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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Review of SPIDER-MAN 3

I enjoyed Spider-Man 3. There, I said it.

Spider-Man 3 is a good entry into the series and an all-around entertaining superhero "popcorn" flick. And with just a little bit more thought, it could have been an all-time truly classic movie.

There was simply way too much that was shoehorned into this one movie to make it overwhelmingly superb. I worried a year ago that Sam Raimi and gang were trying to put so many elements of the Spider-Man comics into this third film, that it couldn't be anything but unwieldy. Unfortunately, those fears were well-grounded.

But in spite of whatever problems this movie has... and they are myriad... I just can't bring myself to do anything but love Spider-Man 3. I had too good a time watching it. Yes, there are things that could have been better. But those are out-shined by what does work in this movie. And on the way home Lisa posed a really strong argument to me about why Spider-Man 3 has some pretty timely lessons for the day and age that we're living in.

Maybe I'm seeing things through rose-colored glasses. I mean, for as long as I live the original Spider-Man from 2002 will be one of my most favorite movie experiences ever. It was the last movie that Lisa and I saw at the Beechwood in Athens, on the night before she graduated from University of Georgia. We had seen so many great movies at that theater during almost two years of dating and to go out on top with Spider-Man, it was like a peak experience. And then the next day she graduated and that was the last time we've been to Athens after spending most of our dating relationship there and two months later we got married. So seeing a Spider-Man movie isn't something that I want to have a bad memory about, for fear that it'll sully that wonderful last time at the Beechwood. And Spider-Man 2 was one of the very few sequels that I thought was better than the original.

Okay, about the movie...

It picks up a year (maybe not even that long) after Spider-Man 2. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) finally has the balance he's sought between being an ace student, a boyfriend to the beautiful Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and a costumed hero that's become a much-beloved New York City icon. Unfortunately there are still some issues (and that's putting it lightly) from the first two movies between Peter and his former best friend Harry Osborne (James Franco). It's not long after the film is rolling that the first action sequence of Spider-Man 3 happens when Harry – as the lamely-named "New Goblin" (is that the best they could come up with?) – attacks Peter, just as Peter is coming home from telling Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, as wonderful as ever) that he's going to ask Mary Jane to marry him.

Meanwhile a small-time hood named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) is fleeing the cops. Not wanting to be sent back to prison, he runs smack into the middle of a high-energy physics lab that's doing something crazy involving sand. Because this is a Spider-Man movie, you just know that having a criminal running through a physics experiment is going to mean trouble. Marko's body is taken apart by a particle accelerator thingy, but he gains the properties of the sand that he fell in and after he rebuilds himself, starts learning how to use his new powers as the Sandman.

And I'm almost forgetting to mention how, toward the very beginning of the movie, Peter and Mary Jane are in Central Park one night watching a meteor shower when a meteorite crashes just a few dozen yards away from them and brings with it a gooey black living alien substance that hitches a ride on Peter's scooter. Yup, of all the billions of people living on Earth, this thing just happens to land right next to the web-slinging superhero.

So began one of the "bad" things for me about Spider-Man 3: the all-too-numerous coincidences. This was the first and worst of them. Even if you've been in a cave for the past year and haven't seen the trailers, you've probably figured out that the "black goo" is the alien symbiote that attaches to Peter and becomes his black costume. I didn't like the "outer space" origin of the suit at all in Spider-Man 3. That was fine for the original comics line but in the context of a motion picture, it seems way too wacky. It would have been much better, if the symbiote was used at all, to give it the origin from the Ultimate Spider-Man comic series (where the symbiote is a home-grown cancer cure that goes completely awry). Well, the symbiote finds its way into Peter's life just as he and Aunt May are getting news from Police Captain Stacy (played by James Cromwell) that this Flint Marko guy had something to do with Uncle Ben's death in the original Spider-Man. Now Peter wants revenge in the worst way and the symbiote homes in on that desire. One night, it "smothers" Peter as he's asleep on the bed and becomes the black costume.

Now, the ad campaign will have you believe that the black costume somehow makes Peter more powerful. Don't believe it. That black goop does nothing for Peter except give him a honked-off 'tude, a bad haircut, and making him impersonate John Travolta's dancing... badly. That was one part of the movie that was genuinely painful to watch: when it feels like the whole film has jumped the track and has become a horridly bad Seventies movie. It's like Sam Raimi took off that day and let Quentin Tarantino shoot some B-roll for Grindhouse with Tobey Maguire. Come to think of it, there was too much singing and dancing in this movie... except for that very last scene of the movie, which was perfect.

Well, the symbiote starts to bring out the absolute worst in Peter, and he eventually frees himself from it inside a church. Which it just so happens that Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is inside that same church. He's praying to God to kill Peter Parker ('cuz Parker wrecked Brock's career, among other things). Oh wow... another coincidence! And so the symbiote latches onto Brock and becomes – ta-da! – Venom.

More bad advertising: Venom is barely in this movie. I think he's on-screen for less than five minutes total. There's not even enough time to properly call him "Venom". Yet too much time was spent building up to him. If I had been in charge of the Spider-Man movie franchise, I would have made Sandman the primary villain and have the Harry storyline a very strong "Plot B". I would still give Peter the symbiote/black costume, but tear it off of him before the movie's end and have it waiting out there for a Spider-Man 4, when that entire film could be devoted to Venom. Putting Sandman and Venom in Spider-Man 3 was the most obvious example of too much story.

There were other things too that were crammed-into this movie that didn't need to be there, like Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy. Now if you know Spider-Man comics then you know that Gwen Stacy is a huge part of Spidey lore. In Spider-Man 3 she seemed as tacked-on as (Lord forgive me for saying this) Alicia Silverstone was in Batman and Robin. Yes I absolutely hate drawing that analogy, but that's what it felt most like. They could have said that Howard was playing Deb Whitman and it wouldn't have made any more difference to me.

Thomas Hayden Church as Flint Marko/Sandman was one of the real surprises of Spider-Man 3. Church's Sandman is a criminal, but I don't know if it's fair to call him a "bad" guy. He's a man who's made some mistakes and he's got a crisis that he's trying to deal with as best he can... and then he gains and struggles to deal with his new super-abilities. The more time that passes since yesterday afternoon (we saw the movie at the Grande in Greensboro), the more I'm wishing that Sandman had been the only major villain of the film. Church was a pleasure to watch in the role and I really wanted to see a lot more of him in this movie. And I wanted to see more of the plot involving his daughter, which also seemed a little "rushed".

Sandman worked for me. So did the story between Peter and Harry, and its eventual resolution (which I will not spoil for you here). J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson has been a sheer hoot to watch since the original Spider-Man and he was just as much fun to watch this time (but again, if some fat had been trimmed off of this film then I would have loved to have seen him get more screen time). There is a lot of nice consistency between this and the previous movies, like the return of Dr. Connors (Dylan Baker, who still hasn't gotten his turn at bat as The Lizard!) and even Peter's landlord Mr. Ditkovitch ("Rent?!") and his daughter Ursula. And it being a Sam Raimi movie, it wouldn't be complete without a cameo appearance by Bruce Campbell. Look for him playing a hilarious French waiter at a restaurant that Peter is meeting Mary Jane at. I even liked Harry's butler a lot, including the scene where he comes in and explains something to Harry. I'm hearing some refer to that bit as a deus ex machina, but it made sense to me... and again, it was a nice touch of consistency.

This movie isn't entirely good. But it's definitely not the "bad" movie that a lot of critics are making it out to be, at least in my book. It's certainly not like Batman and Robin (can you believe it's almost ten years since that cinematic travesty? I still cringe whenever I think back on the night that "Weird" Ed and I saw that turkey). But I can't see comparing it to X-Men: The Last Stand either. I do think that Sam Raimi should have been trusted more to make the Spider-Man movie he wanted to see made, instead of the suits at Sony or wherever making production decisions from the board room. Instead... and this is much the same problem that X-Men: The Last Stand had last year... executive producer Avi Arad was too insistent about sticking Venom in this movie. Venom in Spider-Man 3 feels more like a professional obligation than a work of creative passion. Raimi didn't want Venom in this at all... heck he didn't even like the character.

Where Raimi really shines for me and why I believe he really has been the best director for this series is that for all of its problems, Spider-Man 3 is a much-needed parable in the series about revenge and forgiveness. If this entire series is about "with great power comes great responsibility" as has always been part of the Spider-Man saga, then Spider-Man 3 is about learning how to have discipline over that power, lest it take control of you. Lisa and I were talking about this on the way home from the theater and I think she's right about this: that with the whole world around us so obsessed with hurting others and having control over them and being unwilling to forgive, Spider-Man 3 really is a refreshing breeze from the opposite direction. On those grounds, Spider-Man 3 stands tall indeed because of those morals...

...and because, in spite of being too burdened with too many story elements this time out, this is still the same core group of wonderful characters that we've come to know and love over the course of two movies, and it's great to see them again, and how they come to grow and develop even further.

I would probably see Spider-Man 3 again in the theater. I definitely will add it to my personal library when it comes out on DVD (something that cannot be said about X-Men: The Last Stand).

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'll give Spider-Man 3 a strong 7. Wish it could have been at least an 8, but in my mind it's quite a rare movie that is laden with flaws but still merits recommending to people.


Anonymous said...

Wow, your review and mine are actually quite similar in that we recognize and admit a *lot* of flaws with the movie and yet, overall, still recommend it. (Click on my name to go my blog where my review is a recent entry).

I totally forgot to mention the butler in my review. I'm afraid I agree with some that say it was deus ex machina. His input just seems to come out of nowhere. He should have spoken up sooner had he not been busy ?acting? like an old coot.

Because I was not an avid reader of the comic book until the last couple years, I'm not as aghast by the alleged mistreatment of Venom and Gwen Stacy. But, I do prefer your concept of introducing Venom briefly in #3 for further use in #4.

Perhaps the studio suits got nervous about the possibility of further movies considering MacGuire and Dunst's comments in interviews about leaving Spider-Man and the rumors that Sam Raimi may become pre-occupied with the continuation of the Lord of the Rings franchise. They may have wanted to push through Venom now instead of taking the chance he may not appear later.

I noticed you didn't mention anything about Kirsten Dunst's performance or her chemistry with Tobey MacGuire. I don't think as badly of Dunst as some reviewers out there on the web, but I do feel she's no longer a great fit in the franchise. She doesn't seem to want to be there, and I think that shows in her performance.

Good review. I also agree with you about the frustrations of X-Men 3 and the travesty of Batman & Robin.

qemuel said...

It's kinda funny, actually. With the exception of the butler (UGH) we have fairly similar things to say about the movie, the only difference being you were able to enjoy the film in spite of its many issues. I have been able to do this often in the past, but just couldn't manage to do it this time. I'm glad you and the missus enjoyed yourselves, though.

Butler. Ugh. ;)

Eric Wilson said...

Hey Chris! Thanks for the review! I'm not sure why, but at 9pm Thursday night I decided to see the midnight showing of Spider-man 3! It definitely had a different feel to it... Anyway, I probably share the opinion of many avid fans this weekend. It was overflowing w/ storylines! I do, however, think that Sam Raimi handled them well for the first 1:45 of the film. But that last 20-30 min... oh boy... To me, it was too... "comic book"y... The original SM (as well as XMen 1) felt "real", or as real as a comic book movie could be. The last act of SM3 felt more like ... a WWE World Tag Team Championship match... And one more lasting thought from the last sequence... The StayPuff Marshmellow man... If you haven't seen the movie yet, you'll understand when you do... Thanks again Chris!