After decades in development hell, one superhero movie broke down Hollywood’s doors in 2002 with a clear message: comic book movies could be mints. Gone were the cringing days of cheesy ‘80s plots and special effects, now superheroes could move through the air with top-notch CGI.
Sam Raimi, who for years had proved he could toe the line between cult classics and critical success, was able to exude a passion for the character that burst from the screen, resulting in box office triumphs in the first and second Spider-Man movies. “I always found that it was strange that Amy Pascal hired me to do this film,” Raimi said in an interview in the run-up to Spider-Man 3. The resulting movie would show just how strange that choice would be.
Here's why you need to watch Spider-Man 3 on Hulu now before it leaves at the end of the month.
Within the first half-hour of Spider-Man 3, there’s a Broadway musical, a prison break, an aerial dogfight with an engagement ring as its centering force, a sudden bout of amnesia, and the disintegration of a man into sand (Thomas Haden Church).
Shortly after that, the man heroically rebuilds himself. And then there’s the introduction of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) and his romantic plans with Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard). And then there’s an introduction of a subplot about competing for a photographer staff job at the Daily Bugle. There are further complications with Mary Jane’s (Kristen Dunst) musical career, and bonding between Peter (Toby Maguire) and amnesia victim Harry Osborne (James Franco). And then there’s Spider-Man parade.
By this point, forty-five minutes into the movie, viewers are fully within the New York of these characters. We see where they work, who they love, what their goals are, who they talk to, how they spend their days.
There are some beautiful moments within. The first aerial fight between Harry and Peter stands out, as does the tragic and beautiful birth of Sandman, which feels like an incredibly expensive arthouse film (at the time, Spider-Man 3 was the most expensive movie ever made). There are also some funny moments, like an extended bit between J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) and his secretary Miss Brant (Elizabeth Banks).
But forty-five minutes into the film, there’s also no real sense where any of this is going. The movie starts to pick up as Sandman attacks the parade, and it’s clear that Raimi is in love with this character who uses the ugly, common elements as his source of power. Sandman’s shadow rises and falls, he swarms attackers, drowning them in a rage. Right down to his fitted striped shirt, the character is a stoic throwback to much older cinema, like the 1932 classic I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
There are the makings of a great film within this dynamic. And there are plenty of fun moments within (like Bruce Campbell’s appearance as a maitre’d at a French restaurant). But tensions between the studio forced Raimi to include Brock’s transformation into Venom as well, meaning that all of these plot lines start to pile up. The soapy drama of the Gwen-M.J-Peter love triangle starts to intercede into the symbiote plot, and then Peter realizes that Sandman killed Uncle Ben, and then Peter gets infected with the symbiote and gets emo bangs.
Seen from Raimi’s eye, the emo bangs make sense. Raimi’s characters, like Sandman, exude their emotions on the outside. Like the rest of the franchise, he wanted to keep the fantastical and the realistic in play with each other. That’s why Peter doesn’t turn into a monster, he simply blasts finger guns at every woman walking by, gets Eddie Brock fired, and dances in the street. These things manage to convey that Peter is vastly different. They’re also fun.
And that’s before the jazz scene. Raimi’s love of Old Hollywood gets the better of him here. Why on Earth would Peter Parker start playing the piano and dancing as revenge? Because it’s a fun spectacle, that's why. The close-ups on faces, the wind blowing back Gwen Stacey’s face, the bright colors, the coordinated dancing, it’s all in the spirit of a vintage dance sequence.
It’s worth noting that Spider-Man 3 was a commercial success, grossing more than each of the previous films in the trilogy. All of these elements — even the studio-forced Venom plot — work on their own. Combined together, they’re something of a mess, culminating in a construction site final battle that really does seem like a work-in-progress.
But while the film lacks the cohesion of Marvel's current franchise, it has a character and spirit all its own. Spider-Man 3 shows everything that can go wrong with big-budget superhero movies, but it also shows a path not taken, a path with style to spare. And yes, evil jazz.
Spider-Man 3 is streaming on Hulu until September 31.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the role of M.J. is played by Kristen Stewart, instead of Kristen Dunst. We regret the error. Thanks Lori!