Monday, May 07, 2007

I loved your father, as I love you.

I wish I could have seen Spider-Man 3 when I was eight. The packed audience I saw the movie with was filled with wide-eyed little boys and girls oohing and aahing at the webslinger's exploits. Spider-Man 3 is easily the youngest-skewing entry in the series, and I'm certain that, if I'd seen it in the third grade, it would have been on my all-time top ten. But the best popcorn movies (Spider-Man 2 among them) unlock that guileless sense of wonder that we thought we'd lost. And while Spider-Man 3 - the most baffling summer tentpole in recent memory - is the loudest, busiest and hardest-working Spider-Man movie, it's only intermittently fun, and by its end, it's more tiresome than wondrous. Spider-Man 3 is to Spider-Man 2 as The Godfather Part III is to The Godfather Part II, okay on its own terms but terribly disappointing by comparison.

The unwiedly plot pits webslinging grad student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) against four villains - Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) an escaped convict mutated by a nasty case of plot contrivance; Venom (Topher Grace) whose alter ego Eddie Brock is Peter's Salieri; his childhood friend Harry (James Franco), now clad in his dad's Green Goblin costume; and his girlfriend, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who has morphed into a petty, narcissistic shrew. The film is as much about their relationship and the emergence of Peter's id - manifested in a gooey, alien deus ex machina called symbiote - as it is about Spidey fighting the bad guys. Spider-Man 3 becomes one of those dreaded comic book closet dramas that are kryptonite for action-hungry fanboys. But while I've passionately argued in favor of derided examples of superhero mumblecore like Hulk and Superman Returns, large stretches of Spider-Man 3 are just tedious. In the first two Spider-Man movies, the computer-generated spectacle was at the service of character and story - when Spider-Man battled Dr. Octopus, our emotional investment in the characters raised the stakes action-wise. I realize this sounds obvious, but it's something that director Sam Raimi appears to have forgotten (or perhaps he just doesn't care). So while Spider-Man 3 contains strong moments - Flint Marko's rebirth as Sandman, for instance - the story remains earthbound, the characters rendered inert by the lumbering, incoherent script. It's fun, sort of, but also impossible to care about.

Because the movie is so completely plot-driven, it's impossible to avoid the glaring plot holes and cheap shortcuts throughout the narrative. I won't make a list, because I don't want to sound like Comic Book Guy, so I'll just say that even though Raimi tries to play the sudden revelations delivered in the third act by a character we've only seen peripherally for most of three films - information that this character could have passed along at any time and only decides to share exactly when the plot requires it - as tongue-in-cheek, it's still lazy, shoddy storytelling. Spider-Man 3 is filled with moments that demonstrate it is a film that doesn't know what it is about. By its climax, it tries to pretend that it was always about Harry Osborne's internal conflict; this is unfortunate, because James Franco is a terrible actor and he looks ridiculous in the Goblin costume. Almost as poor is Kirsten Dunst, who has done terrific work elsewhere but is saddled with a Mary Jane that has been reduced to a simpering, pathetic victim who finds a reason to whine and complain about her relationship with freaking SPIDER-MAN. Dunst doesn't even try, and while I can't really blame her, it didn't make me hate every moment of her screen time any less. I was praying that Peter would kick this sad sack to the curb and shack up with Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard makes a charming character out of a glorified cameo). Or Betty Brandt. Even the landlord's daughter would be fine. Mary Jane is a beast.

The rest of the cast does well under the circumstances. The entire movie hinges on the underdeveloped notion that Peter is getting too cocky, but Tobey Maguire's performance elevates the material; he smartly plays Peter as well-intentioned as he's always been, but blindsided by his sudden popularity. And Church succeeds in creating a brooding, inarticulate yet sympathetic heavy in the Boris Karloff mold. But all of the actors are failed by the script - Church gets a hackneyed backstory involving a daughter who has apparently been on her deathbed for five years, and Topher Grace stumbles into the Venom role literally by accident (also, Venom looks completely stupid). Great actors like Dylan Baker, Theresa Russell and James Cromwell (as Captain Stacy) are given little to do except stand around and occasionally deliver some exposition. Rarely has such a strong cast been assembled to do so little.

From a technical standpoint, Spider-Man 3 is the best-made entry in the series. A scene involving a runaway crane inspires genuine vertigo. The action throughout is admittedly entertaining. The effects are state-of-the-art. Bruce Campbell is a pleasure as always. And when Peter, spurned by Mary Jane and tripped up on symbiate, enjoys a brief "jerk" phase that builds to an out-of-nowhere dance number, the movie at least breathes a little, evoking the sheer fun of making movies that has made so many of Raimi's earlier films so special. But that feeling is missing from the rest of Spider-Man 3; frankly, it feels like it could have been directed by anyone. You can feel the effort that went into the film, but it lacks any sort of personal touch - it's slick but cold. Spider-Man 3 ends with a funeral in the rain, which is fitting, because it's a bummer of a way to end a trilogy.

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