The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Spider-Man 3

Originally published 5/18/07
Full review behind the jump

Spider-Man 3

: Sam Raimi
: Screen Story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi, Screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
: Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad, Grant Curtis
: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, James Cromwell

I can see everything that director Sam Raimi & company want to do, and it makes for an amazing ride. It encompasses all the themes and feelings he fused into the festivals of pop exuberance and teen yearning that were the excellent first two
Spider-Man episodes, and gives new villains a chance to spill their warped psyches all over New York in dynamic style.

The problem is, I think what they really want to do is make two movies, and so by stuffing all those ideas into one, what is actually on-screen in
Spider-Man 3 feels both too long and too compressed, hurtling past all emotional investment, relying on sloppy exposition and coincidence, but overloading us with action and characters – Chekhov would have had a hard time juggling all the people in this plot. After two-and-a-half hours of film there’s a funeral at the end, and among the mourners you can see James Cromwell in his role as Police Captain Stacy. He has no known connection to the character being eulogized; I’m forced to conclude the filmmakers just thought it was a shame such a talented actor had ended up with so few scenes.

I don’t remember having an inner monologue like this in the first two movies. It may be a sign that in 2007, which is set to deliver us more ogres, more pirates, and more, well,
Fantastic-s, at ever steepening price tags, we’ve finally breached the threshold of diminishing returns when it comes to PG-13 fantasy violence spectacles. These movies have simply become so expensive, so over-marketed, and so sustained by their own momentum as cross-demographic brand name juggernauts, that Hollywood’s geek talent pool may finally be overtaxed by the assignment of spinning them into turnstile gold. While you’ll see signs of the wit and inventiveness you remember, the whole of Spider-Man 3 is a movie that does not know how to fill its own bigness.

When we last left our web-slinging young hero Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), he’d won the hearts of New Yorkers, defeated Doctor Octopus, and survived revealing his secret double-life to his longtime love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Life has gotten easy for Parker, and it’s made him a bit of a self-involved jerk. His character no longer has big dreams that seem impossible, instead he’s letting his costumed alter-ego’s glory swell his head, and getting tied up in office jealousy over the Daily Bugle’s new photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace).

Pettier conflicts like these, and his inability to notice how Mary Jane’s acting career isn’t going so well and she could use his support, just make Spidey seem, well, older. More housebroken. Maguire, too, looks a little puffier now that he’s on the other side of 30; while the franchise’s producers are making big talk about endless sequels, I shudder to think of a nearly-40 Peter Parker still swinging around Manhattan. This character’s essence is in the exuberant self-discovery of power in adolescence and young adulthood. When the character we’re looking at on-screen stops resembling that, what are we watching anymore?

For awhile Raimi, collaborating with his brother Ivan and Spider-Man 2 writer Alvin Sargent on the script, remembers that the bonds of friends and family gave resonance to their earlier work. Parker’s former best friend and romantic rival Harry Osborn (James Franco), still seeking vengeance for the death of his father (Willem Dafoe), revives Dad’s power-gliding, bomb-chucking villain persona The Green Goblin. But in attacking Peter he suffers an accident which presents a painful, and briefly very compelling, dilemma.

In addition, a criminal named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison and is resuming his efforts to steal enough money for an operation for his daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine). When news reaches Peter that Marko may be the true killer of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), it stirs old longings for vengeance in his own heart. But Marko will be a little less easy to apprehend now that he’s fallen into that particle accelerator and become the shape-shifting Sandman.

There are special effects that simply create visual noise, and there are effects that achieve a kind of mad poignancy by sparking our imaginations. When Marko is first torn apart by the accelerator, and we see him, one grain at a time, learn to put himself back together, it is beautiful in a mournful way. Like Doc Ock, this is a villain with pathos, and Church’s square but sad face tells us the story of a hardened man who’s willing to do wrong, and hate himself for it, and just wants to be left alone to go about it.

And I haven’t even mentioned the sentient black goo which falls from outer space. Yes, there’s that too. It bonds with Spiderman, enhancing his power and aggression, and bringing out a darker side of him that eventually leads to the birth of the villain Venom – who really deserves a movie of his own but only gets a hasty push into the climax.

Exploring Peter’s id turns out to be a kitschy hoot – he woos a blonde model, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, in a performance much better than many people will notice), adopts a Rat Pack attitude towards woman and takes to disco dancing in the street. Even his nasty side is kind of a dork. All of this would be even funnier if it weren’t inter-cut with him also doing some chilling things which the movie keeps cheating us out of the repercussions of.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. Spider-Man 3 feels like they went in to it thinking there wouldn’t be another one, so they might as well chuck in the kitchen sink; and with so many plots to get done they keep pulling their punch until it finally sees the end credits in sight. This drastically upsets the movie’s tone; it’s emotionally lost at sea, buffeted by its conflicting intentions.

A lot of old supporting players from the previous pictures are around, like the blustering Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), Peter’s single-minded old country landlord (Ilya Baskin) and his puppy-love-afflicted daughter Ursula (Mageina Tovah). And I always appreciate the traditional cameo by Raimi’s old friend and Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell. Wherever Peter Parker goes, Bruce Campbells appear to confound and harass him – this time around he plays a French Maître d’. But most of these appearances now feel obligatory, they don’t have a stake in the action any more, just running gags. Just like how the action sequences, as always vertically-oriented and whirling around every axis like a flight simulator, are familiar and no longer have the same vicarious zip to them. And this time many of them take place at night, rendering them murky and harder to follow.

Spider-Man 3 arrives in theatres, massive and inevitable like the tide. Talented people are working on it, and they mean well and have some great ideas for how to entertain us. This time though, instead of sweeping us up, they got rolled over.


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