What hath Star Wars wrought?
Ever since King George closed out his original series of space opera flicks with that great campfire ditty, Yub Yub, Hollywood has been enamored with the power of three. These days, every franchise gets tagged with a three-picture deal. And while a trilogy makes sense when the entire story arc is mapped out ahead of time and requires three films to tell the tale (see Lord of the Rings for a good example), there’s too much pressure to wring a few more hours of entertainment from every property that shows the slightest inkling at making bank. More often than not, instead of scoring the trifecta, by the third film we typically end up experiencing a trilogy of terror.
Compounding this problem is the recent trend of jamming as much content as possible into these flicks. Whether it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the dense narratives enjoyed on television, today’s blockbusters toss as much incident and exposition into their frame – bloating the running times and bursting at the seams. It’s the proverbial kitchen sink approach, throw as much stuff at the wall and see what sticks. The Matrix sequels ran afoul of this. Splitting their sequels in half, the two follow-ups had a combined 5 hours to tell their tale and the results still ended up muddled and confusing. Last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, while entertaining, took 2 & ½ hours tossing more balls in the air with the promise that this summer’s impending World’s End would be able to close out all storylines. That forthcoming film better clock in at 5 hours alone if it hopes to do justice to the strands left dangling at the end of Part II – let alone deal with the new elements introduced in this 2nd sequel – including a full on pirate war and the introduction of Chow Yun Fat and Keith Richards into this universe.
And now we have the release of Spider-Man 3, a film that comes on the heels of its spectacular predecessor. Spider-Man 2 released in the summer of 2004 and immediately hit that rarified air, existing as the rare sequel that triumphs over its predecessor in every way. If sequels must be made, there better be a reason for existence, and in Spidey 2, director Sam Raimi set out to color in the corners and provide ample reason for the amazing Spider-Man’s return. Key to that film’s success was Raimi’s continued focus on Peter Parker as the main protagonist, not Spider-Man. Raimi knew that in order to connect with an audience beyond the unwashed fan base, he needed a hook, and that was by keeping the story grounded in reality – in focusing on a normal boy with extraordinary experiences. Essentially, he took what worked wonderfully in the first film (the first half which focused on Spidey’s awkward origins) and expanded upon that to flesh out Peter Parker’s travails. These films work best when they focus on Spidey’s weakness.
Which is why it is so disappointing that Spider-Man 3 ultimately swings and misses. It’s not a bad movie per se – in fact, it’s more entertaining than most big summer flicks – it’s just there is so much potential in the film that is wasted. The film feels listless and uneven. It’s not what’s onscreen that is poor but what feels left out that hurts the film. For a movie that already runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, it feels like there are crucial scenes missing that would explain major character motivations. There is a major plot point midway through the film where one character coerces another to do something that will strike at Peter’s heart. Had that character simply revealed the deception at that point – knowing full well who Peter is and what he is capable of – a great deal of hurt could have been avoided. The reason I have fault with this sequence (and I’m being careful not to spoil the event) is that it feels hollow to the characters true motivations. It’s a plot device used to move Peter towards his dark side and feels unnecessary. Like last summer’s Superman Returns, there are a number of sequences that don’t hold up once you think back upon them.
Another problematic area involves Harry Osborne’s butler, who shows up in the nick of time to offer some exposition that brings about a change of heart in Harry. The problem, the butler possesses information (apparently gleaned from his night job as forensic pathologist) which had he shared at any point over the last several years may have also prevented a large number of the personal conflicts that rage throughout this film. And, having just screened Spider-Man 2 again over the weekend, this butler knows a lot about Harry’s obsessions as there is a key scene in Spider-Man 2 where he confronts Harry (who is getting drunk while pouring through pics of Spidey) and says “Your father only obsessed about his work, sir.”
I’ve knocked the film quite a bit mainly because there is a lot of good in it – some wonderful sequences – but the script really lets the film down and prevents it from soaring. Spider-Man 2 was scripted by Pulitzer Prize winning Michael Chabon and re-written by Oscar winning screenwriter Alvin Sargeant. Spider-Man 3 was co-authored by Raimi and his brother Ivan and then received some spit-polish from Sargeant. Perhaps Raimi should have stuck to the visuals and brought Chabon back on board.
As I mentioned, there are some wonderful moments in this film. The Sandman character – while underdeveloped as the film goes on – is sharply realized by the effects team and given great heart and gravitas by Thomas Haden Church. Sandman works best early in the film, where Church imparts real pathos to his simple man who is “not a bad guy… just had bad luck.” He has that weather-beaten appearance that looks like he just crawled from a Dick Tracy comic and there is a real sadness in his face that underscores the performance.
And – it must be said – the birth of Sandman sequence (an elegant 4 minute display of CGI magic) is truly haunting with Raimi and his effects wizards combining music and state of the art images to breath life to the inanimate. This sequence alone gave me a charge that nothing else matched in the movie and it stands as a real piece of Hollywood magic.
While she received short shrift, Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of Gwen Stacy won my heart. In fact, it’s hard not to wish Peter would just dump the glower Mary Jane and saddle up with such a sprightly chippie. Howard brings a real glow to her character and she makes the most of her frustratingly few scenes. Here’s hoping the rumors of Spidey’s demise are just that, as I would love to see Howard return for an encore.
And while the Venom subplot is yet another element that is shoehorned into this film, I found Topher Grace’s casting inspired. He essentially plays off the duality of Spidey – he’s the Bizzaro world Parker – and seeing these two geeks go at it as they jockey for the same job (and later – the same girl) provides a thrill. Grace is Sneaky Geek, his stylish blonde highlights and spiky locks barely conceal the awkward boy beneath, and the film hits some tantalizing notes when it uses Brock to show us just where Parker could go wrong.
In fact, one way to repair some of the issues I have with this flick is to jettison most of the Venom stuff to a Spider-Man 4. In fact, Raimi has confessed that the studio was interested in fleshing all of these stories out and splitting them into two movies. That probably would have been the best way to go. You could have spent Spider-Man 3 having Peter deal with the black suit and its effect on his personality, as well as fleshed out the Sandman and used him as the target of Spidey’s wrath, while keeping the romantic subplots brewing (including the introduction of Gwen Stacy). Then instead of having Sandman and Venom team up, which in the movie comes out of complete left field, save Venom for Spider-Man 4. Keep the removal of the black suit (on screen it works wonderfully and provides some cool visuals) as well as the symbiote latching onto Brock. Then in the final moments of the film, after Peter and Mary Jane make amends, we could cut back to that church. Perhaps a priest hears noises coming from the basement of the church and begins to investigate. As he descends into the darkness, he fires up a large flashlight, cutting swaths of light in the darkness. Finally the light catches on something and as the priest moves in to investigate, Venom lashes forward fully transformed… and hungry. The End.
An ending like that would alleviate some of the bloat in this film and would nicely set-up the next stage in Spidey’s evolution. And it would send fanboys running to their basement computers in one collective geekgasm.
Of course, that doesn’t solve the other problems I had with the film but it does remedy a big one. The bottom line is Spider-Man 3 doesn’t work as well as its predecessors because too much is thrown into the mix and yet it either doesn’t seem like enough is there to explain away some of the leaps in logic or too much is there that should have been edited out. In a way, it’s similar to the criticism I lobbed at last summer’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand, which also tried to throw too much incident into the plot as if someone at Marvel handed the screenwriters a PowerPoint presentation of Who’s Who in the Marvel Universe with the edict – “Just get ‘em in the film.” The problem that film suffered from was a spartan running time (under two hours) to deal with the cornucopia of characters and plot developments. Spider-Man 3 is a much more careful and labored film yet it shares a similar fate.
There’s just too much going on here… and yet, not enough.