Monday, November 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Watching Spider-Man 3, a big summer blockbuster, I had to wonder if director Sam Raimi hadn't, at least in some sense, fallen victim to his own success...as well as audience expectations. The talented director who got his start nearly 25-years ago with the gonzo, ingenious Evil Dead has already crafted three of the most entertaining superhero films ever made (the two earlier Spider-Man films, plus 1990's Darkman). Therefore, to witness a Spider-Man movie that aims high but just treads water is somehow disappointing, especially coming from Raimi. When - in all fairness - a Fantastic Four film of this quality would be a huge revelation. Imagine if Ghost Rider, Catwoman, Elektra, The Hulk or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had been this good. Fan-Boys (and girls...) would be celebrating.

Yet given Raimi's over sized talent and the extremely high bar set by the earlier Spider-Man films, Spider-Man 3 smells a little bit like a letdown. Not a huge stinking, throw-out-your-action-figures letdown (like, say, X3), but a letdown nonetheless. It is pleasant to watch, often diverting, now-and-then amusing, and occasionally inspired but also more often than not a victim to the law of sequelitis called "diminishing returns." There's something a little stale and familiar about the whole thing. It's a perfect movie to watch this Thanksgiving, not because it is a turkey, but because it feels overstuffed.

There was a good story here somewhere, buried beneath all the spectacle and digital effects, and one wonders how much Raimi had to succumb to studio calls to make this flick bigger and more spectacular than the other films in the franchise, a choice that severely damages what is good about the film. Specifically, Spider-Man 3's heart rests in the right place: in the growing (and difficult) relationship between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco). It's a love triangle of sorts, but more than that too: the friendship between Harry and Peter has turned to hatred over the death of Harry's father, the original Green Goblin. I believe a fine, exciting Spider-Man film could have been produced telling the story of this triangle, and Harry's fall and redemption. I mean, Harry is our "New Goblin." We don't require any more villains than he; and the character deserves that spotlight given his prominence in the love triangle.

But instead - and disappointingly - the movie must provide two additional villains to get in all those CGI effects. So we get the origin story and crime spree of the Sandman (Thomas Haden-Church) a small-time criminal made a super villain. We find out in this film that he is the real murderer of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), but that he was just trying to save his sick daughter. This is all something of a shaggy dog story since the audience never learns if his daughter is cured or not. Not even one line of dialogue is provided on this front. Instead, the movie simply sees the Sandman robbing armored cars and the like to get money for his daughter's operation. Then, at the end of the film, Spider-Man doesn't vanquish him. After soliciting Peter's forgiveness for the death of Ben, the Sandman just flies away between skyscrapers. Gee -- if he wanted to make more money to save his daughter, maybe he could sell the story of Spider-Man's true identity since Spider-Man fights him sans mask...

And then there's the film's other super villain, Venom, played for a short while by a snarky Topher Grace. I admit it, it would be hard to remove the Venom subplot from the film, because it grants Spider-Man 3 it's overarching metaphor and symbolism: anger and revenge personified. Basically, Venom is a "symbiote" that amplifies the tendencies of the host, especially aggression. Peter Parker is exposed to the black goop from space (which conveniently lands in the park just feet from Peter and Mary Jane...), and lets the "dark side" of his personality take over. He becomes consumed with hatred and anger. Aunt May says of such anger, "it's like a poison...it can take you over. Before you know it, it turns you ugly."

The first film boasted a metaphor about puberty/adolescence (Peter learning how to shoot those icky webs...); the second film had symbolism about impotence and lack of confidence (Peter was unsuccessfully in school, career and love, and occasionally couldn't fire those webs..), so it is natural and right that the third film would find a metaphor involving the latest dilemma of the characters. But long periods of this film go by where the space symbiote hangs out (literally) in Peter's apartment, waiting to strike...and not striking. The film has to cycle through all the various plot strands and villains before it lands substantively on the concept of Peter going dark.

Which was done, as superhero fans will note, in much the same fashion in Superman III (1983). Back then, exposure to Richard Pryor's synthetic kryptonite concoction split Superman into two people; one good and one dark. Spider-Man goes through similar paces here, though for some reason, Peter's exposure causes him to act like an extra from Saturday Night Fever (1977). Yeah, suddenly he's a disco dancer "strutting" like a greasy John Travolta. This sequence goes on and on and feels so out-of-sync with the rest of the movie that it's almost jaw-dropping in its pure awfulness. Again, my feeling is that Raimi is a victim of his own success. Everybody loved the "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" musical interlude from Spider-Man 2; and we all know sequels have to run the same paces...only bigger and better. Thus we get an extended dork musical interlude in Spider-Man 3.

So Spider-Man 3 is a tad on the schmaltzy, over sentimental side, and don't even get me started on the bizarre, poorly-timed "revelation" scene from Harry's man-servant which just happens to set everything on the right course for a rapprochement between friends., Still, there are glories to be found here. It's great to have the original cast back together (even Dafoe and Robertson!), and Bruce Campbell and J.K. Simmons' get to do some inspired comedic shtick in their supporting roles.

But best of all is that the wacky Raimi sensibility has been retained in terms of action sequences. Raimi is the undisputed master at piling on unexpected elements in an action sequence so that it becomes more involving than just your average neighborhood wrestling match. I remember in Spider-Man 2 how he unexpectedly incorporated Aunt May into a fight sequence with Doc Ock. Here, he surprises again, finding a way to invest an early battle sequence between skyscrapers with real interest and tension. In particular, the previous scene involves Aunt May giving Peter the wedding ring she has kept on her finger for nearly fifty years, as he plans to propose to Mary Jane. There is a lovely monologue from the always-impressive Rosemary Harris about how Ben proposed to her all those years ago. It's a fine, emotional moment...a genuinely heartfelt one.

Then, in the very next scene, Peter is ambushed by Harry on his way home, scooped into the air, and battered. In the tussle, that valuable family heirloom goes flying down towards street level far below the fighting friends. Instead of being a simple slug match between super titans, the ensuing fight sequence finds Peter struggling to keep track of the falling ring while simultaneously evading attacks from Harry. Although the CG still looks lame to me (sorry...), my emotions were fully engaged because the previous scene - with that great acting and dialogue - resonated. That ring is important, we know - essentially a Hitchcockian McGuffin, because Raimi took the time to set up the importance to the characters. Most directors don't understand this notion. They stage fights straight on, with no focal point to make fisticuffs and flying anything more than special effects spectacles. Raimi wisely provides the audience a focal point, and then - in his unpredictable, stylish way - raises the stakes again and again. He goes over the top in his tweaking of us, but we forgive him his trespasses because we are fully invested in the theatricality and importance of the moment.

And frankly, I think the idea of raising the stakes explains some of the problems in this not-bad/not-great threequel. Raimi doesn't get to raise the stakes often enough, or stick closely and authentically enough to the emotional subject matter of the story, the Harry-Mary Jane-Peter triangle. Instead the film is all tricked up with new villains and new special effects...but somehow, the heart of the hero (and the heart of the story) gets sacrificed. The movie feels overcrowded and diffuse instead of tense and focused.

I'm a huge Raimi fan (heck, I wrote a book about the guy in 2004...), but I think it's a good decision for him to leave the franchise. He's been on the Spider-Man beat since before he directed The Gift in 2000. That's a long time to be devoted to one property. Now the franchise needs fresh blood, and Raimi needs a new challenge. I'd love to see him do The Shadow, or Thor, or some other superhero, because his understanding of the genre is pretty-much unequaled. But it is very, very difficult to bring something new to a familiar franchise on the seventh year, in the third film, especially when you have to satisfy all marketing and corporate corners. If Raimi wants to leave superheroes behind all together, he should direct The Hobbit, since Peter Jackson has built a career on imitating Raimi's camera moves anyway. Unlike his disciple, however, Raimi boasts a sense of pace and discipline...his films are rarely self-indulgent like Jackson's highly-praised but inferior spectacles.

In short, I don't think Spider-Man 3 destroys or damages the franchise too terribly -- it's still head and shoulders (in my opinion...) above superhero franchises like Fantastic Four, X-Men and I'd also include the inconsistent Batman series. The biggest problem is that Raimi has wowed us the previous two times at bat, and this time he hits a double instead of a home run.

And we got used to the home runs.