Manly Men and Their Manifying Ways: Spider-Man 3
ETA: There are spoilers, of course, and I've edited this and elaborated a bit since I first posted it.
As with a certain other sequel, the lag in seeing Spidey was an exercise in worry-making. I heard things like "This is the Phantom Menace entry, etc." With Pirates, the worry was pretty much for nought. I may have been the only one who was happy with it, but happy with it I was, particularly when viewing it in the Empire Strikes Back mindset.
With the Spider-Man franchise . . . well, I won't be needing my nought to store my worry. Spider-Man 3 is, by far, the weakest of the trilogy, although I won't be making any mean-spirited comparisons to certain episodes < 4 or even accusing Sam Raimi of directing King Arthur.
Because, you see, it's my fault that the third movie wasn't as good as it should have been, because I failed to worry about it. Spidey 2 was so good, I foolishly assumed that a groove had been hit. I forgot that under the rule hereinafter referred to as the Hot Fuzz Principle (I'd been about to write that under this principle I will begin worrying about Run, Fatboy Run immediately, but I've just noticed that it's directed by David Schwimmer and I'm contemplating abandoning all hope), I'd been really worried about the second movie. And so I offer my apology to all concerned. Should the actors, writers, and director choose to return for more films, I will worry like I've never worried before.
So what went wrong in Spider-Man 3? Although I rarely care so much, I thought the special fx were a success overall and a decided improvement over the already impressive work in the previous two movies. (For what it's worth, M concurred on that point, so I have testosterone back up.)
The work on the Venom suit was especially good, and I enjoyed the fact that the differences between Eddie Brock/Venom and Peter Parker/Venom were not just static visual differences, but entirely distinct ways in which each character interacts with the suit and the suit with the character. The clothes really do make the man.
The Sandman's fx were more mixed. Technically, they were great (again, in so far as I am able to judge such a thing). His origin scene, in particular, was done with care, attention to detail, and with concern that the technology serve the narrative. The fight in the armored car was a big hit with both the ZK and I, which makes me suspect that it's something that people are complaining about because of its "cartoony" nature (giant sledgehammer hand? Oh, talk dirty to us, baby!). But the final confrontation is pretty much "meh," technically impressive, maybe, but drawn out and tiresome.
I'm not sure I can point to any particular advances in the fx for the Webslinger himself, but they've been good from the start. We were happy to see web balls make their first appearance (um, web ball weapons, you understand). Some of the reflection shots were particularly impressive, and the mixed fx/live action with Peter emptying the sand from his "boots" (nice stirrup pants, by the way, Pete) was, I'm sure, a marvel.
The acting, for the most part, remained top notch. Tobey Maguire is less convincing as the conquering hero than he is as the boy rejecting his destiny, but I'm inclined to blame that on some over-the-top writing that was hell bent on 2-dimensionality. Kirsten Dunst has less to do in this movie than in probably any other, and again, the script has her harpy set to 11 through most of the movie. James Franco, surprisingly, gives his best performance in this movie once he's suffered his head injury. Before the bump on the noggin? PAINFUL. After he starts to recover his memory? IS IT IMPLACABLE VENGEANCE OR CHRONIC CONSTIPATION? But tabula rasa Harry Osborn? Quite charming in a dopey, Ferris-Bueller-cons-his-parents sort of way.
Like Dunst, J. K. Simmons is shamefully underused. His "big scene," which is very nearly the only scene he's in, is overly long and schticky. Furthermore, he's wasted acting up against just Ted Raimi and Elizabeth Banks in what is basically their only scene. What is it with current superhero movies and their complete lack of respect for hilarity in the newsroom?
On the flip side of supporting characters shoved in for the look of the thing, Rosemary Harris is either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, but I wouldn't try asking her which. Peter drops by to see her. She drops by to see Peter. She and Peter drop by to see the police together. And Mary Jane drops by to see Peter on Aunt May's orders, because she is too old for all this running around. In the first two movies Aunt May is home and moral bedrock. In Spidey 3, she's a channel he flips by occasionally. That may be for the best, because rather than offering Peter anything useful in the way of advice for living in this world, she spouts confusing platitudes. I might buy Uncle Ben not wanting us to live one minute with revenge in our hearts (although I don't blame Harris for not especially selling this clunky line), but a man has to be ready to put his wife before him all his life? Huh?
As for the newcomers, this movie shows the usual knack for casting. Thomas Haden Church is great as both Flint Marko and the Sandman for all 9 minutes we get to see him act before he inexplicably turns into a giant, mindless refugee from the set of The Scorpion King (seriously, just because he's giant and made of sand, must he roar wordlessly?).
I find Topher Grace irresistibly likable; however, I wasn't sure he'd make a whole lot of Eddie Brock, given that he was cast as this character with utter disregard for canon. As for Venom, although Grace is good at bringing the earnest, I didn't know how he'd do delivering the evil. In some sense, casting someone so nearly identical to Tobey Maguire in terms of slight build and a tendency to sheepish charm may have been one of the few subtle touches in a movie that sorely needed them.
If Eddie is the big dumb jock of the comics, he's a less interesting foil for Peter when it comes to the different manifestations of Venom. Eddie as Jock and Evil-er Venom can easily be read as "Quarterback bad, Wimpy Boy Next Door good" nerd writer/director wish fulfillment. But if both "before" pictures reflect different aspects of the boy next door, then the suit is merely reflecting different degrees, rather than types, of aggression and violence inherent in those boys. Of course, that choice is undermined by the fact that Eddie's character is written as such a dick, such a professional fraud, and a downright incipient stalker that it's questionable whether Peter has anything at all to learn from that reflection of himself.
As for the other newcomers, Bryce Dallas Howard was unrecognizable and appropriately perky as Gwen Stacy. She and Gwen deserve better than a slick, techno-thumping modeling shoot for . . . photocopiers. I wish I were making that up, but she's incredibly poorly integrated into the story. I'd like to comment on the addition of James Cromwell to the cast as Gwen's father and the police chief, but I think I looked down to grab a handful of popcorn and missed him.
So, as is unfortunately typical in comic book movies, the problem with Spider-Man 3 seems to come down to the script. In some ways it feels like Raimi was trying to wrangle a movie and a half down into a single capstone. In others, the characters and relationships are given such short shrift that I wonder if the brothers Raimi ought never to have taken up the pen. I don't want to place too much stock in the fact that it's Sam and Ivan who appear "above the cut" as writers in the IMDB entry for 3, whereas Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, appropriately, get the honor for the first two, but it's not an inappropriate symbol of the difference in script quality.
I'm sympathetic to the fact that Raimi was less eager to include Venom in the story than Sony and the fans were. I'm also sympathetic to fan and Sony enthusiasm for Venom. (Really, how far can you go in Peter's story without getting to Venom.) Doing a 2-villain film is always tricky (in fact, I'd forgotten until I skimmed my entry about 2 how pasted on Harry was in that), and 3 is really a 3-villain film if we take into account Harry's desultory stalking. Sadly, I'm not even sure that the script adds up to a single respectably fleshed out villain if we add them all together.
I noticed the split attention early on as we moved from Peter on top of the world to Mary Jane about to tumble off to Harry's regrettable intestinal problems to a quite well done prologue and origin story for the Sand Man. But then oh! We totally have to tell you about Eddie's great love for Gwen, with whom he's had coffee exactly once! And remember Jonah? Audiences love J. Jonah! And Aunt May! Gotta remind people that Peter's a real regular guy! With quirky, strange-looking neighbors! Oh, and why should Peter really really care about the Sand Man, other than the fact that he's terrorizing the city Spidey has sworn to protect? I know! The Sand Man is the one who really killed Uncle Ben!
There simply is no center, chewy, creamy, or rock solid, to the story. Even when the characters are on ground that should be familiar (e.g., the brief reprise of Peter and Harry's boyish games in the mansion), their interactions are completely alien. It's not just Aunt May who's dropping by. Much of the film's nearly 2.5 hours are spent on missed phone calls and aborted meetings. Major plot threads get yanked on, forming unsightly holes.
Does Mary Jane know everything about the Osborn/Goblin connection? It seems like she should, given that Peter's confessed his "killing" of Uncle Ben's not!killer to her, yet she's baffled by the strained relationship between Pete and Harry. So if she doesn't know about that, why is she not completely freaked the fuck out by Harry/New Goblin's forcing her to break up with Pete? Does she or anyone else remember that she was about to marry someone else in the last movie? When did she remember that she had, at best, a borderline abusive childhood and how on earth are we supposed to buy that Peter completely blows it off when she remembers that?
And, seriously, what is the Sand Man's particular beef with Spider-Man? Is Venom just that persuasive that Marko doesn't think to question it when Venom assures him that he wants Spider-Man dead? And at what point does Marko stop caring that his daughter is dying and decide to let himself be dust in the wind?
Most importantly, why should I care about any of this? Mary Jane's falling star could have been moving if she didn't go to Relationship Defcon 1 at her earliest convenience and at every opportunity. Peter's stint as Venom could have been genuinely challenging if they'd capitalized on the points I mentioned above with regard to Eddie's Venom, but also if they'd followed through on some of the less slapstick notions in his "Venom montage." Notably, when he first hits the streets with his new "fuck it" evil attitude, women who would have walked into him as Peter Park are suddenly giving him an interested second glance. Initially it looks as if this might be a deliberate mislead, as if this is only Peter's venmous perception of how women are reacting to him. This could have been contrasted with the women's perspective as they back away from him and give him wide berth later in the montage (i.e., Peter/Venom sees women as universally wanting a piece of him, women are universally running far and fast from his aggressive vibe). Instead, the backing away is motivated by his bizarre Disco Stu moves, and a tired, gratuitous accidental smack of Mary Jane is the extent to which misogyny and violence against women is explored.
In terms of emotional failures, though the worst crime is on the forgiveness front. There is little grace or value in Harry's ultimate forgiveness of and reconciliation with Peter, motivated as it is by a totally pasted on corroboration of Peter's version of Norman's death from the freaking butler. And although Maguire does his best with Peter's version of this scene with Marko, it doesn't feel like a major point of personal growth that he's able to forgive the death of the most important man in his life because it was an accident.
Lest I end on too harsh a note, I reiterate that there's a lot to enjoy. The fight scenes are excellent, the best of the three. The defeat of Venom, at least is worlds better than quenching a nuclear reaction in the Hudson. Tobey Maguire is professionally cute. Bruce Campbell is professionally funny. Topher Grace has literal and figurative acting chops. Thomas Haden Church is the saddest experimental particle physics mutant evar. Flawed as the story is, it does hit some lovely bittersweet notes about success and destiny, hard work and coincidence, earning and taking.
But boy, could the Raimis have used a script doctor.