[9 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s hard to figure out just what the Spider-Man franchise has left to accomplish. After a record breaking weekend, earning more in three days than any other film in history, and inaugurating the Summer 2007 movie season, it seems the seminal comic book series has more than done its job. That the final installment in this sequence of adventures (Sony has already announced plans for 4, 5 and 6) is also a very good popcorn entertainment should be icing on the commercial cake. And for the most part, it is. While fans have started web board wars over various elements director Sam Raimi and the gang got wrong, the mainstream moviegoer is lining up to plunk down their recreational dosh. And for the most part, they won’t be disappointed.
What they might be is dismayed. Indeed, one of the biggest quandaries that develops in this third trip into human arachnid territory is why the formula that worked so well in Spider-Man 2 fails to properly function this time around. The story more or less stays the same – Peter Parker struggles with his new found role as superhero and champion of the people; his relationship with Mary Jane Watson fluctuates between great and grave; he has moments of sage wisdom from his doddering Aunt May; and he’s still trying to disarm Harry Osborn’s seething personal vendetta over the death of his father. Toss in a villain – or in this case, two – and over the top visual stunt piece spectacles (check!) and you’ve got everything that made the 2004 epic a commercial and critical hit.
Well, not quite. For some reason, Spider-Man 3 is an ‘almost’ success. It ‘almost’ captures the wrenching emotion of the divergent character concerns. It ‘almost’ gets us to care about the plight of Flint Marco (our petty criminal/doting dad who ends up molecularized into Sandman), Peter Brock (more or less the cocky doppelganger for Peter and soon to be Venom), or new hottie Gwen Stacy (basic blonde eye candy). It ‘almost’ succeeds in tying up all the loose ends left over from Spider-Man 1 and 2 (even though Doc Ock earns just one single meaningless mention). And it ‘almost’ has us convinced that this trilogy will transcend its blockbuster necessities to mean something more – either as art, precedent, or simply a great way to spend some time at the Cineplex.
But ‘almost’ works both ways, and there are moments when Spider-Man 3 ‘almost’ falls apart completely. For example, the narrative is so fragmented and jumpy – which one would expect considering that the filmmakers are crafting an attempted trilogy out of various parts of the comic book myth – that it never settles down and sails the way Part 2 does. In addition, there is still some sloppy CGI, especially in the rendering of Brock’s space virus alter ego. Because of the character’s VERY late appearance in the story, and lack of significant screen time, we just don’t know what to expect from this being. When it starts slinging webs and acting all spider-like, we are left contemplating why we need two entities who both basically do the same thing. Aren’t there more interesting enemies in the Spider-man repertoire?
Controversy also surrounds the Second Act sequences where we are introduced to Power Mad (or as some have labeled him, Emo) Peter, including a corny “strut” montage and an equally odd dance number in a jazz club. In fact, most of the anger metered onto this movie comes from those who complain about Mary Jane’s TWO solo song spots, or the constant attention to character over chaos. It’s almost as if critics, appreciative of how Part 2 deepened the dynamic between everyone involved, said, “Enough all ready! Let’s get to the good stuff!” But anyone familiar with Raimi knows that he likes to trip up the tone of his films. As early as The Evil Dead series, he’d mix the serious with the silly, the scary with some slapstick. In preparation for what he feels will be a five handkerchief finale, a gut wrenching test of friendship and love, our director just wants to have a little fun.
Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t deliver the stirring, staggering epiphanies we’ve come to expect. The showdown with both Sandman and Venom is so straightforward (fight, stop, fight, stop) and lacking in the invention of the previous skirmishes (Spidey and the Granular One do have a great tête-à-tête amid a maze of subway cars) that it feels like middle act mayhem, designed to keep us occupied until the real conclusion comes along. Even in the initial sequence where Gwen Stacey (and a rather tall skyscraper) is threatened by an industrial crane gone crazy, there is an urgency and invention that’s lacking come showdown time. Still, you have to give Raimi credit. He certainly understands the acrobatic element of Spidey’s skills. The sequences when our hero swoops and soars across the NYC cityscape are thrilling in their sense of motion and wonder.
Another area where critics have gotten it dead wrong is in the acting department – specifically, the consistent dismissal of Tobey Maguire as nothing more than a whiny little manchild. On the contrary, he carries the entire weight of the film on his character’s post-adolescent shoulders. He is as good here as he was in Part 2, and all his emotional responses are earned honestly and specifically. Because of all the splash and fireworks, it’s hard to remember that Peter is actually inside that suit – not just some stunt or CGI element manipulated and mauled at the whim of the narrative. As a result, Maguire captures that ‘other’ aspect - the burden - allowing it to color and shade everything he does. If anything, it is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane that deserves some straightening out. She’s gone from supportive to selfish in the blink of an eye, and her downfall seems premeditated and wrong. Besides, she agreed to a relationship with Spider-Man post reveal – shouldn’t she grow up a little?
James Franco also suffers a bit as well. His post-trauma transformation from a seething ball of rage to a dithering amnesiac with a forced smile is a real contrivance. Instead of making Harry a total head case, maneuvering the people around him to earn their trust (before destroying them), he’s just a good guy gone bad who turns into a bad guy gone good. The camaraderie element to this storyline is the film’s strongest facet (it is reminiscent of the bond shared by the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) but whole portions of the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle seem repetitive and unnecessary.
The rest of the cast is definitely driven to the very edges of the action. J.K. Simmons, so good as J. Jonah Jameson, is reduced to a couple of cameo spots, while James Cromwell (as Police Chief Stacy) is only around to provide Gwen a paternal face. As the villains, Topher Grace is wonderfully smarmy as desperate (and dangerous) Brock, while Thomas Haden Church is more concrete than complexity as Marco. Even when Raimi stops the action cold to give his Sandman room to wax about his sick little girl, the schmaltz seems totally tacked on. Indeed, why did this evildoer have to have a backstory, any way? What happened to the good old days where insane psychopaths wanted to take over the world because…well, because they are insane psychopaths. Had more time been spent on making Sandman/Flint a formidable foe, and not turning up the empathy factor, perhaps his presence as a baddie would have more impact. As a result, he’s sketchy throughout.
Overall, Spider-Man 3 drops down below the previous installment in the hierarchy. It’s shocking how shaky Raimi’s ideals appear this time around. Back at the beginning of this entire series, his storytelling scheme was unique and undeniable. He would push the maudlin and the mawkish as far as he could, then save the psychology structure by making the action supplement and strengthen the sentiment. This made everything feel complementary and complete. The balance he maintained so well over the previous two entries is really out of whack here – so much so that the moments of middling mediocrity compete to overpower the inherent greatness of his vision. In some ways, this is the way Peter Parker’s story was meant to end. As a reluctant hero, he was ill-prepared to take on the challenges of being a champion. As a big screen figure, he appears equally incapable of fully exemplifying the genre’s best aspects. Still, he ‘almost’ gets it – and that’s good enough for now…and Spider-Man 3.