Spider-Man 3: The Greatest Tragedy Almost Told
By John Saavedra
It’s a shame that Spider-Man 3 is so overloaded with characters and plotlines because hidden within all of the black symbiote is a tragic opera about three friends who have to deal with the repercussions of the lives they’ve chosen. Spider-Man 3 feels like it wants to be about Harry Osborn’s (James Franco) redemption, but there’s too much going on elsewhere for the movie to ever really focus on him. While Sam Raimi’s third Spidey film is ultimately the least revered of the original movies, this sequel is at its best when it’s telling Peter (Tobey Maguire), Harry, and Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) story.
Interestingly enough, Raimi always meant for Spider-Man 3 to have at least two villains. Sony greenlit the film a few months before 2004’s excellent Spider-Man 2 had even premiered in theaters. Immediately after the release of the sequel in May of that year, Raimi’s brother, Ivan (who is also physician, if you care to know), set to work on a treatment for the third movie. Two months later, the brothers had developed a tale of forgiveness that explored Peter’s dark side and introduced a brand new villain into the mix: Flint Marko aka Sandman (Thomas Haden Church).
While Sandman is nowhere near as popular as the other Spidey villains Raimi used in the first two movies, the director gave him a new backstory that tied him directly to the very moment that inspired Peter to become a superhero: the death of Uncle Ben. By having an angry Peter face off against Uncle Ben’s true killer, Raimi hoped to further explore the themes he’d introduced in the first two films, namely that good and evil aren’t always so black and white. Certainly, the third film would cause a lot of turmoil in Spidey.
“He considers himself a hero and a sinless person versus these villains that he nabs. We felt it would be a great thing for him to learn a little less black and white view of life and that’s he not above these people,” the director told ComingSoon.net. “He’s not just the hero and they’re not just the villains. They were all human beings and that he himself might have some sin within him and that other human beings, the ones he calls criminals, have some humanity within them and that the best we can do in this world is to not strive for vengeance, but for forgiveness.”
Both Harry and Sandman shine through as more than your average cackling villains. In fact, all three of Raimi’s films were successful in delivering complex supervillains who struggle with their own fall. Harry and Sandman work in tangent with each other. Harry has been traumatized by his father, the deceased Green Goblin, while Sandman is committing crimes in order to provide for his sick daughter. There’s a yin yang to these two villains – who never actually meet until the end of the movie, and by then they’re on opposite sides – that lends to the movie’s operatic quality. It’s the addition of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) as Venom that really relegates Spider-Man 3 into a boring costumed slugfest.
Venom wasn’t in the original treatment for the film. In fact, Venom wasn’t added to the story until a bit later into development at the behest of the producers. Surely, the popular villain’s inclusion would boost ticket sales. Unfortunately, he’s the least interesting part of the movie. It doesn’t help that Eddie isn’t really fully developed by the time he is transformed by the symbiote. He is flat and one-dimensional. We hate him from the start as a cocky photographer who’s gunning for Pete’s job at the Daily Bugle and there’s pretty much no reason he shouldn’t blow up by movie’s end.
Even before Venom was added to the script, Raimi had been considering yet another villain: Vulture. Sir Ben Kingsley was in talks for the part before the character was axed from the script. You can, of course, see Vulture’s big screen debut in a theater near you this Friday.
My point is that it’s the inclusion of a third (very unnecessary) villain into an already packed movie that keeps Spider-Man 3 from reaching its true potential. It almost feels like Raimi wants to dumb down the tragedy — or perhaps hit us over the head with it — in order to make the movie feel more comic book-y. The film is a patchwork of villainy and tragedy that’s trying to say something about the world Peter lives in, yet it’s the more intimate storylines that win over the epic scale. At its worst, Spider-Man 3 simply jumps from scene to scene without ever really connecting the dots. (Actually, maybe Peter’s dancing scenes are this movie at its very, very worst!)
It’s a real shame because Harry’s transformation is really riveting. Here’s a storyline Raimi has been slowly working towards for three movies, and finally we see Norman Osborn’s son don the Green Goblin suit and go after his former best friend. None of the things that have happened to Harry up to this point are really his fault. He had daddy issues from the start, and then his dad died. But that doesn’t end the torment for Harry, who sees visions of his father as a sort of devil inside of him pushing him further to the darkness. By the time he discovers that Peter is Spider-Man, he’s been pushed past the breaking point. Harry sees no other way to escape his pain but to avenge his father and kill Peter.
Raimi cleverly pulls the rug from under the audience with that bump in the head, though. Seeing a smiling Harry Osborn hanging out with his best pals Peter and M.J. is like something out of the twilight zone. In fact, Harry’s adoration for his friends feels like it was never there to begin with in the first two movies. Peter and Harry’s relationship was never so black and white. What made their relationship so interesting was the fact that, like most friendships between boys, it was truly based on rivalry.
In the first two movies, Peter and Harry competed for Norman’s approval and M.J.’s affection. Harry is rich and has all of the material things he could ever want, but is unable to attain the most important thing Peter has in his life: love. Because it’s his franchise, Peter always wins out — not in a vindictive way, of course. Life just favors Peter. By the third film, Harry is the lonely master of his castle in the New York City skyline, while Peter has the love and support of every citizen of that same city.
This makes Harry’s temporary turn to happy-go-lucky best friend all the more tragic. He’s not had this much happiness since… well, ever — and you know it’s not going to last. I do have to say that making M.J.’s kiss the thing that turns him back to evil is incredibly dumb and cheap. It feels like Raimi slinks away from the drama just as it’s getting really interesting. As Peter inches closer to the dark side, your friendly neighborhood Harry should start to get the things he wants. It’s really unfortunate that particular aspect of the story is cut short in order to give more time to building up to the eventual tag team match above the city.
Spider-Man 3 should be a tale about the struggle to keep your own humanity amidst extraordinary power, and there are hints of that in the movie. Peter has grown arrogant and a bit selfish since his last adventure, and it’s really affecting his relationship with M.J., who really draws the short end of the stick in this movie. Relegated to object of Peter and Harry’s affections, she doesn’t even have her acting career by the time the credits roll. But at least she’s back with good ol’ Peter Parker? No, it would’ve been really interesting to have a movie about Peter losing for a change. Sure, Spider-Man defeats the bad guys and all that, but Peter loses M.J. and Harry, which would have led perfectly into a confrontation with Uncle Ben’s true killer in Spider-Man 4.
Raimi actually considered breaking the script for Spider-Man 3 into two movies, but decided against it when he couldn’t find a good ending for the first part. I’d say Harry’s death would have been a good stopping point for the first part of this two-part epic. When Peter is at his lowest, how does he summon the courage to face Flint Marko and ultimately forgive him?
To Raimi’s credit, this is all in Spider-Man 3. He has the right ingredients for a story to truly rival Spider-Man 2, but there’s just too much Venom in the pot. Spider-Man 3 was so close to being a tragic masterpiece, yet light years away.