Sunday, May 06, 2007

‘Spider-Man 3’

In the wake of the record-smashing opening weekend for “Spider-Man 3,” it will be interesting to see if the wall-crawler’s financial web is strong enough to bring the band back together again for one more go-round.
If a fourth-quel does occur, that would actually be a shame in one sense, because the flaws in “Spider-Man 3” all stem from writer/director Sam Raimi’s seeming attempt to get all his big ideas down on film before momentum finally washed the Spider out.
Throughout the production process and pre-release media campaign for the third installment in this elite blockbuster franchise, much of the hype has centered on “will this be the last one?”—at least as presently constituted with Tobey Maguire donning the red-and-blue (and sometimes black) tights and Raimi at the helm of what some say was the most expensive film ever made. Even though everyone involved in these movies has made a gazillion dollars—the original “Spider-Man” opened in 2002 with a then-record $114 million and went on to gross more than $400 million domestically, while the 2004 sequel finished at $373 million—it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where they all just get sick of it. These productions are just a tad more complicated and grueling to film than, say, “Wonder Boys.”
With the anvil of collective artistic burnout hanging over his head, “Spider-Man 3” feels like Raimi tried to jam two movies into one; the individual parts are excellent, but together they become somewhat ponderous. Back when Topher Grace (Eric from “That ’70’s Show”) was cast as Peter’s arch-rival Eddie Brock/Venom, the original plot rumors implied his character would merely be introduced in this film while Peter handled some other baddie, leaving the classic Spidey-Venom clash for No. 4. If those rumors aren’t true, fine, but it sure seems like Raimi had to shoehorn Venom into No. 3 just to make sure he actually got the comic-book icon onscreen.
There are four—count ’em FOUR—major storylines running through “Spider-Man 3”: Peter’s ongoing romance with Mary Jane (played pitch-perfect once again by Kirsten Dunst) and the tension his time-intensive crime-stopping hijinx puts on their relationship; Peter/Spidey’s ongoing feud with best friend and son of the dead-since-No. 1 Green Goblin, Harry Osborn (played once again by James Franco, who stepped up big time this round with his best performance by far); Spidey vs. The Sandman (featuring a pleasantly surprising grounded turn by Thomas Haden Church) which also holds implications for plot threads tracing back to No. 1; and Spidey vs. The Symbiote vs. Eddie Brock/Venom (in other words, the totally-wicked fight we’ve all been waiting for). Whew, I’m tired just typing all that. And, yes, it’s a whole lot to squeeze into one movie, even one that runs nearly two and a half hours.
To their credit, Raimi and co-writers Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent weave all of these plots together rather well, as Peter’s motivations throughout the film bounce from one thread to another with absolute sincerity. It still comes off as somewhat choppy and workmanlike, though, because there’s just too stinkin’ much going on. All these necessary plot points lead to a serious amount of exposition to get all this heavy story-lifting accomplished. On first impression, there is way too much dialogue in this movie (an unusual complaint for a summer blockbuster, I know).
For my money, “Spider-Man 2” is the best comic-book adaptation of all time and one of the best action/adventure movies ever. It set the template for “Batman Begins” and every superhero movie to come (every one worth anything, anyway) by focusing more on Peter Parker than his high-flying alter ego. “Spider-Man 2” struck the perfect balance between real human drama and out-of-this-world heroics, and demonstrated how the former fueled the latter. Unfortunately, “Spider-Man 3” actually goes too far in Peter’s direction; I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but there simply isn’t enough Spider-Man in this movie.
Because, wow, when the web-slinger is unleashed in all his glory, it’s absolutely electricfying. We’ve become so drunk on special-effects laden action in the post-“Matrix” era (see “X-Men 3”), I didn’t think it was possible to really and truly make my jaw drop anymore. But EVERY SINGLE ACTION SCENE in “Spider-Man 3” is a home run. From Peter’s initial sans-costume mid-air fight with Harry (which everyone by now has seen on TV or the Internet) to the no-holds-barred climactic battle royale, Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope never miss with eye-popping, mind-blowing, make-you-say-“Whoa!” action. Spider-Man pulls some maneuvers in this film that leave the choreography from the first two in the dust. All this breathtaking swingin’-and-clobberin’ is worth the price of admission on its own—you need to see this movie on a big screen. The special effects are once again improved, too, as there isn’t one scene that didn’t look absolutely genuine (just wait ’til you get your first good looks at Sandman and Venom!).
Raimi also injects some of his own off-the-wall humor into the third segment, too, which provides some lighter moments in what is overall a rather dark film. As has become tradition, J.K. Simmons steals every scene as gruff Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments when Peter starts getting his inner “cool” on (a geek is a geek is a geek, even if he does have a supersuit from outer space). Every other major actor carries their weight well—Maguire was obviously born to play this role and seems to relish getting to play around in Spidey’s dark side for a while.
So from a technical standpoint, “Spider-Man 3” is a flawless exercise in big-budget filmmaking and sets the summer movie season off with a great start—if “Pirates 3,” et al can run with this baton, we should be in for a pretty good few months. It’s just too bad that as a devoted Spidey fanboy, Raimi couldn’t bring his personal Spider-Man saga—and now undoubtedly the best set of superhero movies of all time, despite its minor flaws—to the perfectly fulfilling conclusion he so obviously desired and envisioned. Like Peter Parker grasping for the engagement ring dangling just beyond his outstretched hand, this is a woulda-shoulda-coulda near-miss masterpiece.
Grade: B+

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