Why 'Spider-Man 3' Is Patient Zero For Modern Superhero Movie Sins

Yes, Sam Raimi's third Spidey film is as bad as you think, just not for the reasons you remember 10 years later.
Courtesy of Marvel

It's fair to say that the last decade has not been kind to Spider-Man 3.

The third and final of the Sam Raimi Spidey movies — released 10 years ago Thursday — has a pretty bad rep amongst superhero movie fans these days, and it's not undeserved … but it's also not exactly well-targeted, either. In preparation of the anniversary, I rewatched Spider-Man 3 for the first time in years (my editor made me). 

Yes, there are silly musical elements to the movie that are easy to make fun of, but those are the least of the movie's sins. Same with Peter's inexplicable emo hairstyle when he's under the influence of the symbiote; yeah, it's fodder for cheap jokes, but there are far more serious problems than Tobey Maguire's coiffure going on throughout the entire thing.

It's not just the fact that, revisiting the movie today, the special effects and action set pieces look particularly dated and awkward, as if the term Uncanny Valley had been created specifically for this particular movie — the fight between Peter Parker and the Green Goblin about 20 minutes in, in particular, looks ridiculous, with the laws of physics temporarily suspended so that newly elastic versions of the characters can try and cause motion sickness in the viewer as swiftly as possible.

But beyond the effects, Spider-Man 3 seems fatally filled with bad cliches and ill-considered choices of the sort that have come, over the past 10 years, to personify what's wrong with superhero movies in general: There are far too many characters, too much fan-service and fan-baiting that doesn't serve the story, and a distinct lack of tonal consistency throughout the whole thing … and that's ignoring a romantic subplot that plays out like a parody of La La Land that somehow arrived nine years too early. Revisiting Spider-Man 3 after seeing common complaints about Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse or various Marvel movies, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've discovered Patient Zero.

For example: Why are there three villains in the movie, with almost entirely unrelated plots? (The climactic battle attempts — and, for the most part, fails — to tie them together, but it's an ungainly mess.) Did there need to be a retcon over who killed Uncle Ben, just to add additional angst for Peter Parker and a frisson of excitement for continuity nerds? Could the soap operatics between Peter and Mary Jane seem any more forced or ridiculous? (MJ comes off as impressively shallow, begrudging Peter's celebrity as Spider-Man in the wake of a bad review for her Broadway show — a show that apparently fires her after one bad review.)

And yet, despite this, there are things to … well, perhaps not love, but certainly appreciate in the movie. Thomas Haden Church's Flint Marko seems to have stepped out of a better movie altogether; both in terms of performance and visuals, there's a sincerity to his scenes that's sadly absent everywhere else. And, despite the movie's unevenness, there's a fun sense of giddiness and momentum to Spider-Man 3 that's entirely absent in most modern superhero movies; director Raimi might have let many things get away from him in the movie, but you can't deny that it's faster and less laden down with grim exposition than many of its descendants.

Spider-Man 3, then, is a mess, but if there's any benefit of a nostalgic haze in rewatching the movie 10 years later, it's that it's a mess in ways that seem unusual and more interesting than today''s superhero movies. Not to mention the fact that, as bad as it is — and it is bad — there is one argument in its favor that didn't exist in 2007: Sure, it's generally over-stuffed and incoherent, but at least it's not Josh Trank's Fantastic Four.

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