Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)
I believe comic book-movies have an immense inferiority complex. To compensate for that perceived slightness in their source materials, they usually hire the most savvy of visual effects artists, the most expensive of celebrities, and the most cutthroat of marketing specialists. Observe the horde of A-listers donning leather jackets, capes, and tights, brandishing those cleverly ridiculous one-liners like they were written by Shakespeare. Notice the bevy of explosions, or larger-than-life creations that merge real footage and computer-created images with unbelievable ease. And after debating whether you've just lost a huge amount of neurons over that two hour visual and pop culture extravaganza, enjoy your favorite oil-glazed fries and chemical-pumped drinks that are kept clean by containers that are embellished by those super heroes and super villains. We know it; it's a money-making scheme where an investment of 250 million dollars (a sizable chunk of the yearly budget of the Philippine government) is entirely risk-free for it will surely yield immense returns, yet despite that, we enjoy it well enough to dedicate a holiday just to watch it.
Most of these comic-book flicks are completely junk. They're either too full of themselves, convinced that there's actual artistic merit to all the larger-than-life escapades (like Zack Snyder's self-important and picturesque ponder-ama 300 (2007)); or too evasive of their source materials to mistakenly think out of the box and re-invent everything (Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), anyone?). A few got it right. Bryan Singer's adaptation of the X-Men franchise did a George Romero to the superhero genre by turning the entire mutant storyline into a metaphor to xenophobia, homophobia, and intolerance (that was until Brett Ratner ended the franchise with a disappointing dud). Sam Raimi took a different route --- there are no metaphors here, no overt re-inventions (probably just a bit of tweaking and modernization of the superhero), also no principled reverence to what's already written. Raimi's two previous Spider-Man flicks were outstanding entertainment; not because it pushed the genre to new literary or cinematic heights, but because it exactly knows what it is. The Spider-Man pictures were comic-book flicks that had no inferiority complex, whatsoever --- just a happy-go-lucky attitude that stuck with you.
Spider-Man 3 is probably the most happy-go-lucky of the three. Unlike the first two films which were held by a neatly constructed narrative, Spider-Man 3 is as porous as an undersea sponge. Raimi is generous enough to make us remember the events before by including snippets of the first two films in the opening creds; you reminisce those moments which now resurface as the much-organized plotlines of the previous films are restructured in your brain, supposedly preparing you for the succeeding events. Everything starts out happily (the intro actually feels like an intro for Preston Sturges screwball comedy, with all the inflicted glamor of the Big Apple and the breezy jollity of "everything going so well"), with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) spending their happy and mostly successful lives together. Harry Osborn (James Franco) gets re-introduced with fleeting complacency; Raimi dedicates more time to flesh out his new villains, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) and their respective back-stories and raison d'etre's.
The narrative bogs down, surely. With all the characters and the internal dilemmas, there's an impossible task of keeping everything afloat. Raimi manages to do just that by unleashing his trademark trick --- to treat everything lightly. The film lacks the doomsday scenario of Spider-Man 2 (2004) or the passionate theatrics of Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man (2002), what it does have is genuine gusto; a convinced determination that it is a comic-book film, and should first and foremost be larger-than-life, entertaining, and escapist (the same way those comic books would make us imagine of superheroes saving the world while evading schoolwork during our childhood days). Spider-Man 3 is exactly just that; it delivers the melodramatic rigors of juvenile romanticisms, the frank yet harmless scenes of destruction of public and private property and violence upon the innocent, and the teacherly lessons of morality play (which more often than not are reflective of early comic-books, the successors of the parables of old).
Spider-Man 3 is probably the most expensive low-budget film ever. The production is clearly exquisite and expensive; but the aesthetics is distinctly Raimi. There are scenes that recall sci-fi B-movies (not merely in delivery, but also in its over-the-top mise en scene); a romantic interlude under a lovely starry night is followed by a meteorite landing that reminds you of The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958). The fight scenes, while not as eye-popping as the ones in its predecessors, are jampacked with subtle physical comedy that races alongside the hyperactive yet coherent camerawork. There are other little references to other films that surface (there's that famous scene from Boorman's Deliverance (1972) near the end, among others). And against the riproaring action, the life-and-love-threatening dramatics, the unembarrassed portrayal of basic humanity in its heroes and villains, is it's very punctual comedy, which seems to sprout out very unexpectedly, out of nowhere, yet quite justly.
Is Spider-Man 3 a good film? Yes, it is. Is it better than the first two? Probably. Is it perfect? Definitely not. Its imperfections are glaring. It is too long, sometimes a bit too self-indulgent in its ridiculosity, and spends the character and narrative investments of the first two installments with wild abandon. The first two films gave the franchise a powerful push that could keep the engine moving permanently, with its loose ends and always dissatisfied characters. The third feature is recognizably the last in the franchise (or it feels like Raimi intended that the film be the last one he'll be doing; and the rest of its future reincarnations will just feed off his legacy in the franchise); it is cleanly ended in a way Disney animated films ended (with a bright sunny day, implying a future bereft of any more problems; or at least none as apocalyptic as the previous ones) and that closing shot (which I feel belongs to a Sturges or Capra film) justifies its uncharacteristically too-happy opening, --- that the film is indeed one complete pic, and while you may wish it so, the pleas for a sequel might be unfruitful both practically and creatively.