Saturday, May 05, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Several film reviewers have noted how much crying Peter Parker does in Spider-Man 3. For a costumed crime-fighter, he spends an inordinate amount of time blubbering over failed relationships. Sam Raimi's entire franchise up until this point has focused on the soap opera elements of Stan Lee's original Spider-Man narrative - the long-term effect of superhero work on Peter Parker's love-life, his strained, competitive relationship with his best friend, his ceaseless search for a father figure following the loss of his beloved Uncle Ben and so forth.

But somewhere along the way, he's forgotten how to make an entertaining piece of pulp entertainment. There's nothing fun about the New York of Spider-Man any more. Frankly, it's a real bring-down, a city in which remarkable, miraculous feats of wonder happen literally every day but all the citizens still mope around like pathetic, depressed sadsacks because their lives are complicated, unfixable wrecks. Like a "Days of Our Lives" re-run, but with silly outfits.

Like Bryan Singer's dour attempt to revitalize the Superman franchise, Raimi his just totally misjudged the sensibility of his material in this outing. The result is one of the more painful superhero movies I have ever seen, a ponderous, drawn-out tangle of incidents that never even come close to cohering into anything that remotely resembles a story.

I'm totally so not kidding about the soap opera analogies. Now, yes, comic book stories and "romance" stories share many common elements and themes, and they're all designed with longevity in mind. That is, both soap operas and comic books have to start with simple premises that can be spun out over the course of years, or even decades. A certain amount of repetition and overheated theatrics are to be expected.

But Raimi (who wrote the script with his brother Ivan and Alan Sargent) should know better than to push his story in this many crazy directions at once. When we rejoin Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), he's planning to propose to his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). While they're enjoying a romantic evening in the woods, Parker is scoped out by some kind of weird black ooze that comes out of a meteor, which then follows him home. The outer space ooze melds with his Spidey suit, you see, and give him wacky outer space powers (never specified), but also make him ultra-aggressive and emo.

That would probably be enough plot for a decent Spider-Man movie right there. He's got girl trouble, he's enjoying this power suit but soon discovering horrible side effects, and in the end the suit would fall into the hands of someone else who he would then have to fight. Done and done. The premise is simple enough that you coudl take some time to develop actual sequences and characters, rather than hurtling through a half-baked load of nonsense in a vain attempt to link together 12 lame, pointless sub-plots.

But, no, Raimi has to keep piling on more and more and more incidents, long after the point of overkill. Perhaps he had made a bet with David Goyer over who could reference more individual comic book stories in a single script. In addition to the worries with Mary Jane and the Secret of the Ooze (or was that the Ninja Turtles?), an escaped convict (Thomas Haden Church) whose daughter is suffering from an unnamed movie-wasting-away disease falls into a weird particle accelorator or something that turns him into the Sandman. Plus, Peter gets into a stupid competition with a brash photographer (Topher Grace) who wants to take over his job. Oh, yeah, and he starts flirting with a cute girl in his class (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose life he saves during a random crane accident.

And Harry Osbourne (James Franco) still wants to kill Peter because he knows Peter is Spider-Man and Spider-Man killed his dad (Willem Dafoe) in the first movie. But then, in the film's most insultingly stupid sub-plot, Harry gets clunked on the head and develops amnesia (seriously), so he becomes Peter's best friend again. Oh, and Peter finds out that the scumbag who he thought killed his Uncle Ben actually was just there when Uncle Ben was killed, and the real killer is the Sandman.

I hope I didn't forget anything.

Worse yet, the dialogue in all of these different scenes is uniformly corny and entirely too on the nose. Characters tend to just blurt out the purpose of the scene directly, which makes for some incredibly forced, unnatural moments. I don't think Dunst really works in this role, and she has zero chemistry with Tobey Maguire, but this completely bland Mary Jane Watson character isn't really her fault. She is not allowed to have a personality; all her lines are designed solely to move the story forward. Have Peter and Mary Jane ever had a conversation that isn't directly about the state of their relationship? Do they ever, you know, discuss their favorite bands or that new Thai food place near the office that they tried for the first time last Tuesday?

I'm not sure it would even be possible to give the actors interesting or funny lines to say at this point (and wasn't Spider-Man funny in the comics?), because the entire trilogy's narrative has no forward momentum. It's an endless loop. Harry and Peter are still rivals for Mary Jane's affections, as they have been all along. Peter continues to struggle with balancing his superhero alter-ego with his responsibilities as a normal guy. Guilt and anger over his Uncle's death keep right on messing with his psyche and causing him to lash out, as they always have. And these problems, which all stem from years-old incidents, are all any of them can ever talk about! There's something not quite right about that.

These rather obvious, trite conflicts were never that interesting to begin with, but three movies into a franchise, they have become uninteresting on an existential level. Not only do I no longer care if Mary Jane and Peter can work things out...I am beginning to actively dislike them as people. Shit or get off the pot, kids. Life is short.

Even the action scenes feel expected and perfunctory this time around. Women are dropped from great heights, and Spider-Man makes expert use of his webbing to rescue them. Bombs are thrown and deflected, bystanders threatened but gently pushed out of harm's way. The special effects, which had made significant improvements from the first film to the second, have taken a slight step downward. There are still nice-looking moments to be sure - iconic shots of Spider-Man in his newly-dark suit in the rain, say, or Flint Marko's initial realization that his body has turned into sand. But many of the action scenes look blurry and indistinct. During the climax, the Sandman has turned into a large swirling mass of brown material that looked as much like a dookie monster as a man made of sand.

Essentially, there's a lot going on but absolutely nothing to see. Many stories begin, but none of them have any idea how to develop, and they certainly don't seem to end. And the half-narratives we do get are so blindingly obvious and straight-forward, I started to feel like I was watching "Dora the Explorer." We discover quickly that the big theme of the film is free will and the ability to choose our path in life because characters repeat the concept to one another at every opportunity. We know the black ooze is turning Peter evil because he looks vaguely emo! That pouty, adolescent attitude coupled with the unmistakable hint of lightly-applied eye shadow can only mean one thing...The end of Spider-Man as we know him!

One brief example before I stop harping on this too much. The Sandman character opens the film escaping from the police. He visits with his wife (improbably played by Theresa Russell) and movie-sick daughter briefly, they share terse words, and then he falls into the pit that turns him into the Sandman.

That is all the information we are given about Marko until the climax of the film. What was that thing that turned him into the Sandman? Does he feel pain? What does he hope to do in order to help his daughter? Steal money? Then why waste his time hunting down Spider-Man? When he's offered a deal at the end of the film to team up with another baddie to kill Spider-Man, why accept? What does he have to gain? If his only priority is to save his daughter (related in mawkish, obvious fashion by having him constantly stare at a locket containing her picture), who gives a shit about Spider-Man? There's so much going on, Raimi doesn't have time to worry about these details, so instead we get a muscly guy in a green and black top running around town aimlessly, occasionally stopping to turn into a sand cloud and knock some cars over. Yippee.

Look, I was not the biggest fan of Raimi's first Spider-Man film, but I never expected him to turn out an entry this limp or inane. This franchise needs to end now before something career-endingly tragic happens.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great review ... I am actually a huge fan of Raimi's first two Spidey flicks, especially the second one, but this one was just atrocious

Ray said...

Great review Lon!!!! But you forgot to comment on the atrocious score. It's obvious now who was on the right side of the argument between Raimi and Danny Elfman. The film was horrible on a lot of levels...and the music really highlighted the film's weakness.

Also the news crew commentary during the fight scenes, and the crowd reactions throughout the entire movie were just unbearable to watch.

Man.....just horrible.

Seriously worse than first year high school drama school, what was Raimi thinking? Why didn't he just cut all that stuff?

Not to mention the Stan Lee cameo....

I'm also beginning to believe more and more that Batman Begins has ruined Comic book movies.... forever. I don't think any film will ever reach those heights...everything else just feels ridiculous.

Such a disappointment.

Cory said...

did you notice the scene where spider-man discusses the evils of listening to criticism to mary-jane? this is the second atrocious film in recent memory (the other being LADY IN THE WATER) where critics are directly referenced as evil and misguided. why is it that only the bad films need to point this out?

Lons said...

Yeah, like how Roland Emmerich felt the need to directly bash Siskel and Ebert in his Godzilla remake...I guess he figured people would think it's funny, but it comes off as totally defensive and whiny.