To watch “Spider-Man 3” is to see Sandman. I don’t mean in the sense of the character being the movie, but the character’s spirit overwhelming the movie. Think of many disparate little particles, too many to count or attend to or keep track of, that sweep along on the wind and form into a shape on occasion.
The film plays as an experiment on the old theory of, if less is more, just think how much more “more” could be, and the result is not merely “Spider-Man 3” but also 4, possibly 5 and parts of 17. A sprawling epic with a cast of characters rivaling a Russian novel, there’s a certain goofy charm in how the movie works in everything but the kitchen sink, as if promising to deliver the same overwhelming fever of activity so many classic Marvel Comics covers promise.
The messy plot short-changes everyone but its two leads, leaving everyone important from Harry Osborn on down struggling for attention in a film that refuses to focus. The only exception to this development is Harry’s houseman, Bernard, who inexplicably nabs a meaty supporting role out of nowhere, presumably for the sake of getting the plot along faster.
It’s the newcomers who suffer the most. Thomas Haden Church is utterly wasted as Sandman; he has only two scenes that allow him to truly use his talent, and his sad, haunted eyes show that there could have been so much more. His sandy supervillain form is handled most interestingly, though there’s a sense of desperation on the filmmakers’ part when he transforms into a behemoth out of “Godzilla” or something similar. And anyone expecting a concrete resolution to his character’s arc will be sorely disappointed.
But it’s Gwen Stacy who indicates the movie’s true tragedy. A pitch-perfectly cast Bryce Dallas Howard just so effortlessly becomes the character as if she’d stepped right off the page, a blonde angel radiating sweetness and lovability. Unfortunately, the first two films in this franchise had clearly established a world without Gwen, and bringing her in at this late date for a purpose wholly unrelated to her function in the comics is maddening. One wants so hard to like her inclusion, because Howard really is magical, but she just doesn’t fit.
While Raimi rushes to hit point after point, he inexplicably includes little scenes and moments that rarely pull their own weight, including an odd collection of musical numbers and dance sequences. It is difficult to justify these numerous interludes, and there’s little to be said for them in a film clearly so desperate to make time for itself; witness Raimi’s frequent tactic of temporarily killing off or disabling his villains just so he can leave them alone for a reel or so and spin some of the other plates in the air.
The incredulous overkill makes for an entertaining mess, to be sure; hugely entertaining as a summer popcorn film should be. But it never hits the emotional depths of the first two. It’s not to say that it’s devoid of good moments: the Eddie Brock / Venom tale plays out nicely, Harry’s arc resolves wonderfully, Kirsten Dunst’s performance (and her hair color) bounce back from a lackluster showing in part 2, and Christopher Young builds wonderfully on Danny Elfman’s unmemorable themes to create for the first time in the series a full and rewarding score.
But it’s all too much at once, a film that’s never sure where it’s going (witness the multiple endings that leave an audience confused about when to clap). Watching it is like going around and around in circles on a car ride with a stubborn husband who won’t ask directions. Too many questions, too many easily resolvable issues that never get touched upon. Why did the symbiote meteorite fall from the sky out of nowhere and conveniently land next to Peter, when he might have more logically encountered it in Dr. Connors’ lab as a research project? Why Gwen Stacy out of nowhere, when Betty Brant (another luminous if wasted performance from Elizabeth Banks) might have served the same role? What happens to Sandman or his family at the end? What, where, why? Help?
Sam Raimi loves not wisely but too well, and his passion for the sheer everythingness of it all is what makes a messy endeavor go down like candy; while meddling studio hands and overdoses of Hollywood money are evident, not to mention a masturbatory streak a mile wide, it’s approached with good intentions and without cynicism. The movie brings enough thrills and chills for ten summer blockbusters with a satisfying wallop. There are smiles a-plenty and even some choke-up moments, but it doesn’t pack nearly the same emotional punch of its predecessors, and the result is a dim finale to a promising trilogy. Enjoy the spectacle as you would a bombastic opera, but be prepared to fill in a few blanks and guffaw through a few parts. More was promised, but instead of more, we got “more”. It’s a cautionary tale too few filmmakers heed.