07 May 2007

Movie Review: Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, J. K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris.

My primary reaction to Spider-Man 3: it’s nowhere near as good as Spider-Man 2. Following up on Doctor Octopus is a tough task.

My secondary reaction: the film is far too long and overstuffed.

My tertiary reaction: it’s still a fun experience, and probably better than any other big blockbuster slated for the remainder of the summer. (Have I that little faith in the rest of the summer?) The action comes plentiful, the effects are the best yet, the drama remains realistic and grounded, the original cast members still have their parts down solid, and the music from Christopher Young does right by the original Danny Elfman material.

The film’s biggest surprise is James Franco’s turn as tragic Harry Osborne. He ends up as Spider-Man 3’s stealth weapon and the emotional center of the story. Franco isn’t an actor anyone expects to pick up drama awards (he’s an great comedic actor), but he rises to the occasion in this film, where he has the most important role yet. The movie completes Harry’s character arc through the “trilogy,” and Franco does a polished job.

What then, exactly, are the film’s problems? I'll walk through these step-by-step, as they occur to me. (There are spoilers involved, but considering the box-office numbers, you’ve already seen the movie anyway.)

The movie tries to do too much . . . and apparently Sam Raimi didn’t envision it that way. This is the film’s overall largest fault, and serves as an umbrella criticism for most of what follows. With a second love interest, three villains, Peter going through a massive personality change, M.J. having a career crisis, new insight into who killed Uncle Ben, Harry losing and regaining his memory, Eddie Brock’s competition with Peter, the alien symbiote, extra action scenes, et al., it’s too much even for an overlong movie.
The Sandman is superflous: Perhaps he might have worked in Raimi’s original conception as the only villain. But crammed into the mix with everything else, the character really is just dust in the wind, dude. I disagree strongly with the decision to make him Uncle Ben's murderer, since it reduces some of the guilt on Peter for his uncle’s death, and that’s the character’s essential motivation. Trying to give the Sandman a tragic backstory also eats up screentime to no particular purpose. With so much personal tragedy already coating every inch of the film, the audience could use a breather with a standard nasty thug who got superpowers, as the Sandman was in the original Ditko-Lee version, instead of another “sympathetic” dishrag. 

Venom arrives too late: I’m with Raimi as far as using the old-school villains, but Venom does add a jolt to the picture when he/it finally arrives. Sure looks cool, no doubt about that. Ditch the Sandman, put more focus on the black costume and the eventual emergence of Venom, and it would have made for a tighter picture. On the other hand. . . .

Topher Grace is miscast: It’s hard to see waif-thin Topher turning into the muscular, hulking Venom. The casting appears to have been done to create a Peter Parker alter-ego, picking an actor who could himself have played Spider-Man. (I can see Topher Grace as Peter Parker easily.) But Eddie Brock should be a large, physically intimidating bully. My choice for the role: Patrick Warburton. No question about it. 

Why waste Gwen Stacy in an unimportant supporting role? Again, not Raimi’s choice. I guess the story needed another girl around for Spidey to rescue. (And wasn’t that crane scene great?) Gwen plays such a crucial role in the Spider-Man mythos—Peter Parker’s first true love, and the second great tragedy to affect his life—that bringing her in just to add jealousy to M.J. and Peter’s rocky love life seems flippant. And Captain Stacy could have been any cop on the job. 

The fight scenes have gone overboard in acrobatic confusion . . . especially since many take place at night, and with Spidey often in a black costume, the fisticuffs can turn near indistinguishable. The second movie found the right balance with the action sequences (the first didn’t have enough action, and what was there was poorly done with wonky CGI), but here the filmmakers lean toward overkill. The opener with Peter out of costume against Harry using his dad’s equipment as the “New Goblin” has a real rush, but the scenes that follow all feel much the same. The exception is the crane disaster, which has glorious echoes of the helicopter rescue from Superman

Tobey Maguire has gone all mopey on us: Most of my memories of Maguire in this movie are of his lowering lip trembling and his eyes growing misty and watery. It seems to happen in every scene… except when he’s disco-dancing. (I didn’t know that was one of the alien symbiote’s evil powers.) The “evil” Peter Parker scamming the ladies is funny for a bit, then it starts to seem a true alien intruder from another movie—and then it’s right back to sad sack Peter. Maybe Maguire, so dead-on in the first two films, has just gotten bored of the part. 

In fact, everybody cries . . . a lot. And not just Harry, and Peter, and M.J., and Aunt May. Sandman cries. Eddie Brock cries. I'll bet that in an extended cut J. Jonah Jameson cries. And speaking of which. . . .

Give me more J.J.J.! Whenever either of the first two movies threatened to drag, along came J. K. Simmons’s pitch-perfect rendition of J. Jonah Jameson to toss in some Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks snappy comedy. He gets his smallest role yet here, and I miss him. A lot. Especially when everybody else keeps getting weepy. There is a nice scene with J.J.J. and an avaricious kid with a camera, although it interrupts the finale. 

Too many musical numbers: Self-explanatory. Although “I’m Through with Love” is a great song. Just not here. 

Will there be a fourth movie? The opening weekend box-office certainly demands one and Sony has already signed on for three more—but most of the original cast won't be around for another go-round, Raimi probably won't direct it, and with the storylines wrapped up, it’s clear that Spider-Man 3 is meant as a conclusion of sorts. There will be another “Spider-Man,” but expect of gap of at least five years, and then what will arrive will be something quite different from the Raimi trilogy. And Curt Connors had better finally turn into the Lizard. I think Sony owes Dylan Baker that much.