2008 is often cited as the beginning of modern American cinema. It was the year in which Marvel began its journey to world domination and The Dark Knight gave superhero movies the credibility they still desperately crave. Bad Boys for Life is the only non-Disney release in the last ten years to be the highest-grossing film of the year in America and that was the only year no Marvel movie was released.
But one year before Tony Stark built his suit and Joker pondered ‘Why so serious?’ one film paved the way for Marvel’s domination of the cinematic universe. That movie, of course, is the commercially successful and critically despised, Spider-Man 3. 2007 is mainly remembered as the last truly great year of American auteurism with There Will be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Zodiac being but a few of the great films released. Finding this quantity of such quality is rare these days as studio executives follow the money, and in 2007 the money was firmly within the grip of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
Spider-Man 3 is the highest-grossing and least-liked of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. It was a fraught production with Raimi wanting the film to focus on his Peter-MJ-Harry story with Sandman being the new villain. The film’s producers, who began workshopping a fourth film before the release of the third, had other ideas and ensured the movie provided more fan service through the inclusion of Venom and Gwen Stacy.
Much of the criticism of Spider-Man 3 can be attributed to this over-reach by the producers, as the film was a vast departure from the previous two entries and featured so many ingredients that none got the attention they deserved. This might not sound like the MCU to you, as somehow Eternals is the only entry in their almost fifteen years of movies to have a rotten critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (although not much weight should be given to RT in general). But Marvel’s studio-driven movies are in direct contrast to Raimi’s first two forays into the web-slinger’s world and sadly similar to his third. To lay out my theory on the impact of Spider-Man 3 on modern Marvel, I will return to the beginning of Raimi’s trilogy and compare it with the most recent Tom Holland trilogy.
Spider-Man (2002) opens with Peter Parker, the perennial poindexter, chasing a bus, longing to sit next to his unrequited love Mary Jane. This dynamic between the lovable loser and the literal girl next door is at the heart of Raimi’s story. These are romance movies in a superhero setting more than superhero movies. Spider-Man is one of the most popular comic book characters because readers can connect with Peter Parker and Miles Morales, not because they shoot webs out of their arms. Raimi’s grotesque close-up of tendrils protruding from Peter’s thumb is not the most enviable ability. Thor was born a Norse God, Tony Stark is a playboy billionaire, and Captain America is a super-soldier from the 40s. Peter is just a normal guy who puts on a mask. The fact that he can live a normal life beyond his alter-ego sets him apart from other heroes and Raimi utilises this far better than the later Marvel films.
Homecoming opens with Peter Parker on his way to fight in the battle scene from Captain America: Civil War. The audience gets to spend no time with Peter before he becomes Spider-Man, which is fair enough as we know his origin story already. But Peter’s whole personality in these films is built around being Spider-Man. In contrast to Peter and MJ’s conversation within the opening minutes of Spider-Man, it takes 45 minutes for Peter and his crush to have a non-Spider-Man-related conversation in Homecoming.
Even after Peter dons his suit an hour into Raimi’s original film, the story revolves around how this impacts him and his relationships far more than web-slinging. In Homecoming the superhero scenes are far longer and happen more often than moments of Peter being a real person and the majority of scenes in which he isn’t wearing a mask still revolve around Spider-Man.
Tom Holland spends most of his screentime tracking down Michael Keaton’s Vulture who is wholly undeserving of this screentime. The Vulture and his ragtag gang of goons spend the film trying to perfect the use of ‘high altitude seal things’ to pull off one big job. If the writers care this little about the villains and their motives, why should the audience? Raimi’s villains are not only far more developed in the first of his two movies, but they are also less central to the plot. Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne is a successful businessman with a failson that’s torn between two personalities. Similar to Peter, we get to know Norman before and after he goes goblin mode. When he is in costume, the scenes are wonderfully directed set pieces that aren’t completely green-screened. The punches feel visceral when Norman pummels Peter within an inch of his life, the camera swivelling with Peter’s head and dust swooshing from the set that was actually built and not added in post. There are some moments of comic-book violence such as two men being evaporated into skeletons, unlike Marvel’s PG mass murder in which thousands die off-screen without an ounce of blood being shed.
In Homecoming, Tony Stark tells Tom that ‘if [he’s] nothing without the suit, [he] shouldn’t have it’, but unfortunately the film can’t live up to its own rules as while both Raimi’s original film and Homecoming are labelled as ‘Spider-Man’ movies, only one goes beyond a suit-deep exploration of the character.
The starkest differences between both trilogies come in Spider-Man 2 and Far From Home, which both follow the Spider-Man No More storyline. On the cover of the iconic Amazing Spider-Man #50 Peter Parker abandons his Spider-suit in a bin, one glove longingly reaching out after him, and proclaims that ‘Every boy, sooner or later, must put away his toys and become a man’. In both sequels, the weight of being Spider-Man weighs heavily on Peter’s shoulders and prevents them from living a normal life.
This is fully fleshed out in Spider-Man 2 as we see Peter struggle to maintain a relationship with MJ until he puts down the mask. For a brief period in the middle of the film, Spider-Man is nowhere to be seen and we just follow Peter excelling in college and his personal life. But the guilt of abandoning those in need becomes too much to bear and Peter returns to his caped crusades.
Peter puts away his mechanical mask in Far From Home too, but his character hasn’t evolved beyond the superhero-reliance of Homecoming. Peter transfers his mantle of Earth’s protector to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio but quickly learns that he has been duped. Akin to Homecoming, the majority of the film revolves around Spider-Man tracking down Mysterio and attempting to thwart his half-baked plan. Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors of the 21st century but even he can’t save this character who delivers a long monologue about his technology known as ‘BARF’.
Dr. Octopus receives far better treatment in Spider-Man 2 as once again we meet the character before he’s a supervillain. After his robotic limbs come alive, in a truly horrifying scene, we only get intermittent glimpses of Otto being driven further into grief-fuelled madness, taking a backseat to the Peter-MJ love story. It’s easy to imagine that if this same film was made under the current Marvel regime, the plot would revolve around Otto attempting to find some unexplained power source for his experiments and Peter tracking him down.
The Peter-MJ romance is supposedly a key aspect of Far From Home as Pete finally confesses his love for MJ even though they share less than 15 minutes of screen time across 4 and a half hours of films. Even the few moments in which Peter gets to be Peter don’t revolve around him and MJ, they’re mainly jumping between his classmates in “funny” situations such as getting hit in the balls to a pop song or him trying to hide the latest Stark technology from them. The key differences between Raimi’s first two films and Holland’s are the endings. Beyond the fact that Spider-Man culminates in a visually captivating one-on-one battle in a disintegrating lab and Far From Home finishes with hundreds of drones terrorising London, Raimi provides actual endings for the characters. His films finish with Peter and MJ together, free from the burden of tying them into a larger universe whereas the Watts movies can never truly end when there’s a sequel to set up.
And then there were 3. As I mentioned above, after having two well-received and commercially successful outings with Spider-Man, studio executives felt they had to step in and help Sam Raimi with the third one. And as the history of cinema shows, the more studio interference the better. The first two Tobey Maguire-led films were human stories with some spectacular superhero scenes. The third is the opposite.
To please the fans and their own pockets, Spider-Man 3 mainly consists of CGI-heavy action scenes and quick quips. The human moments from the first two, the interactions between Peter, MJ, and Harry were greatly reduced and feel far more manufactured, the Harry-MJ cooking/dancing scene in particular is closer to a commercial than actual human interaction. Sandman, who Sam Raimi wanted in the film, is a step below the Green Goblin and Doc Ock but his character has no time to develop. Unlike the previous two villains, we barely see him before he’s Sandman and once he’s transformed the majority of his few remaining scenes are fight scenes.
The excess of villains left each one undercooked and wanting, Venom doesn’t arrive until the final third of the movie and doesn’t do anything of note, but then again he wasn’t meant to be there in the first place. The fact that the previous two had been so dramatically better led to the majority of negative reviews, but it was the highest-grossing Marvel superhero film until The Avengers in 2012 and has far more in common with these later movies.
Instead of following the Peter Parker stories that Raimi expertly told in his first two films, the Jon Watts trilogy (and Marvel in general) followed the direction of his much-maligned third film. The key relationships take a backseat to CGI-heavy action scenes, half-baked villains, and tons o’ puns. The relationship between them is deeper than this as both are studio-driven. Marvel movies have a clear house style that is very gray and dull in which everything is added in post. Raimi brought a distinct style to his first two movies, his third has some well-directed scenes too but far more CGI than the others.
The dominance of executives over filmmakers has led Edgar Wright, Scott Derrickson, and even Joss Whedon who practically created Marvel’s house style, to grow frustrated and walk away from the studio. But while studio interference in Spider-Man 3 signalled the end of that trilogy, the end of No Way Home signals hope for a new Tom Holland series. The film still suffers from the same issues as Watts’ previous outings: the story revolves around a quest the characters must go on instead of having actual lives, too many of the interactions revolve around punchlines, and a lot of it just looks like shit. Peter even complains about being ‘broke’ while living in Tony Stark’s apartment.
The need to provide fan service and tie into a larger web harms the movie, by using side characters like Daredevil as a momentary crutch and not developing them further. Tobey, Doc Ock, Sandman, and the Green Goblin are all brought back but merely for the sake of nostalgia. Marvel knows that fans love these old films but they don’t implement the reasons fans love them. Doc Ock is reduced to a joke and Sandman is merely there which is all he was in 3 too so I can’t blame them for that.
Willem Dafoe does get to shine and is by far the best villain of the three as he remains a real person torn between two personalities. There are actual stakes and death which is incredibly rare in Marvel movies. Andrew Garfield achieves more in a few minutes than he did in his own Spider-Man movies (which I haven’t mentioned yet and never will again). To top it all off, the movie doesn’t end with a tie-in to the next superhero team-up. It ends with Peter alone and afraid. He is finally a person beyond the suit. The Stark apartment and gadgets are gone, replaced by actual emotions.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker has finally put away his LEGO death star and become a man. The future may be bright if the next installments in Tom Holland’s story veer towards Raimi’s early outings and not the studio-driven purgatory the character has been stuck in since 2007.