These days, it seems like everybody is complaining about superhero movie fatigue, and it’s easy to understand why. The respective studios behind comic book publishing titans Marvel and DC have gone into overdrive after the massive success of films like The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012), setting a slate of tentpole movies based on superhero franchises that stretches into the next decade. Meanwhile, other studios retaining the film rights to popular comic book characters continue to churn out lesser iterations to cash in on their success: most recently–and, by most reports, egregiously–the latest attempt by 20th Century Fox to reboot Marvel’s Fantastic Four. The genre that–to some of us, anyway–seemed fresh and exciting in the late 2000s is, in the mid-2010s, now overly familiar, and rapidly breeding contempt.
In this Spandex-saturated movie landscape, it’s easy to forget that things could be worse–have been worse, as a matter of fact. It’s easy to take for granted that, while we might roll our eyes over the notion of Ant-Man getting his own summer blockbuster, or complain about the Avengers sequel not living up to the lofty expectations of the original, these were at least well-made, entertaining products. But not even ten years ago–before today’s era of superhero fatigue, before even the 2008 renaissance of The Dark Knight and Iron Man—the genre had already threatened to reach its big-budgeted, tiny-souled nadir. I’m talking, of course, about 2007’s Spider-Man 3.
Spider-Man 3 isn’t just a terrible superhero movie; it is a terrible movie, full stop. It’s one of those massively mediocre Hollywood films that encourages a kind of existential crisis of aesthetics, when you look at all the professional talent and money that was poured into the project–over a quarter million dollars for production alone, roughly the 2014 gross domestic product of Chile–and are gripped by abject horror at just how little it all amounts to. But one of the most striking things about the film, if one looks back on it today, is the lack of critical drubbing it received upon its release. Reviewers prodded it for having too many villains and plotlines (true), but not for being a borderline-unwatchable mess (also true). The film was nominated for a few Teen Choice and MTV Movie Awards, but not a single Razzie–not even for James Franco, whose portrayal of antihero Harry Osborn/”New Goblin” as an alternately vengeful and blissfully stupid amnesiac is, put simply, Peak Franco. Even eight years after its release, the film still has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 63%, while the aforementioned Fantastic Four reboot is sitting at a miserable 8%. Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen Fantastic Four (and I probably won’t), but I don’t think this is because Spider-Man 3 is that much better; I think, if anything, it’s because our expectations for comic book films have become that much higher.
And make no mistake, Spider-Man 3 should meet no one’s expectations–comic book-related or otherwise. Director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films haven’t really held up in general, but this one is particularly hard to watch: it’s a turgid, disastrously-paced amalgamation of competing storylines, none of which are fleshed out to any appreciably compelling degree. Spider-Man’s alter-ego Peter Parker–portrayed by Tobey “Tugboat” Maguire with a level of cartoonish dorkery he seems to have revived from his role in 1998’s Pleasantville—wants to propose to his longtime girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but she’s struggling with jealousy as Spider-Man’s popularity overshadows her own career as Broadway’s most mediocre actress. Then there’s Peter’s former best friend, Harry, who is now out to avenge his father, the first film’s Green Goblin, while also romantically pursuing Mary Jane; he confronts Peter early on, in the first of many dull CGI-“enhanced” fight sequences, but a blow to his head leaves him with short-term memory loss, causing him to appear for much of the film as the dopily-grinning James Franco we know and (maybe) love.
Meanwhile, a completely unexplained meteor falls to Earth and unleashes a sinister alien symbiote, which eventually worms its way onto Peter’s body and becomes a new, black Spider-Man costume. Peter experiences about two seconds of the appropriate Cronenbergian body horror at this development, before shrugging and deciding to keep it on; it makes him more powerful, and also makes him comb his hair over his eyes and occasionally flip it dramatically. Meanwhile meanwhile, we’re also introduced (àpropos of nothing) to Thomas Haden Church as small-time crook/time traveler from the 1940s Flint Marko, who Raimi clumsily retcons as the real killer of Parker’s Uncle Ben from the first movie. But he’s actually not a bad person; we know this because he has a sick daughter whose picture he carries in a locket and stares at occasionally, and because he says “I’m not a bad person,” minutes before he gains the ability to shape-shift into sentient sand and promptly goes on a violent rampage through Manhattan. But wait, there’s also the reliably douchey Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, who starts out as Peter’s rival for a coveted staff photographer position at the Daily Bugle and ends up being possessed by the symbiote suit and turning into Venom, because obviously beneath every frosty-haired Justin Timberlake wannabe beats the heart of an inhuman monster.
So, yes, there is entirely too much going on in Spider-Man 3; the same, however, could be said of a lot of superhero movies, even the good ones. The more damning criticism of the film is that none of this is much fun to watch. Harry’s vendetta against Peter, Peter’s vendetta against the Sandman, and pretty much everything to do with Venom are as awkwardly introduced as they are unconvincing; the relationship subplot with Mary Jane is just tiresome. Even the action sequences, of which there are naturally many, are synthetic to the point of being actively boring: a bunch of obviously computer-animated ragdolls ping-ponging around obviously computer-animated skyscrapers and causing obviously computer-animated explosions, which left me wondering why I was wasting my time watching a shitty movie when I could have been playing a potentially decent video game. For anyone familiar with Raimi’s previous work, it’s shocking just how little visual invention there is in Spider-Man 3: the maniacally brilliant practical effects showman of 1987’s Evil Dead 2 has been drowned in an excess of money and technology, falling in narcissistic love with his own ability to digitally tweak and manipulate everything in the frame. So many objects and people fly toward the camera in this film that for a moment I actually thought it was filmed in 3-D (it wasn’t), while even the most atmospheric scenes are flatly lit like a single-camera sitcom; it’s equally deficient in both craftsmanship and taste. The closest thing to a moment of visual poetry comes when the Sandman first realizes his new form, slowly taking on a more human shape even as his inhumanity becomes increasingly evident; but this scene, too, is marred by Raimi’s and longtime cinematographer Bill Pope’s insistence on endlessly panning in 360 degrees around the frame, zooming in and out on every artificially rendered grain of sand.
In fact, the most entertaining parts of the movie by far are the ones that probably made contemporary audiences cringe. I already mentioned Franco’s bizarre, inimitable performance, but even better is Maguire’s portrayal of Peter after the symbiote suit takes control. In one glorious sequence (above), we watch him strut Saturday Night Fever-style down the street, pointing finger-guns at everyone he passes and literally dancing his way in and out of a menswear boutique. In another, equally glorious sequence (also above, because you need to see this shit), he takes his new girlfriend Gwen Stacy (played by an unremarkable Bryce Dallas Howard) out on a date to the jazz club where Mary Jane sings, jumps up on stage to jam a piano solo, and then leaps across tables and onto the dance floor to the crowd’s completely irrational delight. It is easily the silliest thing I have seen in a major studio movie since, probably, Joel Schumacher’s universally-reviled Batman & Robin. It is also amazing, and I would pay cold, hard cash for a Spider-Man 4 composed entirely of scenes like this, preferably with even more Franco.
But we’re straying away from my point here–which is that, as much as the apparently unstoppable deluge of superhero films in the coming years is too much, too soon, we can at least reasonably expect them to be of quality. Sure, there will always be Fantastic Fours along with the Avengers of the world; and yes, next year’s Suicide Squad already looks like it’s shaping up to be a humorless anti-romp cooked up by Marilyn Manson and the CEO of Hot Topic in a sickly haze of vape smoke. By and large, however, the industry–particularly Marvel Studios–have this genre down to a science now. Superheros may be an overly familiar sight on the big screen, but they’re at least not a consistently embarrassing one–and the genre still has the potential to surprise, as it did in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy and this year’s Marvel-produced Netflix series Daredevil. So if you find yourself complaining about how there are too many superhero movies, just remember: it could be worse. It could always be worse. It could be Spider-Man 3.
If you insist, you can buy Spider-Man 3 on Amazon.