08 May 2007

Spider-Man 3

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent

Grade: B+

The fanboys and the critical establishment have teamed-up, in a rare display of unity, against Spider-Man 3, and not entirely without good reason—in all fairness, it is too long, or rather, depending on how you want to look at it, perhaps not long enough, as it has so many characters and storylines that they all arrive, ultimately, at haphazard and careless resolutions; packing about two movies worth into just one leaves a single film that often feels perfunctorily plotted. It's true, Spider-Man 3 is sloppy, but what's problematic in terms of storytelling is easily glossed over, and the film emerges as gratifying and engaging enough on basic levels to pass muster as exceptional divertissement.

While the first two Spiderman films were as centered around their supervillains as their anthroparachnoid hero, in a manner dangerously close to the faulted style of the ‘90s Batman films, the third focuses the bulk of its attention on the romantic relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. (By doing so, however, it never finds the time to satisfactorily tie its threads together.) That’s not to say the film is for want of action, though, as it regularly bursts into fights and web-slinging flights, but Thomas Hayden Church, as Sandman, and Topher Grace as Eddie Brock/Venom have, actually, largely marginal roles. Primarily, they just seem there to provide a bit of, respectively, action packing and comic relief. It’s unfortunate, because they’re both (surprisingly for Grace) adept in their roles, more in the tradition of Alfred Molina’s tempered turn as Dr. Octopus in the second film and not, thankfully, in the opposing tradition of the first film's campy, movie-spoiling Green Goblin, courtesy of Willem Dafoe. Grace is a palpable prick as Brock, Parker's professional rival, although far less convincing as a serpent-toothed Venom; and Church uses his sonorous voice and emotive eyes, familiar from his performance in Broken Trail, to great effect, adding depth to his otherwise lackadaisically developed character—an escaped convinct turned man-made-of-sand after a run-in with a carelessly placed "particle atomizer". James Franco, as Harry/Green Goblin fils, takes a conking to the noggin early in the film and it, conveniently, gives him amnesia; he forgets his homicidal contempt for Spiderman, a gift not only for his arch-nemesis Peter Parker but for the audience as well—the hit seems to have loosed Franco from the spell of uninteresting acting he’s been under the last couple of years, welcomely abandoning, for the bulk of the movie, his grumbly pout for a wide smile.

That grin is a lead the audience is meant to follow, if they can bring themselves to lighten up as much as the film has. Though Spider-Man 3 is centered on Parker and MJ’s potentially depressing relationship woes, and has its share of what Noel Murray snidely calls Important Conversations, it rarely takes itself too seriously. When an "alien symbiote" attaches itself to Spiderman’s suit, he, and Parker, are taken to the dark side, but Raimi’s concept of an evil transformation is not quite on par with, say, George Lucas’—it consists mainly of dressing like a moody emo hipster—nice bangs—and getting his neighbor to bake him trays of cookies while he chugs a big glass of milk. Spoiling his appetite—what would Aunt May think!? (His badass routine culminates in a ridiculous sequence in a jazz club, which reminded me of the “Remains of the Day” sequence from Corpse Bride, in which Pete upstages Mary Jane by dancing as though participating in a Zoot Suit riot.) Many of Spider-Man 3's detractors have accused it of being unintentionally hilarious, but it seems clear enough to me that it's meant to be funny. Raimi brings the charm of the original comics to the film's foreground, capturing the lighthearted spirit that comic books possessed before they became serious and respectable "graphic novels". Spider-Man 3 hardly attempts to be credibly weighty; it's silly, hokey, kitschy and sappy, devoid of all nuance in favor of a blithe spirit of gee-whizery. (Stan Lee, the man himself, has a charming little cameo, and Bruce Campbell’s appearance as a maĆ®tre d’ is hilarious, lightening the mood of what would otherwise have been a gloomy scene.)

But Spider-Man 3, for its simple pleasures, is still not as wholly fatuous as I've made out to be; in fact, it subtly packs a rather devious message beneath its puerile superficies. The Spiderman franchise's third installment spills a bit of subtle 9/11 imagery onto the streets of New York: a runaway crane slices through a skyscraper like a hijacked airplane, and Sandman as a traveling cloud of sand whipping around street corners recalls collapsed-WTC-tower dust billowing through downtown. Like Saw III, though not as dreadful or ineffective, Spider-Man 3 is about the virtue of forgiveness; "You want forgiveness? Get religion," Peter Parker snaps malevolently during his dark period, but: Pete can’t get MJ back unless she forgives his stupid mistakes; Harry can't regain his sanity until he forgives Spiderman for the death of his father; Brock will be vanquished by the symbiote unless he forgives Parker for costing him his job; and, most importantly, Pete can’t move on as a man, spider or otherwise, until he is able to forgive the person who killed his uncle. As Aunt May tells Peter, who wants Mary Jane to marry him, a good husband must learn to put his wife ahead of himself; but as long as Pete is consumed by a need for vengeance, his relationship with MJ continues to crumble.

Near the film's end, Spiderman is photographed, with Raimi's tongue stuck firmly in cheek, against a large American flag, and when coupled with the 9/11 imagery Raimi seems, finally, to be suggesting that the U.S., with Spiderman as its representative hero, might be a stronger nation if it, along with its familiar ass-kicking, did a little other-cheek turning every once in a while. "Revenge is like a poison," Aunt May tells Peter; despite all its violence, Spider-Man 3 is a call for peace.


Anonymous said...

I would probably give this film a B- or a C+. I can see what you're saying about Raimi's "call for peace," but the landing in front of the flag thing was too much for me. Raimi did donate nearly a $1,000 to Bush's reelection campaign, so I think he can ease up on the patriotism. I do, however, feel the same way about Franco, when they let him lighten things up, he's a completely different actor. He seems almost naturally gifted, but when he's acting hardass, he just comes off as a Clift/Dean wannabe.

Anonymous said...

I was torn whether to give this a B, but I went with the plus. Maybe in an act of defiance against all the bad reviews! Because I thought it was good, not really for its subtext, though I appreciated it (although I didn't know Raimi was a Bush supporter--yikes) but just because it was a smashing good time. Compare it against Pirates of the Caribbean 2 or something and tell me it doesn't deserve a B!

Franco's scene in the kitchen cooking with Dunst was very well played. He should start doing romantic comedies.

Walter Chaw wrote a very good review of Spider-Man 3, if anyone's interested:

Anonymous said...

Franco was quite charming in that kitchen scene, a totally different side of him. And yes, compared to Pirates 2, this film is Citizen Kane.