Monday, July 02, 2012

Spidey on Screen: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

I still remember the wave of disappointment that washed over me while watching X-Men: The Last Stand in summer of '06, the frustration at how Twentieth Century Fox took a franchise that had been built up very effectively by one director (Bryan Singer), only to have it handed over to another director and torn down (Brett Ratner). The one thought that repeatedly flitted through my mind at the time was that it was a good thing Sam Raimi and his team were were back handling Spider-Man 3, due for release the following summer. They'd show us how it was done.

In hindsight, the belief that Raimi's mere presence would stave off the impinging advance of mediocrity comes off as a little naive on my part. 2007's
 Spider-Man 3 is the unquestionable nadir of the Raimi Spider-cycle, an overstuffed spectacle where the fingerprints of studio interference are a little too obvious, and a forced, altogether unsatisfying conclusion to a series that had hit some pretty satisfying creative highs during its short lifespan. However, before we begin launching the brickbats (and there are plenty), it's helpful to bear one small thing in mind: Spider-Man was never meant to be a trilogy.

Sure, nowadays everything gets forced into the three-and-done model, but more and more the deployment of "trilogy" has become a lazy crutch to add portent where there isn't any. "Trilogy" implies beginning, middle, and end. The Godfather? Trilogy. Star Wars? Trilogy. Star Trek? Episodic. Indiana Jones? Episodic that just happened to come in three (What's that you say? There's a fourth Indiana Jones?) Back to the Future? Trilogy. Spider-Man? Episodic. The necessary component is that while each of the works can stand separately from each other, when taken as a whole, there's a dramatic build-up across all three that comes to a satisfying emotional pay-off. Closure.

By its very nature, the
Spider-Man story doesn't lend itself to such a format because it has no ending. I've often heard superhero stories likened to modern mythology as a way, perhaps, to make the former sound more important than they are, but the big difference is that, unlike Robin Hood or King Arthur, there's no Sherwood burial or flight to Avalon for Batman or Superman or their ilk. Spider-Man's stories started in 1962, and have continued on their merry way with very little in the way of rebooting or restarting (okay, with one very big exception). It's the illusion of change rather than change itself.

Like a rubber band, you stretch things out and move the furniture around a little bit, 
advancing the various arcs in such a way as to feel rewarding to the audience, but at the end of the day you don't switch up the status quo so much that it becomes unrecognizable. I think the closest approximation in movies to what the comics have done is with James Bond, who lasted for forty years before the hard reset of Casino Royale. With Spider-Man, I have to think the filmmakers had every intention of following the Bond model and running for several more years yet, so I doubt they'd even have given any thought to closing the franchise out.

Thus, while certain long-running threads are wrapped up here (specifically the Harry Osborn arc), others are still left in place (Peter and Mary Jane's increasingly-aggravating romantic tribulations), to be picked up when the inevitable next entry happened. Of course, that hypothetical next entry never materialized, and so, five years later, we're forced to look at a Spider-Man 3 that's been rendered even weaker now than it was a the time of its release. It's now unsatisfying not only as its own thing, but also as the closing act of an ex post facto "trilogy" -- with all the concomitant expectations that term implies. 

As the curtain comes up on this third installment, things are finally looking up for our friendly neighborhood webslinger after the Job-like trials he endured last time. He's found a happy groove with girlfriend Mary Jane after hooking up with her at the close of the last movie, and he's excelling both in school and at his job as a freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle. Of course, as always, things aren't all peaches and cream for poor Pete. For one thing, Harry Osborn is still nursing a pretty bad grudge after learning his identity last time, enough so to subject himself to the same steroids as his father and become the New Goblin.

It doesn't stop there, though, there's also Flint Marko, a.k.a. new baddie Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), who can form his body into living sand, and who, it turns out, is the real killer of Pete's Uncle Ben. Ah, but wait, there's still a little bit more. A living black goop from outer space has attached itself to Peter and formed a snazzy new black suit for him. The downside is that it's making him sport an emo hairstyle and act a little douchey. All that, and I haven't even mentioned the comely Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, completely wasted here), who's making our Mary Jane all kinds of jealous even as Peter gets ready to pop the question (and honestly, don't even get me started on MJ in this one...).

Ugh. Trying to condense that plot into something resembling brevity was nothing compared to sitting through the movie again after five years and having to cut through all the crap. Last time, I drew a comparison between superhero comics and soap operas, and took great pains to point out that it doesn't necessarily have to be a pejorative. Well, I take that all back for this one. Spider-Man 3 is soap operatic in the very worst way, meandering from plot point to plot point, with a frustrating chain of coincidences often the only engine that's keeping the thing moving along.

Let's start up-top with the big one. Peter and Mary Jane are in the park enjoying each other's company when an asteroid lands about five feet away, and from which the alien suit emerges. Was it specifically seeking Peter out because of his spider powers? Not that we know of. It just kind of landed there and happened to find Spider-Man. Lucky us. Next up, it just so happens that the man who killed Uncle Ben has gotten superpowers and become Spidey's next villain. Also, it just so happens that Gwen Stacy, who knows and likes Peter, gets rescued by Spider-Man, setting up a nonsensical triangle that serves as yet another wedge to keep our long lovers apart.

Oh, and Venom. I haven't even gotten to Venom! One of the preeminent Spidey villains in the late '80s into the '90s, Venom was created by writer David Michelinie and artist Todd McFarlane, and is actually former reporter Eddie Brock, who hates Spider-Man for ruining his career, and who merges with the symbiotic black suit after it's been forcibly rejected by Peter Parker. For awhile there, Venom was a regular antagonist for the comic book Spidey every few months, and his crazy popularity even led to him headlining his own line of comic books for a little while as a sort of pseudo hero. Whaddya want, it was the '90s.

Anyway, having grown up primarily with the original set of '60s-era Spider-villains, director Sam Raimi really had no desire to dip his feet into the waters of '90s excess. Nonetheless, Venom remained a favorite of those who came up with Spidey in the last twenty years, so producer Avi Arad strongly suggested to the helmer that he find a way to include the villain in the mix. Thus, what would have been unwiedly with just the twin threats of Harry's New Goblin and the Sandman topples over thanks to Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) being introduced as a rival to Peter Parker and becoming Venom in the last act (though, also frustratingly, he's never once even referred to by that name onscreen). He also just so happens to have dated Gwen Stacy. Oy.

All this coincidence piled atop coincidence ends up being just a bridge too far in a film that's already leveraging a lot on our preexisting attachment to the characters. I'm not at all against the inclusion of Venom, but I think the best thing for the character (and, in hindsight, the series) would have been to set him up here, with Topher getting possessed by the suit and the audience getting a peek at his scary new look, and then save his big showdown with Spidey for the next entry. As it is, his arbitrary inclusion and sudden disposition smacks of Raimi telling his studio, "Fine! You want Venom? Here's Venom! Oh, he's dead."

The sudden appearance of the Sandman, whose fatal encounter with Uncle Ben is a lot more complicated than it seems, prompts Peter to question his notions of simple black-and-white justice, in turn leading to some fascinating thematic questions that are never allowed to play out. It's frustrating how Thomas Haden Church is forced to sit out most of the film thanks to all the other plotlines requiring attention. Haden Church is really good here -- at least as good as Alfred Molina's Doc Ock -- and he imbues Marko with far more presence than the script has time for. With a little more breathing room, Raimi could potentially have spun this into a far richer cinematic experience that still did right by the audience.

And speaking of doing right by the audience, probably the biggest cheat of all comes in the third act when, in order to flip the switch on Harry Osborn from enemy back to ally as Spidey faces off against the the terrible twosome of Sandman and Venom, Osborn's butler, Bernard (played by John Paxton, actor Bill Paxton's dad), who had maybe five lines total in the previous two movies, is suddenly given a crater-sized info-dump of exposition to clue Harry in on his dad's true, villainous nature. What makes it somehow more egregious is its obviousness. We know whey they're doing it, and you'd think screenwriter Alvin Sargent could have found a better way.

For me, Spider-Man 3 is especially angry-making because of all the little things that did work. Or could have worked. As mentioned, the Sandman storyline, for as undernourished as it is, still has a lot going for it. The stuff with the black suit, with Spidey confronting his dark side, is a great concept even if it loses a lot in execution (I could have done without Maguire's evil "hipster" dance). But, even approaching two-and-a-half hours (the longest of the three), things are just packed too tightly with too many stories to feed. Had they split it in two, as was the intent at one point, we'd likely have ended up with two films that were stronger as a result.

At the time of its opening, Spider-Man 3 set a new opening record with a $151 million weekend, proving how much goodwill the franchise had generated with its first two installments. However, the drop-off from week one to week two was more severe, proving that this latest entry had left a bad taste with audiences. Although its global haul of nearly $900 million was the best of the series, its domestic total of $336 million was the lowest. Still, no one doubted that another entry would arrive a few before too long, and while Spider-Man 3 was generally perceived as a swing-and-a-miss, there was no reason to think that Raimi and co. wouldn't right its wrongs a few years hence.

Or not.

To Be Continued...

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