Over a decade ago, when internet culture was still very much in its adolescence, one film seemingly united people from across the globe in a way no film ever really had before. In the summer of 2007, pretty much everyone on the internet seemed to agree: they hated Spider-Man 3.
Perhaps we should start from the beginning.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films were nothing short of revolutionary. Though, Bryan Singer’s X-Men may have beat Raimi’s film in the race to be the first released, Raimi certainly won the race in terms of success and impact. Raimi’s first Spider-Man changed everything. Suddenly comic book adaptations didn’t seem like a niche genre but rather contenders for genuine acclaimed blockbusters.
Raimi followed up his first film with the even more beloved Spider-Man 2, which remains to this day a go-to reference for filmmakers in the genre. Hell, even Kevin Feige, the leading force behind all of the MCU, called Spider-Man 2 “one of the best superhero movies of all time” and said that it serves as a constant reference point for the studio when crafting new films. So to call Spider-Man 2 well-received is a massive understatement. Critics and audiences didn’t receive it as just a good movie, they received it reverently as a modern classic, destined to define the genre.
As if Raimi didn’t have enough pressure on him after the first film, he now had the added weight of having to surpass his own work two-fold if he ever hopes to surpass what audiences were already labeling his best work. And historically speaking, crafting follow-ups under these circumstances rarely goes well.
To top all of this off, Sony wanted a third Spider-Man film as soon as possible. In an era where it was uncommon for a studio to even officially announce plans of further sequels during the current film’s theatrical run, Sony announced Spider-Man 3’s 2007 release date three months before Spider-Man 2 was even released. Signaling his then fourth year working on the franchise, with no break in sight, Raimi segued immediately into writing and pre-production on the third installment.
As Raimi and his writing partners (Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) struggled to settle on which characters to include and which direction to take with the film, long-time chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment and producer Avi Arad heavily suggested to Raimi that he should include a much-beloved, more recent comic villain to the script. Though Raimi initially resisted the idea because he found said character to be “lacking humanity”, he eventually caved and worked the villain into a rough draft. And that character, of course, was Venom.
Now, when people on the internet talk about Spider-Man 3, you’ll often hear a lot of the same complaints. Chief among them are dime-store critiques like ‘it was overstuffed’, ‘the emo Peter Parker sequence was bad’, or ‘Venom was wasted’. But I think Spider-Man 3 is way more complicated than that because it isn’t an overtly bad film.
Just the opposite, it sees Raimi at arguably the height of his blockbuster storytelling capabilities. There are few sequences in all of superhero cinema as riveting as the subway fight scene between the black-suited Spider-Man and Sandman because it’s Raimi’s full power on display. The way in which he captures Peter’s rage in the staging and blocking of the sequence is phenomenal. At his heart, Raimi will always be the innovative and daring young man who made The Evil Dead. And nowhere is that more apparent than in this sequence, as he turns every hit and every impact into a visceral experience. Through the sound design and through the innovative visuals themselves (that shot of Spidey shoving Sandman’s face into the moving train is incredible), Raimi uses his entire back of tricks here to create a truly immersive experience.
Similarly, sequences like Harry and Peter’s first fight scene are visually spectacular. To this day, the immersive blend of cutting-edge CGI and practical effects is awe-inspiring. Many other filmmakers of the time were attempting things like this (the Wachowskis with their CGI Neo in The Matrix Reloaded, Guillermo del Toro’s digital stunt performers in Blade II) but none were able to make it as seamless as it is here.
Hell, I’ll even argue that Venom’s storyline isn’t a blunder on Spider-Man 3’s part. Despite it being rushed and feeling a bit like a round peg being shoved into a square hole at times, the black-suited Spider-Man works really well in the context of the film. It is in service of Raimi’s goal to push Peter Parker into new thematic material and foregrounds Peter’s arc of quite literally facing his demons. The bell tower scene remains the film’s most compelling moment specifically because it’s a moment where the narrative, Raimi’s direction, and the thematic material all coalesce into one full-bodied cinematic moment. And as Peter’s sin literally cascades down the bell tower, falling on and enveloping the unsuspecting Eddie Brock, it makes for a perfect embodiment of Peter’s greatest realization in the whole film: the choices he makes have repercussions. Venom is the walking, talking embodiment of the consequences of his own sins and just as he doesn’t get to just be happy-go-lucky with Mary Jane after all he’s done to her, he doesn’t get to wash away his sins just like that. He has to face them, and that’s a great way to tie Venom into this story.
That’s not to say that Spider-Man 3 is without its faults. But I’d argue that they aren’t what often gets lobbied against the film. From a character perspective, it’s easy to see what Raimi and co. were going for with Peter here but it just doesn’t work. The ‘hero consumed by his own hubris has to get back to his roots’ arc is a tried-and-tested route that served films like Rocky III very well. But here, Peter winds up spending the vast majority of the movie not only being consumed by hubris but also just being a complete and total jerk. He’s completely inconsiderate, unable to take Mary Jane’s feelings into account about anything, feels zero guilt about Harry forgetting he’s responsible for killing his father, and kisses Gwen Stacy as Spider-Man in front of the entire city and Mary Jane because he wants to. And all of that is before he’s ever infected with the symbiote.
This all makes it hard to ever invest in Peter the way we did in previous movies. There, he was an underdog and a good kid just trying to do what was right. Here, he’s on top of the world and a self-righteous ass-hat, operating without consequence for the first two-thirds of the movie. Which is exactly what makes the oh-so-loathed ‘emo’ Peter Parker sequence actually kind of great. For the first time in the entire film, the script catches up with Peter’s lack of decency and finally critiques him for it.
As for the complaint that the film is overstuffed, well I can’t really argue that. Raimi has a tough time attempting to juggle all of the various plot threads he’s playing with, which leads him to some questionable choices. Harry hits his head early on and gets convenient amnesia so that his storyline can be effectively put on hold. The symbiote crash lands and makes its way to Peter’s apartment in the first ten minutes of the film but then proceeds to just hang out there until the script is ready for Spidey to get infected. After their subway fight, Sandman just disappears from the movie for a huge chunk of time before showing back up just in time for the climax
The greatest victim of all of these plot threads is the ending, which just can’t pull it all together, no matter how hard Raimi tries. The climactic battle sequence is clunky, with moments of genuine greatness. Thematically, the richest stuff is between Venom and Spider-Man and everything else (Sandman turning into a giant monster, Harry showing up to fight alongside Peter) is just kind of white noise that gets in the way of the actual story here of Peter facing his sins.
With Venom opening in cinemas nationwide this weekend, the internet is bound to be lighting up over the next few weeks with new hot-takes about Spider-Man 3 and its place in the now-very-large canon of Spider-Man films. Which is why it’s important to take a moment and remember, Spider-Man 3 isn’t some dumpster fire of a film ala Catwoman or Amazing Spider-Man. It was just a film attempting to live up to insurmountable expectations. It certainly has flaws but it also has some incredibly bright spots and sees Raimi delivering some of the best craft of his entire career.