Monday, May 21, 2007
In Theaters: Spider-Man 3
SPIDER-MAN 3 has, of course, been out for a while, but the debate over its quality still rages and I suppose now's as good a time as any to weigh in. In some ways I'm grateful for the film's ambivalent reception, as it enabled me to see it without any preset expectations whatsoever. I heard something about a dance sequence, that was about it. In the end, I came out entertained, mostly satisfied, but with a vague sensation that I should have gotten more- the same reaction as at the end of the first film. There are worse things, and Sam Raimi has without a doubt made a good picture, and yet...
The film starts with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, in an unusually good place. New York City has finally come to love its red-suited protector, and Peter also has the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), a young model/actress who is just making her Broadway debut. Things are going well enough that Peter decides to ask MJ to marry him, but life has other plans. Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin of the first film (played then by Willem Dafoe, whose voice is heard a couple of times here), who still blames Spidey for his father's death and found out in the last movie that Peter was the web-slinger's alter-ego, has taken up his father's old profession of flying around on a giant hoverboard and throwing high explosives and sharp things at his archnemesis. While Peter has to deal with that, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped convict, flees from the police into a particle physics testing facility, and one giant flash later he's a being made entirely of sand, able to change shape and fly on the winds and absorb just about anything that can be thrown at him. Peter gets a little too involved in hunting down this crook (dubbed the Sandman for obvious reasons) when he finds out that he was the hood who pulled the trigger on his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, also briefly visible- there is, apparently, no leaving the franchise.) An obsession with revenge starts to overtake Peter, especially when a strange symbiotic black ooze that fell from the sky creeps into his Spider-Suit, which not only gives it a new monochrome look but also somehow enhances his powers and starts to mess with his personality, making him more aggressive, more confident, more self-centered and generally a bit more of a dick. His style as a superhero starts to become more violent, and he even seems to kill the Sandman. Meanwhile, his relationship with Mary Jane deteriorates as a result of his swelled head and personality shift (and strange failure not to notice when MJ is dropped from her show after a week), not to mention the arrival of a very lovely girl named Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) who develops a crush on Spider-Man soon after he saves her life. Gwen, meanwhile, is pursued by Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a freelance photographer who gets better pics of Spidey than Peter does and a rival for a staff position at the newspaper. I'm probably blurring the order in which these things happen.
If reports are correct, this may actually be the most expensive film ever made, which is almost surprising given how low-key Spidey's adventures tend to be in comparison to those of other comic heroes. The money's definitely there on screen, and the spectacle has definitely been amped up from earlier entries. It's saying something that a sequence involving part of an office floor being knocked out of a building by a runaway crane really just marks a minor plot point, and there's a brilliant mid-air battle between Peter and Harry that zips along narrow alleys in a way reminiscent of the Death Star trench run. The Sandman reportedly ate up most of the budget, presumably because nobody at the studio bothered to say, "Hey, isn't this guy going to be hard to animate?" Apparently a lot of money was spent trying to get the sand effects just right, but it does work in the end. Obviously, with characters like these, you know when you're looking at CGI because there's no other way this could get on film, so the old "if you know it's an effect it's not working" axiom doesn't apply, but there's a certain beauty to some of the character's scenes, most notably when Flint first pulls himself together out of an undifferentiated mass of sand.
The film isn't as elegantly plotted as the first two were, and as tired a cliché as the criticism itself is, I may have to admit that "too many villains" may have been the problem. Sam Raimi reportedly just wanted to focus on the Sandman and Harry, but fan demand to see the 1980s "Venom Saga" on film was overwhelming. As a result you've got several subplots jammed together jostling for attention, and it's to the writers' credit that the important ones do basically get resolved and addressed; nonetheless, an odd compressed feeling hangs over many scenes, and characters tend to pop in and out with odd irregularity. (There is, for example, not nearly enough J. Jonah Jameson, as J. K. Simmons so gloriously renders him.)
From what I can gather, a major criticism of the film has been that it spends too much time on Peter Parker and not enough on Spider-Man; that is, it is more about the problems in the hero's personal life than about fighting bad guys. To an extent this is true, but I don't really think of it as a criticism. For one, there is plenty of action, and for another, that is simply the story that is being told. I remember how SUPERMAN RETURNS was raked over the coals for its hero never actually punching anyone, and that seemed to me to miss the point. On the one hand, critics complain when filmmakers emphasize spectacle and brainless action over character, but when they do the opposite, that meets with disapproval as well. There's definitely a balance, but wouldn't we rather moviemakers- especially ones like Raimi and Singer with just a little bit of clout- err on the side of substance? I'm not sure either, but it seems to me whenever this complaint comes up, the movie in question- be it Singer's SUPERMAN, Peter Jackson's KING KONG, Tarantino's DEATH PROOF, or Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 3- is one I enjoy quite a lot. (Whereas in comics, I think that a lot of creators could stand to aim for great trash instead of great art. So I dunno.)
Where was I going with this? Oh, right. The characterization. A lot of the burden of making this work is placed on Maguire and Dunst, and you can sense them straining just a bit under it. In the end they're convincing enough, and the turmoil in Peter and MJ's relationship is well handled and becomes a central thread in a film that really needs one. The acting is quite strong, and there are too many actors in this one to run down their performances, but I look forward to at least some of these characters showing up in sequels. The ever-awesome Bruce Campbell shows up yet again, this time as a French maitre'd, and Hollywood Actor Ted Raimi gives a powerhouse performance as a marketing consultant at the Daily Bugle. One bit I liked much, much more than I expected to was Peter's darkening. Yes, his hairstyle and dress sense gets just a bit emo, but what's entertaining is how much of an absolute cad he becomes. He struts down the street and breaks into dance in a scene that looks like a body spray commercial gone horribly, wonderfully wrong, and has the landlord's ultra-cute daughter (who clearly has a crush on him) feed him cookies while he's hanging on the pay phone. By having some fun with this "dark side" business, Raimi prevents the melodrama from getting too severe.
And yet I have a number of nitpicks. The Sandman ultimately doesn't get enough screentime, and strangely, neither really does Brock. A few plot points don't quite make sense, and the climax, though impressive in itself, doesn't get enough of a buildup. I never found the movie dull for an instant, but it is sloppier than it should be. However, the major themes of revenge and forgiveness are articulated quite strongly, and again help to bolster the movie's structure.
All in all I quite enjoyed the picture, reservations aside. It's not really a climax to the series at all, and leaves many doors open, which is as it should be since Sony apparently intends to make at least three more. SPIDER-MAN 3 is not quite the picture it wants to be, but then again it aims quite high, so if it misses it still does better than most. It's an impressive action-adventure, does right by the characters, and continues to deliver a very believable and fun version of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's unique web-filled corner of the superhero universe. 'Nuff said.
Based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Sam Raimi