a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Twelve Reasons Spider-Man 3 Isn't So Good

First off, and this has been sounded by almost too many elsewhere, this movie is seriously overcrowded. Four villains, five if you count Spidey-as-wearing-the-symbiote-suit, two love interests, two speeches from Aunt May and roughly ten thousand subplots. (And yet Pirates 3 is the one that lasts 172 minutes.) The script has a clearer throughline than anything this jumbled ordinarily should have, with a Peter Parker arc that’s almost as novel and organic than in the previous outings. But that’s upset by how

Everything feels way phonier and corporate this time around. Installment three is well-noted as the one where franchises take a choice: develop a new radical approach (Alien 3, Batman Forever), or repeat the same thing only with a certain weariness. Spider-Man 3 does not take a new radical approach. (Like, Dunst’s awesomely insane idea for a Rosemary’s Baby-style Mary Jane off-shot on an Evil Dead 1 budget.) So repeating the same thing only with a certain weariness it is. You can detect this yourself any number of ways, but most noticeably in how

Everyone’s going through the motions, if that. Here’s one example: the Front Page-style newsroom. Now, I love J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks, Ted Raimi and Bill Nunn. (I crack up even now thinking of Simmons’ head leaning into the left side of the frame during the latter’s wedding scene.) But they’re there but briefly, not used terribly well and there only to get a little rise by merely popping up. As in, everyone in the audience suddenly thinks, “Look! It’s J.K. Simmons’ Walter Burns routine!” A little rush, a flurry of nostalgia, and that’s it.

The principal cast and crew pretty obviously wants to move on. As you’ve no doubt heard, Tobey no longer wants to be Spidey, and clearly relishes the part where he gets to go all Buddy Love. Kirsten Dunst very obviously no longer wants to be Mary Jane, and conveniently her dissatisfaction and antsiness are written into the movie. Sam Raimi, having finally unleashed his true self in parts of Spidey 2 (the Doc-Ock-awakes scene; the obvious-blue-screen-while-falling-from-Darkman bit; a scene featuring many, many shock zooms-cum-tilts in a row), essentially returns to the invisible-auteur of the Spidey 1. Only the initial Spider-Man-Green Goblin 2 tussle screams Raimi. Do not they realize that they’re in the most expensive movie property ever devised? Perk up a little! But the living (at least until they nix the franchise) no doubt envy the dead (i.e., James Franco).

The action scenes are pretty lackluster. Number two showed a significant improvement over number one, with two for-the-ages action sequences, plus a better fusion of Tobey Maguire with the mesh of 1s and 0s that takes his place when he dons the mask. This one features only one decent action smackdown (see above) and generally returns to having Maguire completely disappear when Spider-Man’s slinging about the boroughs.

Kill Aunt May. I’m one of the few who read her end-of-second-act speech in S-M 2 on the value of heroism as winking, if not to say sarcastic -- as in, Aunt May had figured out her Peter was Spider-Man and was just trying to drive into his skull what he should do. (There’s also a slight sarcastic, jokey tinge to Rosemary Harris’ delivery.) But her two major appearances here make me want her to go the way of Uncle Ben, and just reiterate the whole going-through-the-notion vibe of the film. Or not the way of Uncle Ben, because...

Re-Kill Uncle Ben and Norman Osborn. Enough with the fucking flashbacks already. Also, Cliff Robtertson was terrible in 1. It’s not like he’s Marlon Brando or somesuch.

That part where he goes all Buddy Love is actually kind of excruciating. Not a deal-breaker, mind, but this whole stretch is just too broad for my taste, missing the balance (and the neat slide into despair) of 2’s “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” sequence. A Travolta strut? Just too obvious.

The plotting, while not always the franchise’s strong suit, is especially head-slapping this time around. Yeah, the news summary bit is pretty appalling -- a new low in clunky blockbuster plot management. But how about the whole pointless bit of revisionist history w/r/t Uncle Ben’s death. Oh, it wasn’t completely clear that that anonymous scumbag killed Uncle Ben, was it? How convenient for unimaginative screenwriters who run into a wall when trying to characterize Sandman! I’ll give the astonishingly uncreative way the black goo shit is introduced a pass because it’s from the comics. (Still no reason to keep it, given how much they trash the source this time around. I’ll get to that in a sec.) But there’s no excuse for the bit where Harry/Green Goblin suffers amnesia, just to get him out of the way and make room for Sandman. (The movie’s so overpacked I almost forgot the amnesia thing ever happened. Ha ha.)

Characterization is noticeably sketchy, rather than agreeably so, as it was prior. “I’m not a bad person,” Thomas Haden Church’s Flint Marko says pre-Sandman transformation. END OF CHARACTERIZATION. You see, the Spider-Mans are, at heart, humanistic and empathetic, meaning they don’t subscribe to purely good or purely evil characters. But it’s one thing to have Marko say, point blank, “I’m not a bad person,” and to demonstrate it. Thing is, Raimi et al. had an excuse to deepen his character: he’s trying to make money for his ill daughter. How many times do we see this bedridden spawn? Eddie Brock-as-Venom brings this up when he proposes a team-up with Sandman, which would have given the bloated climax some emotional heft: Spider-Man fighting off two baddies who are actually trying to do some good. But as you well know, that’s not what happens.

Why isn’t my friend who’s well-versed in and madly in love with S-Man lore hopping fucking mad at how this movie manhandles and anally abuses the source? Venom’s not even exactly a villain. Once he calms down, he’s closer to a vigilante, with all the questionable associations that classification brings with it. But oh well, he’s shoehorned in at the end, so fuck it, he’s just a villain. (This smarts extra because the casting of Topher Grace is, come to think of it, pretty ideal. Raimi seems to have got the idea to find the aggression and evil in his fast-talking charmer routine. A wasted opportunity.) And what in the holy hell is Gwen Stacy doing in this film if she’s just a plot point? Have comic book movie so desecrated the idea of a decent comic-to-film transition that no one really bats an eye at this shit? (Answer, he begrudgingly admits: uh huh.)

This whole thing has no point except [rubs fingers together, signifying a wad of cash]. I know this will sound naive, but I really don't mean it that way: the first two films, while obviously instigated by greedy execs, didn't come off that way. They felt lovingly crafted by actual human hands, acted by actual human beings. The people behind it cared. The first installment was that rare thing: an action-minded blockbuster where the bland, uninspired action scenes and special effects were but a distraction from the plot and characters. It’s a great portrait of adolescence and young adulthood, with its elliptical sudden jump-forwards and deep feelings of self-discovery and disappointment. Installment two struck equilibrium, exploring the struggle between hero and alter ego better than anything since -- whaddaya know? -- Superman 2. (Original cut, not Richard Donner’s after-the-fact Frankenstein monster.) This is just the one that costs more than any movie ever has.

The Spidey Franchise™ could very well have kept everything at the same level of 2, but they felt the need to go bigger (triple everything, if you will). And the result is just fucking bombast, repeating the same things, only bigger and more hollow. It is the first one to not feel lovingly crafted by actual human hands, or acted by actual human beings. The thrill is gone, and the greedy instigators have reclaimed the reins. Enjoy being wallet-raped, suckas.

Okay, there are good things about this movie. Hey, it’s not like this is Batman and Robin. The film is generally likeable enough that I was never completely soured, even while I kept waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting...) for things to click like they did before. It could even almost pass for the first two. But I kept thinking of that great moment of Cronenberg’s The Fly where Geena Davis eats the transported steak and says, “It tastes fake.” This movie just tastes teleported.

But this is supposed to be about good things in a movie I don’t even hate that much. Right. The part where Sandman pulls himself together and learns to, y’know, work is pretty magnificent. (A friend compared it to Svankmajer’s work with clay.) And despite her transparent real-world irritation, Kirsten Dunst was kind of affecting at conveying Mary Jane’s unraveling, especially during the proposal scene. Speaking of which, Bruce Campbell should have wrestled Steve Martin for Inspector Clouseau, and as I mentioned, that first action scene was pretty tight. Also, Mageina Tovah rules.

But what do I know? I liked the movie about the girl who blew her dog directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.



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