A Spider-Man That Fucks My World of Flops Case File #133/My Year of Flops II #30 Spider-Man 3 (2007)
One of the nice elements of being the owner as well as the writer of My World of Flops is that I can write about whatever I want for the column. Oh sure, I still try to abide by the three primary criteria for the column—financial failure, creative failure and lack of a sizable cult—but I’m also open to tweaking those requirements a bit when necessary.
In its current/final incarnation, I’m exceedingly open to writing about entertainment widely seen as historic failures regardless of their box-office gross. Sam Raimi’s 2007 blockbuster Spider-Man 3, for example, grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide yet is perceived as an unmistakable failure if not an outright flop, a tonally incoherent mess of a movie that took the previously revered series in so many weird, dark, impossible places that there was seemingly no path forward for it, and needed to be rebooted TWICE in a single decade, first as 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and in 2017 as Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Despite its commercial success, Spider-Man 3 is widely seen as a cautionary warning about how not to make a big-budget, special effects-intensive superhero sequel. Seemingly everything that people remember about the movie is negative. The sequel lives in infamy thanks to its revisionist portrayal of a Symbiote corrupted Peter Parker as an eyeliner-adept Goth asshole who is always seemingly on the verge of either crying uncontrollably, busting some sick dance moves or writing terrible poetry and/or lyrics.
This is Spider-Man at the tail end of a three day long cocaine binge or smack dab in the middle of a disorienting manic episode, a Spider-Man we have not seen before for understandable reasons.
Spider-Man 3 gives us a Spider-Man who fucks, a Spider-Man who kills, or at least attempts to kill, a Spider-Man who accidentally slugs Mary Jane while under the influence of the Symbiote and most iconically and disastrously, a Spider-Man who dances. Yes, a Spider-Man who dances. The ever so slightly off-brand Spider-Man of Spider-Man 3 doesn’t just dance. He also swaggers down the street like John Travolta at the end of Staying Alive, boogies at a hipster jazz club out of a 1950s Roger Corman exploitation movie and generally moves with a dip in his his hip and a glide in his stride.
Can you dig it? A lot of critics and audiences couldn’t. They thought it was too “far out”, too “cray cray” but that’s precisely why I kind of love it.
This is not your mother’s Peter Parker. The iconic web-slinger is one of the comic book world’s pluckiest and most beloved underdogs, a scrawny, picked-on orphan from Queens who learns that with great power comes great responsibility after a lab accident gives him the powers of a man-sized spider.
In Spider-Man 3, however, Spider-Man is less the teen underdog of the popular imagination than an arrogant celebrity who is feeling himself to such a degree that he doesn’t even notice that girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is fucking miserable because her big Broadway debut is a flop because of her terrible singing.
Even before contact with an evil alien Symbiote brings out the dark side of Peter he’s already behaving like a bit of an asshole. This is about as non-neurotic as Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker gets. He’s so unhealthily pleased with himself that he neglects to obsess about things he should be filled with anxiety about.
For example Peter is so focussed on proposing to Mary Jane in the most romantic, cliched manner possible that he does not even notice that while he’s literally riding high as New York’s most beloved hero his girlfriend has lurched into a deep depression. Peter’s version of being a nice guy does not, alas, entail actually paying attention to the emotional needs of the love of his life.
Peter is not a nice guy so much as he’s a “nice guy” with all the troubling baggage that entails.
Then one day Peter comes in contact with the nasty alien Symbiote that will eventually result in a phenomenally unsatisfying version of Venom and undergoes the kind of personal metamorphosis that otherwise only happens when someone is first exposed to the music of Cure and The Smiths and/or powerful stimulants.
At one point in his adventures, Peter meets a twinkly-eyed old man we haven’t seen before and will not see again who tells him “You know, I guess one man CAN make a difference. Nuff said!” It’s such a jarring and seemingly out of place line and character that I went to IMDB and discovered that the actor who played this bit role was no ordinary old man at all, but rather Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee. Doesn’t that beat all?
Peter starts dressing in a manner even Johnny Cash would find a little depressing. He suddenly has the pallid complexion and under-eye bags of a longtime cocaine addict. His vibe shifts dramatically from “all-American teenager turned superhero” to “Patrick Bateman cos-playing as Nicolas Cage’s character from Vampire’s Kiss.”
Spider-Man breaks bad in a way a lot of people found deeply problematic, even unforgivable. Where the old Peter Parker only had eyes for Mary Jane and the traditional bliss of heterosexual matrimony, the new Peter Parker is an unashamedly, insistently sexual creature who makes “Fuck Me” eyes at every woman he meets.
Meanwhile, a whole bunch of stupid bullshit keeps happening around Emo Peter Parker. His best friend turned enemy Harry Osborn (James Franco) gets bonked on the head while fighting Spider-Man as the new incarnation of the Green Goblin and suffers an eye-roll inducingly narratively convenient case of amnesia that makes him forget that his “best friend” Peter Parker is actually Spider-Man and also that his dad is the original Green Goblin, and consequently crying out for vengeance until the script requires Harry to get his memory back in time for the third act.
In an additional bit of stupid, unnecessary bullshit, the filmmakers have retconned the action so that Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) was actually killed by Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), a good-hearted thief with a tragic family life who becomes super villain Sandman after yet another scientific accident.
Bringing back Uncle Ben for the sake of killing him all over again, this time with a new, more narratively central killer is supposed to give Peter a more personal motivation to go bad and want to kill Flint Marko. Instead, it just feels like more delirious excess in a goddamn mess of a movie already overflowing with melodramatic craziness.
I realize that I haven’t brought up Venom yet, the movie’s second or third villain, assuming you don’t count Spider-Man in Emo Douchebag mode but that’s partially because he comes off as a bit of an afterthought despite his Hot Topic credibility as toxic teenagers’ anti-hero of choice alongside The Punisher and Deadpool.
Yes, Venom is one of the comic book world’s true badasses but he’s realized for the big screen for the first time as the alter-ego of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a bleached blonde Eddie Haskell type who is less evil and intimidating than annoying in his obsequiousness and glad-handing, overly ingratiating fashion.
Eddie Brock does not become Venom until deep into the film’s third act when, in a shameless bit of narrative contrivance, he’s literally in church praying for Peter Parker’s death at the exact moment Peter is wrestling heroically with his sentient outfit above him and some of the Symbiote falls on Eddie, transforming him instantly into a blood-thirsty monster.
Eddie goes from a human dirtbag to an alien-powered super-villain in the blink of an eye. One moment he’s mostly concerned with his journalism and photography career. The next he somehow knows everything about Flint Marko and Sandman and is proposing an old-school comic book team-up so they can bring down their shared enemy Spider-Man.
Eddie is a photographer for The Daily Bugle and a professional rival of Peter’s as well as the boyfriend of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a model Spider-Man shares an upside-down kiss with that understandably makes Mary Jane jealous on account of it being a total dick move.
How impossible is the newspaper business? In Spider-Man 3, actually being Spider-Man isn’t enough for Peter Parker to hold onto his gig photographing Spider-Man, even on a freelance basis. Through trickery and deceit Eddie manages to steal the staff photographer job that should go to Peter Parker, both because he’s been working for the paper much longer and also because he is Spider-Man.
I also cannot get a staff job with a newspaper but I’d like to think that if I was a superhero that would give me the edge I would need to compete in this economy. That, or basic people skills. If I possessed either I would be quite the professional juggernaut.
Spider-Man 3 is adorably the product of an earlier era of superhero movies. These days Spider-Man is all about the most dazzling secret technology known to man. In Spider-Man 3, meanwhile, Peter Parker has access to a police scanner. That’s about as high-tech as he gets.
Spider-Man 3 is old-fashioned in other ways as well. When Peter Parker hooks up with the Symbiote and the black suit he essentially becomes a superhero version of Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. That alien bug transforms him from lovable, nerdy Julius Kelp to slick, smug, womanizing Buddy Love.
During the more or less universally reviled sequence where Peter, in ultimate Buddy Love form, shows up at a jazz club where Mary Jane is prostituting her gifts as a singing waitress, Gwen Stacy in tow, and begins tickling the ivories, dancing and generally behaving like Maynard G. Krebs he’s channeling the gleeful, cartoonish social satire of Jerry Lewis mentor and frequent collaborator Frank Tashlin.
In a world where superhero movies are cranked out on an assembly line by filmmakers obsessed with fitting the Marvel or DC house style or meeting impossible commercial expectations, Spider-Man 3 feels winningly and wonderfully like the work of a true auteur.
Spider-Man 3 was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release. Raimi obviously was not given carte blanche to follow his wandering muse wherever it might lead but he did manage to smuggle a lot of personality into the final product. In that respect it’s Raimi’s Batman Returns, a big-budget superhero sequel way weirder, more gothic and personal than anyone could have anticipated.
I kind of loved Spider-Man 3 the second time around for being messy and vital and bonkers instead of forgettably serviceable in the manner of contemporary big budget superhero movies. It’s audacious and distinctive in part because it takes so many big chances that fail spectacularly. Spider-Man 3 is so willing, even eager to fail, and fail in a big, dramatic, even operatic fashion that I can’t help but see this nearly billion-dollar grossing motion picture as a true Secret Success.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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