With Spider-Man 2 being such a success, and still considered by many as among the greatest superhero films of all-time, excitement was sky high for the inevitable Spider-Man 3. As much as superhero movies suffered a bit in the mid-2000’s due to oversaturation and a drop in quality, we all thought Spider-Man 3 would still be brilliant. Remember X-Men 3? Catwoman? 2005’s Elektra? Superman Returns? 2005’s Fantastic Four? Blade: Trinity? All of those movies released between Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, and Rise of the Silver Surfer released about a month after. Yet none of those movies killed our enthusiasm for Tobey Maguire’s third outing as Spider-Man.
Spider-Man 3 remains the only movie I’ve seen at a midnight release, and I saw it with a group of lifelong friends, most of which I’m still in touch with. It also contains my favourite audience memory in theaters. It’s a bit of a sexist joke, but right around the time when Peter Parker realizes what his black suit is doing to him – right after he slaps Mary Jane, someone in the audience shouted out, “Make me a sandwich!”. Everyone in the theatre laughed at that otherwise dark emotional moment.
Yet, as much as this movie was still generally enjoyed, and as much as reviews are still generally positive, it killed a lot of the enthusiasm around the Spider-Man movies. Spider-Man 3 contains some absolutely brilliant moments, perhaps the best individual moments in the trilogy, but it’s also a mess. For every brilliant moment involving Sandman, played by Thomas Haden Church, there’s a mildly annoying scene involving Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock Jr./ Venom. For every moment that works between Spider-Man and Kristen Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson, there’s a goofy moment where “Emo Peter” dances publically in amusingly cringe fashion, or there’s a moment of realization for Harry Osborn (played by James Franco) that feels poorly written or rushed.
While there are fun behind the scenes details to talk about, discussing what went right and what went wrong with Spider-Man 3 is more interesting. So I’ll sum up the behind the scenes details in two paragraphs. Pre-production began before Spider-Man 2’s release. They decided early on to explore the fact that Peter isn’t sinless, and that criminals can still have humanity. They wanted to conclude Harry Osborn’s story. They wanted to challenge Peter’s simplistic interpretation of what happened the night Uncle Ben died. Director Sam Raimi described this movie as being about Peter, Mary Jane, Harry, and the Sandman, with Peter’s journey being about forgiveness.
At one point, the Vulture was going to be in the movie, and an accomplice of Sandman. Considering part of the reason this movie is a mess is because there are three villains, and it’s not as cleanly handled as Batman Begins, it’s probably a good thing that Vulture was cut. Also at one point, the film was so complex that they considered splitting Spider-Man 3 into two parts, but scriptwriter Alvin Sargent couldn’t figure out a proper mid-climax to end the first one.
Personally, I think they could have figured out Peter getting rid of the black suit as a good mid-climax for such a movie, but I’m not going to think too deeply about the best way to make that work.
Spider-Man 3’s budget was noticeably larger than the first two movies, costing somewhere between $258 and $350 million, the lowest end of that scale would still make Spider-Man 3 the 15th most expensive movie in history, and the upper end would make it the 4th most expensive. It still ended up being profitable, raking in $894.9 million, which beats Spider-Man’s $825 million, but it wasn’t as profitable because of the high price tag.
The movie did moderately well with the critics, earning 63% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 6.2/10, lower than both the previous movies. Richard Roeper gave it 2 out of 4, saying “for every slam-bang action sequence, there are far too many sluggish scenes.” New York Magazine’s review complained that “the three villains here don’t add up to one Doc Ock.” Roger Ebert, who gave Spider-Man 2 a perfect 4 out of 4, gave this one 2 out of 4. He gave several complaints, including how Sandman never expressed how he felt about his powers the way the first two movies’ villains did, while calling the movie “a mess, with too many villains, subplots, romantic misunderstandings, conversations and ‘street crowds looking high into the air’”.
Even Raimi himself called the movie “awful” in a 2014 interview. In 2018, producer Avi Arad accepted responsibility for pushing Raimi to include Venom in the film. “I think we learned that Venom is not a sideshow. In all fairness, I’ll take the guilt because of what Sam Raimi used to say in all of these interviews feeling guilty that I forced him into it.” Raimi also admitted in 2021 that he felt awful about the movie’s reception and wondered if he wanted to take on another superhero movie, but eventually agreed to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
That said, Spider-Man 3 in itself has become a series of memes, especially the “Bully Maguire” and “Emo Peter Parker” memes, which has given this movie a bit of a resurgence lately. It’s to the point where Screen Rant recently reassessed it as the fourth most underrated superhero movie ever made.
Enough on how this movie performed though. Let’s talk about what this movie did right, and what it did wrong. First, the casting in this movie is still very good. Maguire is still great in the role of Spider-Man, even if his “Emo Peter” and “Bully Maguire” moments feel really silly. Dunst really is the perfect choice for Mary Jane, and with this movie, she shows a more venerable, conflicted side than we’ve seen before. Franco is convincing as the “New Goblin” villain introduced early on, both before he loses his memory and attacks Peter directly, and after he regains it and works in subtler ways. Rosemary Harris doesn’t get as much time as Aunt May as the first two movies, but she’s still great with the material she’s given. J.K. Simmons is still brilliant as J.J. Jameson, with the added joke that he needs to watch his blood pressure giving an extra dimension to his already great comedic scenes.
The new cast members are more of a mixed bag. Pretty much everything with Church’s Sandman is brilliant, from his tense expressions when he’s confronted or fighting, to his softer look any time he’s with his sick daughter, or when he’s explaining to Peter what really happened. Seriously, Sandman’s more dramatic moments are among the greatest in any superhero movie, not just this trilogy. Grace’s Eddie Brock is more obnoxious than anything else. It’s intentional, sure, and he’s meant to be a rival photographer that really pushes Peter’s buttons, but he probably should have stepped it down a notch. Bryce Dallas Howard is fine as Gwen Stacey, but it feels like she was only added in the movie to throw a wrench between Peter and Mary Jane. On an interesting side-note, she performed most of her own stunts, not yet knowing that she was several months pregnant with her first child.
The action in this movie is fantastic – better than I remembered even. You’ve got a variety of set pieces, be it Spider-Man rescuing Gwen Stacy in the aftermath of a midtown crane accident, fighting Sandman in the tunnels beneath New York, a rather brutal fight between Peter and Harry in Harry’s expensive house, and the climactic four-way fight in a construction zone. It’s all well-choreographed, there are several fights where it feels like Spider-Man is in genuine danger, and when you’re supposed to feel the fight on an emotional level, it always works. It helps that the special effects are top-notch, and stand up fairly well today.
I’ve already talked about how everything with Sandman works from an emotional level. Most of Peter Parker’s emotional moments work well too. This movie starts off with Peter doing fairly well for himself. He’s found a balance between his superhero life and private life. Although he’s still tight on cash, he’s figured out a way to make it all work. The public loves him at this point – he’s even given the “Keys to the City” in the first act after saving a Police Captain’s daughter (Gwen Stacy). All of these positive things going his way is starting to get to his head. He’s losing his sense of empathy, he’s become proud, and he’s not being sensitive enough to Mary Jane’s problems. As the movie goes on, Peter learns some tough lessons about humility, truly being there for his friends when they emotionally need him, and the dangers of feeding his darker emotions.
On that note, the venom symbiote arrives from space fairly early on and finds itself attracted to Peter. I like how his professor, Dr. Curt Connors, is the guy who analyses this strange alien substance, implying that he might have had a bigger role should Spider-Man 4 have happened. Partly because of the symbiote, Peter embraces his darker side, and ends up taking it way too far and damaging his closest relationships. It forces him to redeem himself through the rest of the movie, and while he doesn’t quite have time to do so, the movie ends on a hopeful note. This hopeful note is touched on in last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.
There are story elements that add to Peter’s dark emotions in this movie, related to Sandman, but it’s better not to spoil that beyond the trailer in case you haven’t seen the movie.
What really doesn’t work with this movie is that there’s way too much packed in. Eddie Brock’s story feels rushed, in addition to his character being a bit too obnoxious. Yet despite how packed this movie is, there are still times when it feels a bit slow and drawn out. Venom is a brilliant villain in the comics, but here, he’s shoved into the third act and only gets one proper action scene. He feels like a complete waste and probably should have been saved for what could have been an amazing Spider-Man 4.
Overstuffing this movie also leads to Harry Osborn’s character arc feeling rushed. The amnesia he gets from a head injury during his first fight with Parker also feels a bit tacked on, as if it was added just for plot convenience. Sure, the movie uses it in compelling ways, like Harry trying to ruin Peter’s life in subtle ways after he regains his memory, but those are just good moments deriving from what feels like a lazy plot point. His memory loss is way too convenient for his own good, in that he remembers pretty much nothing about his contentious relationship father, doesn’t remember anything about Peter being Spider-Man or that Harry blamed Spider-Man for his father’s death, but he remembers how he and Peter were very good friends and that they both like Mary Jane. It’s just too convenient for the movie’s sake.
As memetastic as the “Bully Maguire” moments are, in the context of the movie, they really are kind of cringe. Just watch if you haven’t already. No need to explain further.
Overall, Spider-Man 3 is still a good movie, but it’s not as good as the first two. This overstuffed movie is the weakest entry in the Raimi/Maguire Spider-Man trilogy, despite how it’s got some absolutely brilliant moments. It’s better than I remembered from last seeing it at least 10 years ago, but it’s still got all the same problems that I remember. Spider-Man 3 ultimately feels like a movie that’s too ambitious for its own good, and it would have been much better if they saved Venom for part 4, and found a smarter way to write the conclusion between Peter and Harry’s complex relationship. With that said, the bittersweet ending works very well, and Spider-Man: No Way Home further enhanced it. It’s still worth watching, just don’t get your expectations too high.
Spider-Man 4 entered development in 2007, and was apparently still in development in 2009 with most of the cast set to return. John Malkovich was in talks to play Vulture, while Anne Hathaway was set to play Felicia Hardy (Black Cat in the comics), but Spider-Man 4 was eventually cancelled. There are a lot of rumors as to exactly why it was cancelled that I won’t get into, but they were even planning Spider-Man 5 and 6. Raimi left the project in 2010 when he doubted he could finish it by 2011, and that he hated every script written for the project up to that point. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot was then planned, and released in 2012.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Amazing Spider-Man, which I remember as an overall great movie, but I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Then I’ll cap this month off with the only Spider-Man movie that I’ve only watched once, Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s about time that I re-evaluate my thoughts on that one. Next month will be Tom Hanks month. In November, I’ll be looking at war movies, with each one focusing on a different era of warfare, and in December I’ll make fun of 4 cheesy Christian movies.