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Spider-Man 3

Spidey 3 - Sand Blast

[rating:3]
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco

Spider-Man 3“ is an overloaded stew that tries so hard to deliver everything that it undercuts itself with its own frenetic energy and complete lack of proportion. Director Sam Raimi still delivers a film that hits the beats fans of his first two outings will enjoy, and the movie is by no means a failure — but less could’ve been so much more.

Badmouth is giving the film three stars, but if you’re a fan of the first two movies and not likely to strain your brain over a summer popcorn flick, it’s probably a four-, four-and-a-half-star experience. If you’re less the action film type and not familiar with the preceding chapters, you’re probably in the wrong theater, and you’re gonna get about two stars for your ten bucks.

The film does a number of things right: The multiple storylines, while overwhelming, are unified by a strong single theme, vengeance, that is tied into Spider-Man’s origin and has always had a resonance in super-hero mythology generally. Raimi proves, once again, that he gets Spider-Man with a couple of sequences that perfectly capture the pathos Stan Lee built into the character: Nothing ever goes right for Spider-Man or Peter Parker, and whenever something buoys things for one side of his life, the other persona suffers. Early in the film, our hero is attacked by a vicious and deadly villain, but even as he’s fighting for his life (and we know he’s not going to die in the first fifteen minutes of the picture), he’s losing a family heirloom just given to him by his beloved Aunt May. That distraction, that urgent personal problem colliding with a life-or-death situation, is perfect Spider-Man.

Raimi brings an admirable unity to the trilogy—it’s a small thing, but nice that recurring elements are touched on again. Flashbacks again bring both Cliff Robertson’s Uncle Ben and Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne in for cameos, and Stan Lee is back for his ten seconds of glory. The theme song from the old Spider-Man cartoon makes a third subtle appearance, and the film feels more cut from the same cloth as its predecessors than pretty much any film series I can name.

The casting is ridiculously spot-on. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco and, especially, Rosalind Harris (Aunt May) are completely in their groove (assuming one has gotten used to Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson, definitely an acquired taste). The too-brief Daily Bugle nods give us Betty Brant, Robbie Robertson and the bombastic J. Jonah Jameson, but it’s the new cast that are a real treat for comics fans. Thomas Hayden Church is a more accurate reflection of any character in the series to date, except for J.K. Simmons’ scenery-chomping Jameson. He’s joined by Bryce Dallas Howard, who is such a recreation of original Spider-girlfriend Gwen Stacy you’d think a vintage ’60s drawing by John Romita had been brought to life as a digital effect.

Spidey 3 - Gwen Stacy
Gwen Stacy by John Romita Sr

The film goes wrong by throwing in everything except the kitchen sink. Spider-Man has three super-villains to tangle with this time, he’s having serious relationship troubles, trouble at the Daily Bugle, there’s Gwen Stacy in the mix, Mary Jane’s failing stage career, and Peter’s best friend is hallucinating Willem Dafoe. Even at a bloated 2 hours, 36 minutes, that’s too much story to do justice to in a single film. Raimi would’ve been wise to find a way to cut one villain and give more time and development to the others. And delightful as Gwen’s cameo is (Spider-Man fans pine eternally for Gwen since she was murdered in a 1973 issue of Amazing Spider-Man), she’s probably another distraction that should either have been used more or cut.

A surface sign of the film’s clutter is that one of the villains, the Sandman, is only named as such once in the entire film, by a TV newscaster used as a cheesy narration device for the climactic showdown. The other new villain, the glop of alien malevolence behind Spidey’s “black costume,” was known in the comics as Venom but is never named in the film. That’s just sloppy. A deeper problem is that Flint Marco, the Sandman, is set up as a fairly decent guy who’s had some bad breaks, who has a sick little daughter he wants to help. This is never dealt with again until his last scene when Marco conveniently reminds us that he’s not a bad guy, though having done nothing to prove it.

Most troublesome, in setting up his vengeance theme and trying to make sure each villain matters to Peter on the deepest levels, Raimi recons Marco into the death of Uncle Ben, with a cop telling Peter that it was not the criminal Peter failed to stop who killed Ben, but his newly added accomplice, Marco. While this belief gives Peter a reason to tap into his dark side, it guts the premise of the character—Peter learned about great responsibility coming with his great power because his inaction led to Ben’s death. When Peter must, for instance, neglect his relationship with MJ for his Spider-duties, he and the audience know the burden he bears. Lifting much of that burden here would have to be chalked up as a mistake.

The whole trying-too-hard thing comes in the action sequences, as well. Virtually all scenes involving web-swinging are lacking. Some of the big set pieces have computer graphics so clunky it occasionally looks like the human actors have been stood in front of the kind of rear-projection setup they used in old black and white films to put motion behind an actor supposedly driving a car. The first big fight is virtually unwatchable: The footage is a blur of dizzying camera movements. My companion at the screening leaned over in the midst of it and asked whether I could tell what was happening. “Barely,” I replied. Later she’d observe that she’s never seen so many men cry in one film, which brings us to the subject of melodrama.

In comics and in film, Spider-Man has always been packed with over-the-top emotional turmoil, and Raimi has also brought some pretty cheesy moments into the series—remember Peter virtually dancing around his college campus in a montage sequence in Spider-Man 2? Well, he dances for real in this picture, as Raimi seems insistent on playing every scene two or three times larger than life. This usually renders situations so ridiculous that the audience can’t really become engulfed in the emotions supposedly being dramatized. The best example of this occurs when Mary Jane and Gwen come awkwardly face-to-face in a jazz club. Their encounter follows a ludicrous scene of a crazed Peter playing piano (expertly) and dancing over tabletops, which is so jarring that the emotional impact, well-delivered by the two women, is totally undercut. And if Spider-Man’s woes aren’t going to make you ache, then what’s the point?

One could pick nits (the script plays Peter way too dorky) and sing minor praises (nice recap in the title sequence) endlessly, but one thing that can’t escape notice is Raimi’s hatred of Spider-Man’s mask. As in the big runaway-train sequence in “Spider-Man 2,” Raimi in this film takes off or shreds the mask at every opportunity. How Peter can have a secret identity at this point I’ll never know. The problem Raimi is trying to solve is that you can’t see Maguire acting when he’s wearing the full-face mask. But the director claws at the mask so often that it has the makings of a potentially deadly drinking game.

Spidey 3 - Unmasked again

In the final summation, Raimi closes out his spider-adventures (rumors of a fourth film are matched by word that he, and perhaps key actors, won’t make it) suitably, touching on the elements that have made the franchise so successful, and continuing his quest to build a bigger movie each outing. It’s the second film that will be remembered as the best in the series, because with just one villain and fewer complications fighting for screen time, Raimi and Co. managed to really captivate the audience. With less restraint, this latest installment is a roller coaster that’s also trying to be the Tunnel of Love and a dark house of mirrors, and never completely nails any of them.