Sunday, May 06, 2007

"Give me some of that web action!": Spider-Man 3

The fair-to-middling reviews of Spider-Man 3 and the somewhat insane fan reaction might have you believe that the film is a travesty on par with, say, Fantastic Four or Ang Lee's Hulk (a movie I sort of stubbornly liked in spite of myself). But, really, Spider-Man 3 is a tumultuous, messy melodrama, a weird bildungsroman about moving from adolescence to adulthood. It's the Buffy season six of comic book movies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's sixth season inspired similar reactions from fans at the time it was airing (though said fans have calmed a bit about it since). That season ditched the traditional setup where each season featured the gang taking on a bigger and larger evil (indeed, in the season before, Buffy had defeated a god). In season six, perhaps realizing that there was no way to top a god without going to the source of evil itself (attempted and not really pulled off in season seven), the show turned inward, arguing that life itself was the hardest thing, that just trying to make your way as a young person in the world was hard enough for anyone, even a superhero. In some ways, the fan reaction was to be expected -- we watch genre TV or genre movies to escape from the sort of real-life problems Buffy and Peter Parker face in their respective entertainments.

Spider-Man 3 has its share of supervillains (three to be precise), but the actual arc of the story is about old friends losing and finding each other, selling out your dreams to stay alive and trying to forge a lasting connection. The film feels so odd and different from the previous entries in the series because the villains are largely supplemental to the plot. They don't drive the plot itself. Indeed, Thomas Haden Church's Sandman disappears from the movie for a great deal of time and Venom doesn't turn up until the third act. (It's pretty clear from how the character is treated that director/screenwriter Sam Raimi has less affection for the monstrous villain than many fans do.) The central scenes have less to do with heroes and villains doing battle than with people earnestly describing their feelings and talking about their hopes and dreams.

It's all ridiculously cornball at times, but this series has always been overly earnest. Heck, I'm not sure Raimi possesses a different method of telling stories. Even his Evil Dead, as full of horror and zombie action as it is, has a really genuine love for the old monster movie classics that it's roughly based on. Raimi loves this pulpy stuff, and perhaps the best single pulp moment is the man who becomes Sandman slowly trying to rebuild himself out of sand, as though he has a strong urge to simply exist again. He tries and fails and tries and fails, finally giving himself the drive to rise up out of the dust. It's a richly evocative series of images, told entirely without words, owing a lot to the special effects wizards behind the spectacle and Church's fine performance.

Unfortunately, the cornball dedication to the emotions of the characters means that plot gets sacrificed. More than any other entry in the series, this feels like a collection of events haphazardly thrown together at the script stage simply to get from point A to point B. One character offers exposition he couldn't be privy to. Another suffers amnesia so he'll be effectively out of the way for a while. On paper, this all sounds a lot worse than it actually plays (and, indeed, I went in fearing the worst based on some of the disconnected bits I had heard about the storyline), but the script never achieves the cohesiveness that made the second film such a joy to watch.

The action sequences are probably the best of the series from a technical standpoint. There are a lot of them (a lot more than the relatively simple and pared-down second movie), and all of them are filmed with a real sense of what's happening where and when and who it's happening to (a big step up from most modern action movies). But while scenes like a crane accident or Peter's fight with Harry Osborn high above New York City are thrilling to watch, they never quite have the emotional consistency that ties them in to the story and helps them to match the second movie's train fight, which had a few bum special effects but was deeply moving, telling the story of the superhero as Christ figure and most accurately expressing Spider-Man's New York City.

Still, most of the individual scenes work in the movie -- even the much-maligned scene where Peter dances around a jazz club has its own sort of internal consistency. They just don't add up in the way they probably should. In some ways, this feels like two movies clumsily stitched together to make one, just so Raimi and his stars wouldn't have to return to make yet another movie.

But the scenes work simply because the actors in them are so engaging. Tobey Maguire is probably the best he's been in the series as Peter Parker, as is James Franco as Harry Osborn. Kirsten Dunst has gotten a little worse with each successive movie, but she's not horrible here, even when she's singing (which is, strangely, a lot). Church is great, as is Topher Grace as Peter's photographer rival, Eddie Brock. And Bryce Dallas Howard is both gorgeous and under-used as Gwen Stacy.

Even the supporting players are fun here, though they have less to do than in previous movies. J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson, of course, is hilarious, as is Elizabeth Banks as his assistant. Rosemary Harris is able to put over the clunkiest of dialogue as Aunt May. And Bruce Campbell is hilarious in a brief cameo. Raimi and his actors fill the frame with engaging performances, and the goofy tone of these movies is unlike any other comic book movie, somehow balancing the silliness of the scenario with the seriousness of the drama.

Honestly, I can see why so many are dead set against this movie. There's a lot that's flawed about it, and it didn't improve on the second chapter like the second improved on the first. But Raimi and the actors have a faith in the simple little story they're telling about a group of friends making their clumsy first steps into the real world. And it shows in scenes like one where two old friends cook an omelet together, then start dancing to the music on the radio. In many ways, it's an unnecessary scene that could have been cut down significantly, but it feels real, as if these are real people who are confronting alien symbiotes and men made out of sand. Even when the movie is at its most flawed, it earns our good will.


David Sims said...

Sorry, I can't get on board with that. All the good aspects of this film (that you pointed out, like Gwen Stacy, the Sandman, JK Simmons) were way underused. The Spidey good-Spidey bad-Spidey good again arc just seemed ridiculously facile to me, and it wasn't helped by bad Spiderman being Tobey Maguire (who gave his WORST performance in the series) acting like an imitation pimp from the 70s. There was never any doubt, any real conflicting stuff going on--Spidey being bad was basically compressed into a couple awful montages. And don't get me started on Harry's redemption. Not that I'm down on redeeming him, but it was like a bad TV movie. Really, really disappointing.

Also, if you're doing a dark side of Spider-Man movie, you BRING IN VENOM EARLIER! Christ! That's what that character is for, like him or not! His inclusion was a total waste of time.

The only good scene, like you said, the one that got Raimi's whole pulpy thing right, was when the Sandman is born. Thomas Haden Church was just terrific. The rest was just a chore, it was a real shame to watch it and not get excited. After all, Spider-Man 2 is just transcendent at times (the first one isn't so great).

David Sims said...

Also, Hulk is a good movie.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Hulk is a WEIRD movie that is also good.

And I enjoyed Peter's pimp walk. It enlivened a part of the film desperately in need of enlivening. It was a little cheap, but at least it was genuinely funny.

David Sims said...

It was only funny in a laugh-at way. I thought it was a really dumb way to make him 'bad'.

And Hulk is weird, but it's only weird because it's a blockbuster movie (OK, no, it's still weird). But it's really great?

Any response to anything else? This movie was bad. BAD.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I am NOT AS WELL-VERSED in the comics lore as you are, so I fear that we are coming at this from DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW.

I think you're right about how the story of the film doesn't really work, which is a shame coming off of the really primal story of 2, but I honestly could have cared less when I realized about an hour in that basically nothing of consequence had happened. For me, it was all about what was happening AROUND the story.

And Maguire was probably better in 2, but he's still better here than in 1. Then again, I seem to be the only person ever who liked 1.

David Sims said...

I think a few people liked 1. I did at the time, but I watched it again the other day and it has a LOT of flaws.

Anyway, I'm trying not to approach this as a comics fan. I think even a layman would figure out that Venom is evil Spidey--then why introduce him so quickly before the end? Honestly, the showdown would have been fine just vs. Sandman. Instead, as it was, when they defeated Sandman it barely made sense how they did it. And they then could have set up Brock becoming Venom for Spidey 4.

What was happening around the story? Do you mean, basically, what the story was inferring, the larger themes Raimi was dealing with? Because in theory they were fine. It was their execution that was so terrible. Aka the story. Basically, everything that happened in the film.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Well, I'm also the only person ever to like Superman Returns, so there's that.

I think what I'm trying to get at is that the overall story construction leaves plenty to be desired, but the individual scenes and subplots are great in and of themselves (aside from a few obvious howlers like that butler who comes out of nowhere and is APPARENTLY A DOCTOR?!). That's how I differ in my feelings about this film from Pirates 2, which had a similarly weak story -- here, I like and care about the characters and just want to spend a little time with them; there, they largely existed as plot devices. It doesn't hurt that Raimi's ten times the director Verbinski is.

I think it's pretty obvious that this is the worst of the series, but I liked it in my own way. The early reports that it was simply awful were overstated, largely because it was something of a disappointment, I imagine. It would have been better as two movies, but that's show biz for ya.

David Sims said...

Um, I think Superman Returns is like, the best movie of 2006? C'mon!

Anyway, I guess agree to disagree. I mostly found myself dumbfounded at how bad any scene featuring Mary-Jane, Harry or Aunt May was.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I don't think our positions are THAT disparate, though? I'm just saying, "C'mon, it wasn't THAT bad," and you're saying, "It was bad!" It seems like the difference between a three-star and two-star review -- fairly negligible.

But Rosemary Harris could act the hell out of the worst dialogue ever. As she proved.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

MZS actually expresses more wholly what I was trying to get at here. He's able to more fully express both what's disappointing about the film and what works well, where I just mounted a defense of its more admirable tendencies.

Also, Superman props!

David Sims said...

I'm saying, it WAS that bad, that the fan backlash is justified. There were hints of a good movie here, but mostly buried under stuff like the finale, which MZS rightfully rips into.

MZS is right about Superman, that's for damn sure. That movie (especially the shuttle scene, but the whole movie) is absolutely majestic, and completely in touch with the core issues of superheroism.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

This is our first post with over 10 comments, and they're all by us.

Weird and sad or awesome?

And I think I will go buy Superman on DVD tonight. I demand a sequel!

David Sims said...


*has watched it like 10 times*