Saturday, July 5, 2008

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

I think it's safe to say that Spider-Man is, if I may use a metaphor, the goose that laid the golden egg for Marvel Comics. In the forty-five years since he was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has not only become Marvel's flagship character, but one of the most beloved characters the comic book industry has ever seen. That popularity has been most evidenced as of late by the incredible success of the live-action movies starring the web-slinging superhero.

The movies have raked in a lot of cash from both moviegoers and the resulting merchandise sales, and helped to revolutionize the way superhero movies are made. But with the first Spider-Man movie and its sequel earning recognition as two of the best comic book adaptations ever put to film, a question ends up being raised. That question: What happens when an ultra-popular movie franchise starts to run out of steam? The answer: You end up with movies like Spider-Man 3.

While it advanced an important story arc within the movies and introduced characters who've been important parts of Spider-Man's history, it fell into the same trap that Batman Forever and X-Men: The Last Stand fell into by proving that on occasion, the third time isn't exactly the charm.

Life couldn't be much better for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He's dating the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), he's doing well in college, his work as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle is going well, and New York City has finally grown to love his alter ego, their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But as always in movies like this, a rocky road lies ahead for our hero. Harry Osborn (James Franco) continues to blame Peter for killing his father, and with the discovery of a hidden cache of Green Goblin equipment, he plans on having his revenge.

That's not the only kink in the road, either. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), the true murderer of Peter's beloved uncle, has escaped from prison. And thanks to an accident at a scientific testing facility, his entire body has turned into living, malleable sand. Using his newfound condition as a way to commit daring bank robberies, he crosses paths with a vengeful Spider-Man, who intends to make Marko pay for his crimes. These feelings of anger along with the pride in himself that he's developed thanks to Spidey's surging popularity, are only made worse by a symbiote from outer space that has bonded with Peter and manifested itself as a black duplicate of his Spider-Man costume.

All of the negative elements of Peter's personality — particularly that pride and anger — are amplified to an extreme degree by that costume. His growing hubris alienates Mary Jane and pushes her away, while his enhanced aggression leads him to become more violent. This violent behavior evidences itself when he nearly kills Marko, then disfigures Harry's face with a live grenade during a fight. After a subsequent argument with Mary Jane ends with him punching her, a shocked Peter forcibly tears himself away from the symbiote... only for it to end up in the hands of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). A rival photographer who lost his job at the Daily Bugle after Peter proved he'd doctored a picture of Spider-Man, Brock has been praying for Peter's death. And with the symbiote, his prayers are one step closer to being answered. Now faced with three new villains and a crumbling relationship with Mary Jane, Peter's life couldn't be much tougher.

Did that plot synopsis sound complicated and convoluted? Try writing it all. You'd be surprised at how much I actually left out in order for it to make any sense. Spider-Man 3 is a straight-up mess of a movie from start to finish, with too much going on and not enough effort put into making sense of it. The movie is two hours and nineteen minutes long, which should have been plenty of time to properly develop something and make a movie befitting of the reputation the other two have developed.

But there's just so much going on, that 139 minutes still isn't enough time to do it all. It's a movie that could have benefited from being either forty-five minutes longer in order to resolve things properly, or had something (or some things, plural) taken out so more concentration could be put on something else. The flawed narrative ends up hurting the movie, resulting in a failure to come close to any sort of expectations that anyone could have for it. After two awesome movies starring Spider-Man, how do the creative forces behind Spider-Man 3 look at this movie and decide that it's a worthy successor? Could someone answer that question for me, please?

I guess we'll start with Sam Raimi's directorial work first. I'll give credit where credit is due and say that he does a fine job here. It doesn't seem quite as good as how he handled the previous two movies, but Raimi's efforts are still solid. He's shown time and time again that he has a knack for creativity when he's working behind the camera, and he doesn't disappoint with Spider-Man 3. Raimi also gets some fantastic camerawork from cinematographer Bill Pope, along with great a musical score from composer Christopher Young (who excellently duplicates the themes crafted by Danny Elfman in the previous movies). My only real problem with Raimi's work, though, is that he feels like he's just going through the motions. Maybe doing three of these movies in six years has worn him out?

I felt like he'd put it into auto-pilot, and thus, we end up feeling like we've seen this all before. It doesn't help that the CGI effects have taken a big step backward. With the exception of the scene where Sandman initially reconstitutes himself after being atomized at the test facility (a scene that looks absolutely amazing, I must admit), the CGI appears to have reverted to the not completely convincing nature of the original movie. I said in my review of the first Spidey movie that the hero and the villain looked like video game characters, something I can also say about Spider-Man 3.

To be more specific, the initial fight between Peter and Harry looks like a cartoon, with not that many realistic-looking moments to be found. It's still an exciting scene, don't get me wrong. It would be fantastic if the movie was done entirely in CGI. But because in a live-action movie, it looks sloppy. I know that's not entirely Raimi's fault, since he's not in charge of the computer imagery department, but you'd think he would have the final say in what went into his movie.

Next up is the screenplay, written by Raimi, his brother Ivan, and Allen Sargent. I'll put it simply: the script is bad, very bad. It not only suffers from many of the same flaws that plagued the previous two movies (like Spidey somehow managing to lose his mask over the course of the final battle), but is hindered by the aforementioned problem of bringing way too much to the table. It's like the Raimis and Sargent had the idea to cram as much stuff into the movie as they could, just in case there wasn't a Spider-Man 4. There's Sandman, the Venom symbiote, the romantic squabbles between Peter and Mary Jane, the introduction of Gwen Stacy, and the further evolution of Harry's hatred of Spider-Man. They even work in a little time for Curt Connors, a character who becomes the villainous Lizard in the comics. So much stuff is crammed into this movie that there's not enough space for things to develop in a satisfactory matter.

Because there are so many dangling threads, it takes forever to tie them all up. By the time they circle back around, you've almost forgotten about what's happened previously. It doesn't help that a lot of things, like the poor attempt at resurrecting the Peter/Mary Jane/Harry love triangle, just spin their wheels and don't accomplish anything. The scene where Mary Jane rebuffs Peter's marriage proposal is an effectively sad one, but other than that, we're presented with some of the cheesiest melodrama since Degrassi Junior High.

And that's what makes things so bad. The whole script poorly handles everything that comes along. Take Gwen Stacy, for example. She's one of the most critical supporting characters in Spider-Man's history, a character who shook up the entire American comic book industry when she was killed off back in the '70s. She is finally introduced into the movie franchise here, but despite her importance to the Spidey mythos, she's treated almost as an afterthought. She's given right around ten minutes of screen time in the finished film, which amounts to practically nothing in the grand scheme of things. For all the movie version of Gwen is worth, they could have given the character any random name and it wouldn't have made any difference whatsoever. It's as if the Raimis and Sargent saw how the Alicia Masters character had been rendered virtually useless in the Fantastic Four movies, and said to themselves, "Yeah, we can do that."

The script also suffers from the cheapest, most contrived climax imaginable. There's Mary Jane playing the damsel in distress (again!), the downright silly way that we arrive at Sandman's fate, and an astoundingly stupid deus ex machina that resolves the "Harry hates Spider-Man" arc in a way that insults the intelligence of everyone who has become emotionally invested in this trilogy. Did the writers paint themselves into a corner during the writing process and have to rush the ending?

That's one of the movie's biggest problems; everything feels rushed, which ends up making everything look bad. That deus ex machina is particularly offensive, as there is absolutely no logic behind it. Without spoiling too much, I'll say that it involves Harry learning the truth about the Green Goblin's death. That might not have been such a big deal had this discovery been handled differently. But it's done here in a way that makes you wonder why nobody said anything about it sooner. It's lame beyond words.

And speaking of lame, how about the movie's depiction of Venom? I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Venom is one of Spider-Man's most popular villains, but the character's fans are utterly crapped on by Spider-Man 3. Eddie Brock is only a minor annoyance throughout the movie, and he doesn't even turn into Venom until the last thirty minutes of the movie. And when Venom does appear, he ends up looking really weak in the long run. Venom's entire run in the movie consists of asking Sandman if he wants to team up, fighting Spider-Man, and dying like a punk. That's it!

I've heard from various sources that Sam Raimi has never been a fan of Venom, but that producer Avi Arad pretty much forced him to shoehorn the character a movie that had no place for him. Even if Arad did force that, there's no reason to write such an awful version of the character. Frankly, Venom is a character that could have used his own movie without the two other villains bogging him down. It would have been a lot better had they put New Goblin and Sandman together in this movie, then saved Venom for Spider-Man 4. But instead, we're stuck with this big ol' letdown.

I guess we'll wrap things up with the acting, which is the very definition of "mixed bag." Some of the cast is good, some of them are bad, and a few of them are mediocre at best. On the good side, let's start with the leading man, Tobey Maguire. Maguire puts forth an impressive performance, playing the role as if he were a drug addict. The black suit is like Spider-Man's heroin, and his infatuation with it leads to terrible changes in his personality and ruins his relationships with his loved ones. That stress pushes him deeper into the addiction that is slowly ruining his life, and he's forced to live with the consequences once he finally breaks away from it.

Maguire handles this with conviction, making a performance worth watching. The aforementioned scene where Mary Jane dumps Peter when he tries to propose is so sad, and it's all because of Maguire. But as good as he is, did we really need the the scene where he struts down the street in a fancy suit? Okay, he's supposed to be a narcissistic douchebag, I get it. I don't need to see him with a goofy haircut that makes him look like the lead singer of some lame emo band, strutting around like he's a only paint can and a Bee Gees song away from doing his interpretation of Saturday Night Fever. And did we need the whole jazz dance routine? Why not just rename the movie to Spider-Man: The Musical and be done with it? There were other ways to build up to Peter punching Mary Jane, but they went with this awful scene? None of the lame parts are Maguire's fault, since he isn't the one who decided to put those scenes in the movie, but they make him look really bad.

And in the role of the female lead, Kirsten Dunst isn't as good as she was previously. Dunst's interviews during the promotional campaign made her sound likes he only agreed to do the movie because Sony offered her a huge paycheck. Perhaps they paid her too much, because I personally felt that her work wasn't all that impressive. (I could say Maguire's interviews came across the same way as Dunst's, but he still did a decent enough job.) I enjoyed Dunst's performances in the first two movies and thought she and Maguire had good chemistry together, but I really can't say either of those things came across Spider-Man 3. Yeah, Dunst plays a believable damsel in distress, and there are a few scenes where she isn't all that bad But other than that, I have to say I wasn't exactly impressed.

On the other hand, I did like James Franco as the ultra-cocky, slightly insane Harry Osborn. The character's evolution throughout the trilogy has been worth following, and Franco's consistent performances in all three movies has really helped that. The other villains also do their fair share of good work. Topher Grace wasn't exactly the first person I'd have thought of when it comes to casting Venom, mainly due to his comedic work on That 70s Show. But Grace shows that he's up to the challenge, playing Eddie Brock as a total and complete weasel. And when he finally gets the all-too-brief opportunity to play Venom, he pulls off the "drunk with power" aspect convincingly.

Perhaps the best performance in the movie, however, comes from Thomas Haden Church. The Sandman character is depicted here not as being truly villainous, but as someone who fell into a life of crime only because it was the quickest way to help his sick daughter. Sandman's intentions are noble even if his methods are not, and Church's sympathetic portrayal excellently conveys that. It's a shame such fine work is stuck in such a mediocre movie. The rest of the cast, the ancillary performers left to the background, also do very well. Bryce Dallas Howard and Rosemary Harris are likeable as Gwen Stacy and Peter's aunt May, despite their characters being shuffled off into almost complete irrelevance. The movie's comic relief are particularly great. Bruce Campbell's extended cameo as a maƮtre d' at a French restaurant is hilarious, and J.K. Simmons and Elizabeth Banks have a fun comedic timing together that makes the Daily Bugle scenes thoroughly entertaining.

I really wanted to like Spider-Man 3. The first time I saw it, I actually didn't think it was all that bad. But just like the movie's hero, the negative aspects become more pronounced the the more times I watch it. There are some good things in there, mainly amongst the cast. However, the truth is that Spider-Man 3 is one of the most frustratingly disappointing movies I've ever seen. By the time the closing credits roll, you're left asking, "Where the hell did this go wrong?" That's a good question, but I'm not really sure if I have an answer. Obviously, something went wrong during the creative process. It's just a shame that nobody caught that problem, and we thusly ended up with what we got. I guess I'd give Spider-Man 3 two and a half stars on my usual Five Star Sutton Scale, and I hope that future Spider-Man sequels don't suffer like this one did.

Final Rating: **½

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