Spider-Man 2 was, among many other things, a fantastic sequel. After dutifully plodding through the origin story in the first film, director Sam Raimi came through on the dramatic promises of the series by actually forwarding the plot and embroidering the characters’ relationships with complexities (or at any rate, what passes for complexities in comic book movies) and raising the stakes. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) revealed his secret superhero identity to true love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst); he confessed his complicity in his uncle’s murder to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris); and his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), turned to betrayal after learning how Spider-Man had killed his father. The film still had its cornball moments — this is Raimi, after all — but the clunkier lines were overshadowed by the breathless pacing and smart plotting, which made the film not just an extension of but an improvement on the original. So it’s with some trepidation and no small amount of regret that I write that Spider-Man 3, though still head and shoulders above other typical summer blockbusters, isn’t quite the powerhouse that its predecessor was. It’s as if Raimi, who scripted along with brother Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, was so eager to top himself that he threw in too much of everything: There are three external villains here, not to mention Spidey’s very own existential crisis, and the script marches along like the Doctor Zhivago of superhero movies in its inevitable crawl to a suitably epic finish. To put it in geek terms: If Spider-Man 2 was this series’ The Empire Strikes Back, full of danger and failure and darkness and ending on a note of wonderful ambiguity, then Spider-Man 3 is Return of the Jedi, a competent, enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to a story whose peaks have regrettably passed. The film plays up the internal conflicts of Peter Parker’s demanding life, but that darkness was more believable as the subtext in Spider-Man 2 instead of the blunt, more obvious story of Spider-Man 3. The film is big, but often ungainly; epic, but slightly tiresome; beautiful, but occasionally maddening.
The opening credits again play out against a succession of images that recap the story so far, but instead of Alex Ross’ gorgeous artwork, the scenes are actual clips from the first two films. Peter lays out the story in some helpful expositional voice-over narration: He’s in love with Mary Jane, making straight A’s at the university, and embraced by the city of New York as a savior. As melodramatic pop art goes, the Spider-Man series is like “Heroes” to the thousandth degree: Everything here is super big, super good, or super bad. The film is as pleasantly bland as Peter’s life until Harry, using his dead dad’s flying glider and personal armory, swoops down and takes Peter on a brutal aerial battle through the city’s alleyways. (Harry is apparently going under the moniker of New Goblin, but since he never out and out announces this to Peter [which is both surprising and disappointing], I’m just going to stick with calling him Harry.) The special effects here manage to top the previous film, and completely obliterate whatever temporary standard was set by the first entry in the series, as Sony’s graphic artists seamlessly blend the real and digitally created characters and backdrops. It’s also a breathtaking sequence for the sound design and mixing: The bone-crunching thud of men getting slammed into buildings gets a wince every time, and the film is fantastic at its use of silence, dropping the music and ambient noise to focus on a single punch, or gasp, or explosion. The battle also makes grand use of the city sky at night, as Peter and Harry gleefully defy the laws of physics to pirouette around each other, not just flying through the air but practically floating. The action here is rousing and engaging, one of the film’s true triumphs.
The plot starts to get a little bumpy soon enough: Peter wins that battle but winds up sending Harry to the hospital, where he’s diagnosed with amnesia. So that puts Villain #1 on the back burner in time for the appearance of Villain #2, the Sandman, nee Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church). Marko, an escaped convict, was running from police when he fell into an open gravel pit at a nuclear testing facility — since all nuclear testing in comic book movies takes place in the middle of giant fields — and has his molecules converted into sand fragments. He’s blasted into a tiny powder, but somehow his consciousness remains intact and stable so that he’s able to pull himself together again, literally, by reforming in his former image only this time made from stones. The police, in a nifty bit of retconning, inform Peter that Marko was actually the one who killed Uncle Ben back in the first movie. Peter is visibly shaken at the news, and downright pissed, and it’s one of the character’s few genuine displays of negative emotion that can be chalked up to his own personality and not, say, the impact on his psyche of being symbiotically linked to an evil black goo from outer space (which is coming up soon). Peter only got into the crimefighting business to work off the emotional guilt he earned when he realized he was partially responsible for his uncle’s murder, and to find out the real killer is still at large is a huge blow to the character. Raimi had such an opportunity here to explore Peter’s guilt and rage, and how Marko’s sudden reappearance acted as a legitimate externalization of Peter’s split personality hang-ups. That could have been the whole story, and it would have been a good one.
But Raimi piles on Villain #3, the aforementioned space goo, Venom, which crashes in a meteorite in the park and attaches itself to Peter’s bike and later, when he’s in his suit, bonds with him, giving his costume the black look you’ve been seeing in ads for the film for the past six months. While Sandman is the villain meant to let Spider-Man work through the guilt of his uncle’s death all over again, the black slime is the physical representation of Peter’s hidden prejudice that the criminals he’s fighting are genuinely bad human beings and more deserving of vengeance than justice. This is not an ignoble goal, but Raimi could have more than adequately explored that topic via Spider-Man’s conflict with Sandman. Venom eventually spreads to Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a young photographer angling to take Peter’s spot at the Daily Bugle. Grace glides through the part, but he’s not given enough screen time to even be a two-dimensional bad guy. This is where the film begins to feel like an effort by the studio to capture even more fans and money and not the product of a filmmaker’s desire to tell a story. Raimi has said that the inclusion of Venom was the suggestion of producer Avi Arad, and it shows. It’s just too broad.
But worse than the overcrowded villain slate is the horrible, laughable, cringe-inducing way Maguire is forced to act when under the spell of his dark side. Catching his reflection in a mirror, he musses up his hair and scoops his bangs down into his eyes, as if he’s 12 and thinks this makes him look tough. At one point Peter struts down the street in a scene queasily reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever, popping his collar and eyeing girls who thankfully have enough sense to ignore him. There’s a scene at a jazz club where Mary Jane sings that’s too terrifying and bizarre to describe, except to say that Raimi must’ve temporarily confused Spider-Man with The Mask. Whatever dramatic integrity the series had earned with the second film is completely squandered in sequences like these, and they in turn become the film’s own dark side, the scars it wears that mar the beauty underneath.
Good grief, there’s even more, but really, it’s all the same. Maguire is affable and goofy, and even gets a chance to hint at the dramatic depths that a more streamlined screenplay could have offered. Running at nearly 140 minutes, the story feels too much to be the awkwardly combined efforts of the Raimi brothers, who are more comfortable with camp like Army of Darkness, and Sargent, who helped adapt Unfaithful and also wrote Spider-Man 2. (Of course, Spider-Man 2 also benefited from the input of Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Michael Chabon, so perhaps it was destined to be the strongest of the series.) Dunst hits all the right notes as the cute damsel in distress, but spends as much time screaming for help as she does actually acting. As Brock, Grace is smug and quick, the kind of watchable jerk that he seems to play so well. In a film filled with unintentional humor, Grace’s sense of comedy is the only real thing.
Spider-Man 3 isn’t a bad film, but it’s certainly short of what the second film promised. If this film had come first, the lowered bar might not have mattered as much, but for Raimi to reach the heights he did last time only to stumble so blatantly this time around is regrettable. Trimmed of its fat, Spider-Man 3 could have been the pop masterpiece whose coming was heralded three years ago. There are good moments here, when the story, action, and sheer grandiosity of it all come together to create something memorable. But those moments are far and few between. Maybe Spider-Man will come back again someday; it’d be a shame to see him go out like this.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.A Tangled Web Indeed
Film | May 4, 2007 | Comments ()