Spider-Man 3” (2007) packs too many villains and character threads into the last chapter of the saga starring Tobey Maguire. Many of these elements are engaging on their own, but we don’t get to absorb everything like we do in parts one and two. There are also more shortcuts via conveniences or barely explained happenings, and many of the conflicts are built on that lazy screenwriting tactic of someone not communicating a fact to the person who needs to know it. That said, I don’t think “Spider-Man 3” is one for the garbage heap; director Sam Raimi and his team ultimately find their way back to the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) at the trilogy’s heart.
After two films where the main villain has a dichotomous nature, Peter himself experiences it here as he’s infected by goop from outer space. This puts him in Overly Confident (to be kind) or A**h*** (to be less kind) Spider-Man Mode for a good chunk of the movie. The tone of “Spider-Man 3” – penned by Alvin Sargent (returning from the second entry) and Sam and Ivan Raimi – is more lurching that the first two. Infected by the goo, Peter struts down the sidewalk and loves the fact that people love Spider-Man, a sequence made fun of in 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
It’s hard to get into the broad comedy because it’s so frustrating that Peter and Mary Jane can’t get on the same page. Part of it is genuine relationship troubles: MJ gets fired from her stage musical but Peter is so confident at this point in his life that he’s unable to join her in wallowing, which is what she needs. But too much of it is a flat-out failure to communicate basic facts. MJ never tells Peter she got fired. And later, she never tells him that her break-up with him wasn’t for real; it was coerced by Harry (James Franco) during a low, hate-filled moment of his own.
In “Spider-Man 3’s” most convenient moment, Bernard (John Paxton) informs Harry that Peter couldn’t have killed Harry’s dad (from back in “Spider-Man 1”), as the fatal wounds weren’t consistent with that. For one thing, Bernard couldn’t know this for sure; technically, Peter could have killed Norman Osborn with Osborn’s own weapon. Even worse is the fact that Bernard waits to tell this to Harry until after Harry and Spider-Man have fought several times and nearly killed each other.
It’s a shame, because if you look at specific scenes outside of the wider context – such as Harry’s death scene, with his two best friends at hand – they are well-acted. But those moments are robbed of some gravity because of the script shorthand required to quickly get to that point.
While each arc is less meaty than it should be, “Spider-Man 3” nonetheless clocks in at a beefy 140 minutes because this isn’t only Harry’s misguided revenge story. He’s actually the third-billed villain, arguably. In another example of the continuity being shaky, Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) is revealed as the killer of Uncle Ben (again, from back in “Spider-Man 1”). The film hangs a lampshade on this twist, with Peter yelling at the cops for misleading him into thinking someone else was Ben’s killer. That guy dies by falling off a ledge in a fight with Peter in the first film, and “Spider-Man 3” awkwardly introduces the notion that Peter feels guilt over that.
Also in the mix is Eddie/Venom (Topher Grace), a rival of Peter’s for the photography job at the Daily Bugle and for the affections of college student and model Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) – although not really, because Gwen isn’t into Eddie; she’s into Peter. However, Dark Spidey is merely using Gwen to hurt MJ’s feelings; once Gwen realizes this, she’s not into Peter either.
So much of “Spider-Man 3” is built on these misunderstandings and petty vengeances that it sometimes becomes a meaner, dirtier film than the pure-of-heart “Spider-Man” 1 and 2.
But it’s not a total loss, because although they’ve made a worse film than the first two, Raimi and his team clearly still care. We always feel the wrongness of Peter and Mary Jane being apart, and in the end, they come back together in a nicely modulated scene where they share a wordless dance. They both have so much to apologize for that we know this is merely the place where the reconciliation starts, but we feel pretty good about their future when the credits lead into Snow Patrol (the most fitting band for Spidey yet; thank god Chad Kroeger is long gone from the soundtrack). I like how all three films conclude with an almost dreamlike romantic scene where a viewer is invested in what’s next for this couple.
Despite the overstuffed roster, there is still a lot of welcome continuity, including more wisdom from Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and more absurdities from Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). In one of my favorite gags, Jameson tries to stay calm at his desk, which is covered with pill bottles.
An underrated pleasure is Mageina Tovah as Ursula, Peter’s awkward apartment-complex neighbor who returns from “Spider-Man 2.” It’s strange that she is simultaneously crushing on Peter and rooting for him and Mary Jane to make it work, but Tovah shines in every scene. Ursula perhaps would’ve been a good match for an alternate-universe Peter who never gets his Spider-Man powers, which have boosted his confidence (and therefore his romantic prospects) along with his strength and stamina.
I didn’t dislike watching “Spider-Man 3,” but it’s frustrating to think about the better film buried somewhere in there if it had one less villain and perhaps one less love interest. Even with Sandman being one of the baddies, the edges of Raimi’s trilogy capper aren’t smooth.