Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man is an odd character. Little kids wear Spider-Man tee-shirts and play with Spider-Man toys, but you could hardly imagine a less kid-friendly hero. The comic book is full of angst and misery: Peter Parker's family and friends keep getting murdered, the world thinks he's a baddie – being a Spider-Man has pretty much ruined his life. The movies are just as depressing -- although director Sam Raimi did bottle-out and give Spider-Man 2 a happy ending.

The most depressing thing about Spider-Man 3 is how familiar it all feels. The last time we saw them Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) and his frequently-kidnapped girl friend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) had settled their difficulties and fallen in love -- but someone has pushed the 're-set' button on their relationship. So we have to go through the angst and slush all over again: another scene in a theatre; another break-up in a restaurant, and, once again, M.J running from Peter into the arms of his best mate Harry Osborne (James Franco). This is even more angsty than usual because Harry is moonlighting as the villainous Green Goblin, a role left vacant by his father since the first movie. There are also scenes in which Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) dispenses wise advise, scenes in which newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) loses his cool -- all pretty much encores of the first two films. Marvel Comics has been churning out arachnid adventures on a monthly basis for 40 years, but it seems that, after only three movies, Spider-Man has got tired.

Peter Parker has discovered a snazzy new black spider suit, which turns out to be a parasitic E.T which needs human host. While he is wearing the new suit, he behaves in depressingly un-heroic ways: kissing new girlfriends in front of M.J, mercilessly killing bad guys and, worst of all, doing nerdy dances in night-clubs. But the film can't decide whether it's a morality play about choosing between your dark side and your ... err.... red and blue side, or whether it is a simple horror story in which the hero is possessed by an evil space alien. In the end, Spider-Man doesn't come back to the light because he makes the right moral choice, but simply because he finds a comic-book cop-out which lets him rip the costume off. It then forms a symbiotic relationship with a rival news photographer (Topher Grace) creating a new villain, Venom, who Spider-Man defeats in a big fight. The greatest battle is within? Not really.

The third villain, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), feels like an afterthought. The first two movies gave their bad-guys extensive back-stories -- this one takes it for granted that when escaped convicts wander into nuclear experiments, they turn into a walking, talking piles of sand. Sandman had a hand in killing Peter Parker's uncle, but on the plus side he only turned to crime because of his terminally ill daughter. This feels like a good idea for a story, rather than a properly developed element in the film.

The multi-villain action sequences are as spectacular as you'd expect; and everyone acts a lot, even in the embarrassing slushy bits. But it doesn't have the moral conviction or the emotional heart of the earlier films.

How depressing.

5 comments:

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm definitely with you on this one ... I could watch five more Spider-Man movies at least, but they'll have to find a new director first, because Raimi was clearly just coasting through this empty shell ... It was all the more depressing because Spidey 2 is my single favorite superhero flick of all time

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Far be it from me to defend Spiderman 3, an indifferent, lumpen mess of a film, but I don't think your description of the film's plot is accurate.

Peter and Mary-Jane's relationship, for example, is by no means identical to the one depicted in either of the first two films. In the original Spiderman, Peter longed for Mary-Jane while she took her sweet time noticing that he existed. In Spiderman 2, Peter rejects Mary-Jane because he believes his crappy, dangerous life might infect hers if they got too close. At the end of the film, Mary-Jane convinces him to share his misery with her in the hopes that she can alleviate it. Spiderman 3 opens with Peter on top of the world while Mary-Jane's life goes to pot, and while she can be taken to task for not following her own advice, the fact remains that Peter is too caught up in his own happiness to notice how miserable she is. Harry is indeed brought back into the mix as a romantic rival, but only because a convenient plot device has reset his personality back to the one he had in high school - which seems apt given that a major theme in the film, or even the series, is the importance of putting away childish things, including your simplistic high school definition of yourself (the geek, the jock, the prom queen), and learning to behave and treat others like adults. Once Harry regains his memory, his romantic interest in Mary-Jane fades away and he uses her to hurt Peter.

Along the same lines, I don't think it's fair to say that the Venom suit is entirely responsible for Peter's anti-social actions. Peter doesn't behave like a jackass because the suit infects him. He allows the suit to infect him because he wants to behave like a jackass. He's like a guy who knows himself to be an unpleasant, belligerent drunk and drinks anyway in order to work up the courage to be mean to people who have hurt him - as Peter does to Mary-Jane.

I'm not saying any of this is done well, but I do think the film aspires to more than a retread of its predecessors.

Gavin Burrows said...

The comic book is full of angst and misery: Peter Parker's family and friends keep getting murdered, the world thinks he's a baddie – being a Spider-Man has pretty much ruined his life.

I suspect the very nub of what Spider-Man is really about is the difference between a child’s conception of adulthood and an adult’s one. The child thinks “when I’m a grown-up I’ll watch as much TV as I want and eat ice-cream for dinner every day and no-one will be able to stop me because I’ll be a grown-up!” The adult comes to see his life as a perpetual battle with the crushing weight of responsibility where ice-cream intrudes little. In other words, Spider-Man takes the standard adolescent power fantasy and upends it.

In the end, Spider-Man doesn't come back to the light because he makes the right moral choice, but simply because he finds a comic-book cop-out which lets him rip the costume off.

Mr. Rilstone, you of all people! This scene happens in a Church for a reason, doesn’t it? The Venom/ Green Goblin story was a parable about having a reigned in and tamed dark side versus trying to deny your dark side – hence the futility of trying to lock the black Spider-suit in a trunk. The other photographer (whose name I’ve now forgotten) was like a post-Enron un-Peter-Parker, whereas Harry Osbourne comes to fight on Peter’s side. (And sacrifice himself… I never said it was short of cliches.)

The third villain, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), feels like an afterthought… This feels like a good idea for a story, rather than a properly developed element in the film.

Absolutely agree! The film ain’t big enough for both of them, and Sandman loses out. (A common problem in films of super-comics, with so many back issues to choose from they can’t help getting greedy.) Moreover, the two stories either need to be made more alike or made more dissimilar. Sandman’s a guy whose given in to his bad luck, whereas our hero always somehow rises above his. While the villain has to say something about the hero, or else it’s all just one big pointless punch-up, the two stories do seem to get a little close. Spider-Man’s costume is striking because it’s red and blue, two quite distinct colours. If these two stories were a costume it would be blue and green.

All that said, I agree it went over old ground a little too much. Peter turning bad was a little too like Peter turning cool and carefree (second film). But worst of all (something I’m surprised you don’t mention) was making Sandman the killer of Uncle Ben. Not only was this absurdly contrived but meant much of it merely reprised the origin story. Peter uses his powers to show off and get worldy things. Then he gets into vengeance. Then he decides vengeance is not the way of the Spider. Does he have some memory-jogging note pinned to his fridge? “Great power = great responsibility, okay this time I got it!”

Then again, even if you only read the original Ditko run of the comics they get this repetitive pretty quickly. Maybe it’s turning the stories into stand-alone films that’s the problem…

Chris said...

He who would valiant be...

Who would true valour see/Let him come hither./One here will constant be/Come wind, come weather.

Julia said...

Tobey McGuire fighting Topher Grace.

The only way my head could be more 'splodey over that thought would be if Grace won.

(I haven't even seen 2 -- I'm avoiding a lot of 3s this summer because I haven't seen the 2s.)