfill his, are especially tragic. Before they became bad, they were good. It was their genius that undid them – a time-worn cautionary tale. Other than Flint Marko’s accidental plunge into a particle accelerator, there’s nothing particularly clever about a retconning him as Uncle Ben’s true killer.
Not that Peter’s guilt isn’t an interesting arc; it’s a dramatic gold mine. But revisiting Uncle Ben’s death is so unnecessary. Like, Bruce Wayne’s parents unnecessary. Sandman could’ve made for a compelling villain without the retcon. To have Spider-Man stop a guy who’s not at all evil, but is trying to save his daughter’s life could’ve posed an interesting moral dilemma for Peter.
Goblin Jr. is an inevitability, and the film, for the most part, is able to ride on that (“You knew this was coming, Pete”). But this makes MJ a pawn in their battle AND in the Venom story – and the real reason I’m writing this.
When the symbiote crash lands rather conveniently near Peter, it’s poor fan-servicing. Marvel producer Avi Arad INSISTED on the storyline citing the character’s popularity and, wanting to appease both the studio and the fans, director Sam Raimi obliged. You can tell his heart isn’t in it, because the symbiote possessing Peter would otherwise seem like a rich horror opportunity for the Evil Dead director. Instead, the symbiote latches onto Peter’s scooter then hides under his bed and waits for a loll in the plot.
Raimi goes full slapstick with the storyline which is obviously in his wheelhouse, but its at odds with the darker, more sadistic turn that the symbiote represents (since it latches onto Peter’s growing resentment and hostility). When Peter samples the slime to Dr. Connors, the symbiote is shown “bullying” other cells. I would have had no idea then that that meant “evil dancing.” With the Black-Spider suit, Peter salsa dances, flips it to MJ (who’s now a waitress), and winds up looking like a tech editor at Breitbart. It was at this moment that a friend paused the movie to delight us with this golden nugget.
That dance scene in the club has aged tremendously well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still corny, still laughable, but knowing what Spider-Man 3 is as a whole makes this so much easier to go down. BELIEVE ME, seeing this opening weekend and not knowing Peter Parker was gonna Saturday Night Fever-it down the streets made for a whole lotta cringing in the theater. Far removed from that and with a better eye on Raimi’s visual style, it’s rather quite fun. Raimi seems more invested in this Peter Parker than anything half as interesting with Eddie Brock.
There is something deliciously evil (or pathetic) about Eddie praying for Peter Parker to die. It’s just so hard to get over the fact that it’s…Topher Grace, who looks like he walked off That ‘70s Show and into N’Sync’s tour bus to get those bleached tips. You can sense that even he’s not putting his heart into this and was probably there for the film credit and paycheck. (To which I say, play on playa.)
There’s something to the church scene with Peter literally prying his own guilt that I find interesting. (I mean, it’s no final act of Annihilation…) But it’s here that the plotting reveals how utterly contrived this whole affair is. (Eddie simultaneously finds out Peter Parker is Spider-Man AND becomes Venom.) Eddie then teams up with Sandman to really stick it to Peter and there’s Spider-Man 3’s sinfully petty imagining of the Venom mythology. Venom the comic book character has done some truly heinous things. This Eddie isn’t buff, most definitely isn’t intimidating; this Venom is just a foil saved for the final mind-numbing act.
This requires damseling MJ once more. Just for a moment, think about her arc in the film. She fails as an actress, gets caught in a love triangle between best friends, becomes a waitress to make ends meet – a position that Peter takes advantage of, and then, while heading for yet another crappy shift at her crappy job, gets kidnapped by Eddie. (Gwen gets used in Peter’s fuck-you-plot to MJ, but MJ gets it the worst in the film’s entire plot.) A lot of people have dunked on Kirsten Dunst as a way of pointing out how not to be a female character in a superhero movie, but the blame should go to the studio and screenwriters for treating MJ like a scornful object and an object to be scorned.
One of the most unsettling things about Venom is his use of “we,” that the host is subservient to the symbiote and part of the ride. Venom is using that to justify his carnage i.e. “You did this.” “No, we did this.” This psychopathy is ditched for Topher Grace with sharp teeth and some cheesy one-liners. The construction site is where all of the characters converge – serving as an unintended (or maybe intended?) metaphor for the film’s half-built themes, characters, and arcs. The setup nonetheless dictates a final battle. A final battle ensues.
Sandman gets a whole lot more sand. (One wonders why the police didn’t think to bring in firehoses, or at least children and a sandcastle set.) Goblin Jr. firmly sides with Peter, which is a nice resolution to their best friends-scuffle and results in a tragic echo-ending for Harry Osborn. But Venom, quite disappointingly, is revealed as nothing more than a one-off. They even throw his logo on the character because why not.
The true casualty isn’t the character of Venom, but Sam Raimi. Spider-Man 3 is HIS symbiote. You can feel him checking off boxes, doing what he can to serve a studio agenda. Not even the franchise’s signature aerial battles feel fresh anymore. That church scene is Raimi shedding himself of the franchise. This was a year before Iron Man and The Dark Knight would change the comic book game forever. Up until then, it was Spider-Man and X-Men that ruled the superhero dominion in Hollywood. Both wound up getting rebooted. One survived to make it to the MCU. The other, well, remains up in the air.
For every great superhero movie there’s a handful that don’t quite hit the mark. 2016 had Batman V. Superman, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Suicide Squad. 2017 had Justice League. Venom, it pains me to say, is this year’s superhero casualty. (Definitely a guilty pleasure, but with the talent involved it could’ve been so much more.) Perhaps this is an inevitability in this golden age of superheroes. (After all, there’s only so much room at the top.) Keep in mind that before Amazing Spider-Man 2 fell beneath the weight of expectations, Sony was intent upon launching an expanded Spider-Man universe, with a planned Sinister Six film and a Venom movie (with, get this, Josh Trank, followed swiftly by Alex Kurtzman) – all essentially a precursor to the DCEU’s similarly rushed plans. We know how that turned out. This begs the question, did Sony wind up recycling their plans? Did the studio not learn anything from Spider-Man 3 or Amazing Spider-Man 2? With 2 Spider-Men down and now 2 attempts to bring Venom to life, will they ever?
It’s hard to imagine that a character like Venom is impossible to translate to the big screen. Weirder characters have been brought to life. Perhaps it requires more time, care, the right studio, or… perhaps there’s nothing we can do about it. In the middle of this monstrous, chaotic web that Spider-Man 3 has spun, Eddie Brock says rather pointedly, “I like being bad. It makes me happy.” Maybe we’ll just have to make do.