Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2007

Three is enough

'Spider-Man 3' isn't what it could have been, but it's just fine for a summer blockbuster

Spider-Man 3
Sony Pictures
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Topher Grace, Thomas Haden Church, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Bryce Dallas Howard and Elizabeth Banks
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 20 minutes
Opened May 4, 2007
(out of four)

So...does Sony really think it can get three more movies out of this franchise? Really? Even when they tried to cram so much into this third one and wound up with the weakest film in the series?

Well, that's the word on the street, at least - Sony plans to release three more sequels, though it remains to be seen whether or not Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and Co. will be involved? But who cares, right? It's not like the people who made the franchise what it is matter or anything. If we're subjected to a few more sequels on par with the Schumacher Batman movies and Superman III and IV, who cares? All that matters is the bottom dollar.

But I'm stating the obvious. And I'm getting ahead of myself - let's start over: Spider-Man 3 features some of the best elements of this series, and most of the worst. As a complete film, it's the weakest of the series. Like X-Men: The Last Stand and the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, far too much was crammed into one film, and the result is a decidedly mixed bag.

There is a reason why three villains are all thrown into one film - they're all tied together, in one way or another, by the concept of revenge. Harry (James Franco) wants revenge on Spidey for killing his father; Eddie Brock - who eventually becomes Venom - wants revenge on Peter Parker for taking his job and his girl; and Spider-Man wants revenge on Flint Marko (a.k.a. Sandman) for killing his uncle. With the exception of the continuing on-off romance between Peter and Mary-Jane - which is rapidly running out of gas, by the way - everything is tied together by that theme. And it's an interesting direction for the Spider-Man series to go. It opens up the darkest possibilities we've seen yet out of this franchise, which in theory is for the best. Comic-book films often reach their peaks when they go underneath the surface of the standard good-defeats-evil prototype.

In that respect, Spider-Man 3 is the most interesting film of the series, but it's not nearly what it could have been. Instead of being a dark examination of the superhero psyche - the tug-of-war between idealism and inner demons, a la Batman Begins - the film is far too busy for its own good. All the plot and thematic elements are there, but they're put together in a choppy, uneven way that fails to capitalize on their potential. One could call it ambitious...or if you were less kind, you could just say it's foolish to try to cram this much into 140 minutes. As I said, there are thematic reasons for the film to have three villains, but the problem is that the film isn't framed thematically - it's structured in a way that emphasizes plot, not meaning.

I know, I know - it's pretentious to throw around words like "meaning" when talking about Spider-Man, right? Fine. Then I'll just say that Spider-Man 3 is a mess. A fun mess. An entertaining mess. But a mess all the same.

There's a lot that has to be established early on in Spider-Man 3. We get our first introduction to Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who unwittingly causes a rift between Peter and Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst). We meet Flint Marko, who in the span of just a few days 1) gets uncovered as Uncle Ben's real killer; 2) escapes from prison; and 3) gets trapped in a scientific experiment that transforms him into Sandman, a brilliantly realized special effect.

Then we meet Eddie (Topher Grace), who quickly emerges as Peter's rival, only without all the purity that Peter stands for. They have the same goals and interests, but Eddie cheats and smooth-talks his way into getting what he wants. Peter's too genuine for that...right?

And then there's the mysterious black substance that falls from the sky and attaches itself to Peter. His behavior starts to change. He chooses his new solid black suit over the bright and cheerful red-and-blue. He becomes consumed by selfishness and revenge. Even his hairstyle changes.

Eventually, the black substance that at first consumes Peter becomes the basis for Eddie's transformation into Venom, but that's not until much later. Director Sam Raimi makes much of Peter's transition light and comical instead of dealing with the dark side of his psyche head-on, and that takes the film in an entertaining but awkward direction.

The real success of the film lies in the development of Sandman and Venom as adversaries for Spider-Man. (The resolution of those two characters is another story, but we'll get to that later.)

Topher Grace and Thomas Haden Church give extremely effective performances that allow us to understand the basis for their characters and their descent into "evil." Church's sad, anxious face works well for a character whose tragedy lies in the fact that he can't provide for his family, in particular his very sick daughter, for whom he promises to find a cure. Grace has almost more charisma than he knows what to do with, and as the smarmy, slimy Eddie Brock, that works perfectly. We enjoy watching him and we're repelled by his code of ethics at the same time.

The film as a whole does a good job establishing those two as characters rather than simply as villains. But the film eventually steps wrong. We spend much of the movie following their journey toward villainhood, but once they reach the level where they're a fully-formed villain, Raimi jumps right to the action finale. We hardly get a chance to see Sandman and Venom in action as villains before we're already waiting to see how Spider-Man is going to defeat them. A lot more could have been done in between the point of no return - the moment that Eddie becomes Venom and the moment that Sandman finally views Spider-Man as his enemy - and the action-packed climax.

It seems as though I'm ripping the movie apart, but that's not my intention. It's not nearly as bad as some have said, but it certainly doesn't live up to Spider-Man 2. It's a fun summer-movie experience, point blank. But things went wrong. Maybe there's just too much movie. Maybe there wasn't enough time to work out the kinks. Maybe the studio insisted on keeping alive the Peter/Mary Jane conflict that nobody really cares about anymore. (Though that relationship does open up the door for a brilliant Bruce Campbell cameo.)

They say there will be three more movies. I might have been on board with that had Spider-Man 3 been split up into two movies. As it is, it seems like time is running out on this franchise. Sony execs should quit while they're ahead.

**A note on the special effects: It's like Spider-Man 3 is a curious mixture of the good and bad elements from the first two films. When it comes to Sandman and Venom, the special effects are fantastic. The characters really come to life. But there are a few action scenes - mostly those involving characters flying through the air and beating each other up - where the CGI is absolutely awful. It looks cheap and animated. Did they run out of money or out of time? Considering how much the special effects improved from the first film to the second, it's gotta be one or the other.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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