03 May 2007

Of Spiders and Vultures

So, here it comes... Spider-Man 3.

Tomorrow is the opening of what will certainly turn into the Summer's #1 money-maker, and probably the #1 grossing film of 2007. With a budget of $250 million, Sony better hope it ends up both. It will probably also be the last Spidey film for the near future, since many of the creative personnel have indicated hesitation about returning for a fourth installment. Sony probably recognizes that going past three films risks fatiguing audiences, creating diminishing returns, and draining the creative well. They only need to glance across town to Warners and remember what a train-wreck Batman and Robin was to understand why the number four can be deadly. (I might also mention Alien: Resurrection as further proof of franchise-killing #4; some would argue for Alien3, but I love that film).

I expect an enjoyable comic-book experience when I see the movie on Saturday, but I don't anticipate that Spider-Man 3 will equal Spider-Man 2, one the greatest comic-to-film adaptations ever made—second only to Batman Begins. The reviews mostly seem to agree. From early pre-production rumors, Spider-Man 3 sounded overstuffed with plot and characters. After two solo-villain outings with the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, the new film has crammed in ­three heavies: the Sandman, Venom, and a pseudo-Green Goblin Harry Osborne. (In the comics, Harry fully adopted the mantle of the Green Goblin, and reverted to it a few times.) The multiple-villain tendency in superhero films makes a tricky juggling act, since trying to focus on the origins of more than one bad guy sucks away screen time, and trying to combine unrelated villains tends to stretch credulity. I thought that Batman Returns did a nifty job combining the Penguin and Catwoman, but this was done by downplaying Batman. Both villains were superbly realized (that I have a mild Penguin obsession you can see here), and this contributed to the film's success. Batman Begins got Ras al-Ghul and Scarecrow in one movie efficiently by doing the exact opposite: making Batman the focus and keeping the villains as supporting parts. But Joel Schumacher's two Batman films ended up complete disasters with too many villains too sloppily used. Four great villains with awesome potential, Two-Face, the Riddler, Bane, and Mr. Freeze, ended up trivialized. (There was never any hope for Poison Ivy.) Now that the Spider-Man series is taking the sudden leap into villain-plicity, there's reason for concern. At least I trust director Sam Raimi more than a I do Joel Schumacher. Which is akin to saying I trust the Dalai Lama more than Sylvia Browne.

I've never liked the Sandman, even though he's a creation of the original Spider-Man team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, first appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #4. Many great artists have graced the pages of Spider-Man comics, but none better than Ditko. Sam Raimi has indicated he prefers the old-standard 1960s villains, most of whom were Lee-Ditko creations, over latter-day adversaries like Venom and Carnage. I completely agree, but Sandman never grabbed my attention the way that other Lee-Ditko nasties like the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Electro, the Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, and The Scorpion did. He was a visual treat for the crafty Ditko to draw, but his cheap-thug mentality…meh. Trying to tie the Sandman into the killing of Ben Parker isn't a move I like either, the same way I disliked the Joker as the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne in the 1989 Batman.

As for Venom, he sure looks awesome, both on the page and realized for the silver screen. (Yes, I've seen the recent full screenshot of how he appears in the movie, something Sony has kept under wraps in all publicity.) I'm not a huge fan of the hulking symbiote, but I think he could have supported a whole movie as the principal villain, with possibly a minor Spidey bad-guy used as a warm-up act in the first half-hour to get the action rolling: somebody who doesn't need much of a back story and who can just appear on the streets of New York committing a crime that Web-Head has to stop. I nominate... the Shocker! A Stan Lee-John Romita Sr. creation, I always found him a fun, cool-looking second stringer.

I had hoped that the Lizard would be one of the villains in Spider-Man 3, since his alter ego Dr. Curtis Connors appeared in Spider-Man 2 (played by Dylan Baker), missing arm and all. The Lizard would combine well with a characrer like Kraven the Hunter, or possibly a more standard gangster figure or Ditko's cool trio of the Enforcers.

Another villain I pushed for in the early "who's-it-gonna-be" stage of Spider-Man 3 is the Vulture. The Vulture was the first super-powered adversary Spidey fought, appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #2. In the previous issue, Spidey went up against a disguise expert, the Chameleon, but the Vulture brought superpowers to contend with Spidey's own. In a simple write-up, the Vulture doesn't sound that thrilling: he wears a flying harness that also grants him enhanced strength, although not on a par with Spider-Man's. But under the amazing pen of Steve Ditko, Vulture was a marvel. It's not just that the Vulture can fly; he can maneuver with dazzling agility, able to fly through office windows and down hallways, turning on a dime. In the air, nobody can touch him. On film, he would be a dizzying opponent for Spidey, swooping, soaring, and striking in a flurry that could keep even our hero's spider-sense off balance.

After Batman, Spider-Man has the best rogues gallery of any superhero. If the series ends here and goes on indefinite hiatus, even if it's for the creative benefit of the franchise, there's a pallet-load of cool baddies we'll miss out on.

But we'll always have Doctor Octopus, the coolest Spider-Man villain.