Checking my files, I see I wrote a review of the first film. It was a pretty rubbish review, though. This is going to be a meandering trip through my thoughts on the entire trilogy to date, although I imagine I'll probably end up talking most about 3. You know, in a car crash kinda way, although a lot of it I really like.
However first up, a disclaimer. I'm not talking about Spidey's comic books at all here, since I've barely read any of them. This is entirely a discussion of the Tobey Maguire character in three Sam Raimi films, which is important to establish since I'll be saying bad things about him and I'd like it to be clearly understood what I'm slagging off. I like the concept. As an idea, he's great. A superhero loser... the kind of guy who'll never have any money and always seems on the verge of getting fired and/or kicked out of school. I'm not saying I want all superheroes to be like that, but I think it's fantastic that at least one of them got bullied at school and is always late with his rent. The X-Men also take a step back from pure wish-fulfilment, but they're appealing to a different constituency. The X-Men are a persecuted minority, while Spider-Man is just another poor schmuck.
Unfortunately he's almost unwatchable. I wanted to reach into the film and slap him. In the first film he's fine, but in 2 and 3 the script has to knock him down in order to build him up again... and Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker always seems to be wobbling on the brink of self-destruction. He's the kind of idiot who'll fall down by accident before you've even punched him. He'll screw up, he'll break promises, he'll drive away Mary-Jane and he'll blithely don an evil alien costume without so much as a second thought. The first half-hour of 2 was downright painful, but I managed to enjoy 3 by fast-forwarding through any scene without a villain in it.
Put them all together and thematically it works. It's almost brilliant, in fact. This is a superhero series about losers. Peter's the king of losers, but Mary-Jane's a walking disaster too and their families aren't in a much better place. Hell, the super-rich villains are losers too. Norman Osborn makes himself mentally unstable and ends up getting fired from his own company, while Harry was a failure at school and his father didn't think he'd even manage to graduate.
However despite the problem of having to suffer through the presence of Spider-Man in these Spider-Man movies, there's one good reason to watch 'em... the villains. Thanks to the down-to-earth style, what could have been an assortment of cut-price Batman villains has turned into my favourite collection of cinematic superhero adversaries. They're all awesome. Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina are easily the best things in their respective movies, curiously enough having similarly paternal relationships with Parker even as they try to kill him in costume. Dafoe's Green Goblin is more compellingly broken, but Molina's Dr Octopus is just plain cool. I love his smiles.
I even love the villains in 3. James Franco is solid as a rock as Harry Osborn and I was pleasantly surprised by where they took his story. I'd been expecting something much more trite and straightforward. Then there's Thomas Haden Church, who's wonderful as the Sandman. Hell, I even enjoyed Venom. I understand comic book fans weren't so thrilled, but I thought he was fun. Obviously one wouldn't normally want all these villains in a single superhero film, but for me 3 actually worked. It's about the structure. Thematically it's a film about being replaced, about the next guy, and so all the major characters are paired off. Mary-Jane gets replaced in her Broadway play and then sees Spider-Man do the upside-down kiss with Gwen Stacey. Stupid Spider-Man. Peter Parker finds another photographer muscling in on his place at the Daily Bugle, and so on. Thus for me the four-way climax worked. However just one villain again for the next film, please.
The other big difference between 3 and its predecessors, though, is how many dumb mistakes it makes. Normally I don't worry about plot holes, but this is something else. Why does Venom fall to earth near Spider-Man? Why didn't Harry's butler speak up earlier? Why didn't Mary-Jane's producers replace her during the rehearsal period, if she was screwing up on stuff as basic as projecting beyond the first row? Why didn't the script give Parker a solid reason for putting on the Venom outfit but with reservations, instead of just making him look like a thoughtless idiot (again). Maybe it could have made him stronger? Oh, and sweet merciful Heaven, I wanted to throttle that TV reporter. I can't stand heroes who get triumphalist about their own legend, which can unfortunately be said of this film towards the end.
However on the upside, it has imaginative action scenes and a great supporting cast. I loved characters like J. Jonah Jameson and even Ursula, the daughter (?) of Parker's landlord.
In fairness, apparently the third film was something of a battleground between the director and the studio. Raimi wanted to tell the story of Flint Marko/Sandman, with Harry hating Peter in the background. He was forced to include Venom. He doesn't even like Venom. That's the reason why the script is basically a car crash between two mutually unsympathetic stories, but I suspect that even had everything been the Raimiest of all possible Raimies, I'd have still staggered away from this one bleeding from the Parkers.
Which is the best Spidey film? Depends what you're looking for. Most fun to watch, if only for not being painful = 1. Probably technically the best = 2. Most complicated and interesting, albeit also bizarrely cack-handed (but hey, at least it's not blindly following in its predecessors' footsteps) = 3. Overall I admire the series for several things, not least for advancing Spidey's personal development in major ways in every film. This is not a series in search of a status quo. They're always pushing forwards. It's just a shame the films keep interrupting their wonderful villains' stories with this Parker guy.