Saturday, May 05, 2007

Review - Spider-Man 3

The 2007 summer blockbuster season is here at last, with all manner of ridiculously expensive movies set to wow us over the coming months, and one could hardly imagine a better person to kick things off than your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. The first two films in the Spider-Man franchise were certainly a cut above your standard comic book fare; with Sam Raimi's ability to juggle large-scale action sequences and emotional intimacy giving his pictures a solid, character-driven centre. This was particularly true of Spider-Man 2, a film which ironed out the flaws of the original and delivered an almost perfect balance of spectacle and heart, making it one of the most satisfying comic book adaptations ever made, and giving Spider-Man 3 a tough act to follow.

But what a crushing disappointment this film is. Spider-Man 3 is a sloppy misfire which tries to pack too much incident into its horribly structured screenplay and ends up losing sight of the aspects which made the first two films such a pleasure to watch. The film's biggest misstep is the decision to introduce three villains for Spidey to face off against instead of one, and Raimi can't find a smooth way to dole out sufficient screen time to these characters as well as allowing the relationship between Peter and Mary-Jane to develop. Even with a running time of 140 minutes there doesn't seem to be enough space for anything in the film to breathe.

Still, at least things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) at the start of the picture; Spider-Man is New York's number one celebrity, Peter has found a way to maintain his college grades alongside his superhero antics, and his longtime girlfriend Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is starring in a Broadway play. But events take a downward turn when a meteor crashes to earth and unleashes some sort of black alien slime which inexplicably attaches itself to Peter's scooter and hitches a ride back to his apartment. Elsewhere, a criminal called Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from jail and in his attempt to hide from the police he wanders into a Particle Physics Test Facility - which is never a good idea - and, after falling into a sandpit and having his molecules zapped, he emerges as The Sandman.

However, before Spider-Man tangles with Sandman he finds himself up against his old friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who has harboured a grudge against Peter ever since he discovered he was responsible for his father's death. Harry has modified dad's Green Goblin outfit and he ambushes Peter one night, taking him on in a bruising battle which results in him being knocked unconscious. This one incident can sum up the problems inherent in Spider-Man 3's screenplay: Harry wakes up after his fight with no memory of what happened and - conveniently - no memory of his animosity with Peter. This absurd contrivance writes the new Green Goblin out of the plot until he is required again, at which point all of the old feelings come flooding back right on cue.
Spider-Man 3 is riddled with such examples of lazy, half-baked scriptwriting. The three villains on show all come saddled with their own backstory, and Raimi's attempts to set up each character's motivation are clumsily handled. Flint Marko isn't just a sand-based villain who must be stopped for the good of the city, he's also tied into Peter's own history by being named as the man who really shot Uncle Ben in the first film, which is a ridiculous and unnecessary link. The other new character fares a little better, with Topher Grace's Eddie Brock an amusing presence as Peter's rival photographer, but his moment of transformation into Venom is once again poorly conceived. It comes from his decision to visit a church at the exact moment that Spider-Man happens to be pulling off his black suit in the bell tower, with the space goo dropping down onto the unsuspecting Eddie.

That black goo is also responsible for the appallingly misjudged central section of Spider-Man 3, in which Raimi's usually confident hold on his film's comic elements backfires spectacularly. After a drop of the black stuff has taken hold of Peter his dark side comes to the surface, and in a flipside to Spider-Man 2's Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence we see Peter strutting down the street like Tony Manero, with his hair brushed into a floppy fringe, and behaving in an arrogant, spiteful manner to anyone who crosses his path. The film arguably reaches its nadir during this period with Peter dancing in a jazz club to embarrass Mary-Jane. None of this is funny or enjoyable, it's just excruciating.

It's inconsequential material like this which makes Spider-Man 3 feel so bloated and diffuse. With so many different characters and themes jostling for attention in the screenplay, Raimi is reduced to randomly picking up and then dropping the numerous strands of the story as the film progresses, flitting between situations with the story's tone fluctuating badly. After the first hour a sense of discomfort and restlessness was noticeable among the audience I saw the film with - particularly among the younger viewers - and there were audible groans when the film threatened to adopt the Return of the King approach to multiple climaxes.

To be fair, there are moments when Spider-Man 3 does regain some of the snap and fun of the earlier films. The depiction of Sandman is a particular success; the rather beautiful CGI rendering of Marko's initial transformation into Sandman is the film's undoubted highlight, and two of his fights with Spidey - one in the streets, one in the subway - are imaginatively staged and exciting. It's a shame Thomas Haden Church's performance gets swamped somewhat by the visual effects, but the rest of the cast are solid. Tobey Maguire remains a charming lead - his scenes with Dunst have the tenderness and emotion of a real relationship - and series regulars such as JK Simmons, Rosemary Harris and Bruce Campbell (milking every possible laugh out of his cameo) give their usual strong turns. Credit is also due to Bryce Dallas Howard who does a fine job despite having an unflattering blonde wig and no character, but James Franco's typically stiff and inconsistent performance once again hits all the wrong notes.

The actors can't do much to save the film from its own miserable plotting, though, and my interest had waned significantly some time before the film's big climax. This ending brings together Spider-Man, Sandman, Venom, Harry, Mary-Jane and a few hundred bystanders for an overextended and hugely underwhelming sequence which is barely coherent and completely lacking in tension. As if confused by its own script at this point, the film even employs a news team to commentate on the action and carefully explain who is doing what here, and to whom. Poor Kirsten Dunst is reduced to screaming and falling for twenty solid minutes, and the whole sequence is, frankly, a mess. When it's finally over everyone - heroes and villains - forgives each other for their past misdeeds, and everybody cries.
Spider-Man 3 appears to have fallen into the 'bigger is better' trap that afflicts so many Hollywood blockbusters, but the multiple villains on display here just cancel each other out, with none of them managing to match the sense of threat or pathos which Alfred Molina brought to his Dr Octopus. Likewise, the many explosive action sequences in this film are technically impressive, but they can't come close to the kinetic thrill offered by Spider-Man 2's train-top fight scene. Spider-Man 3 is thirteen minutes longer than the second film and nineteen minutes longer than the first, and yet it feels emptier than either picture; it has plenty of action, but no real warmth. It would have been glorious to see this lovingly crafted and hugely entertaining series closing with the kind of film it deserves, but instead we are left with a slack and unfocused piece of hokum; a film which tries to give us more of everything for its grand finale, but instead it just gets horribly tangled in a web of its own creation.