Shiny Shelf

Spider-Man 3

By Jim Smith on 18 May 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘Spider-Man 3’ does not reach the giddying heights achieved by it immediate predecessor, but nor does it crash and burn in any appreciable sense.

When it succeeds it succeeds brilliantly and many of the performances, especially those of Topher Grace as bitter would-be Peter Parker Eddie Brock and James Franco as wannabe Green Goblin Harry Osborn, are exemplary. There are terrific cameos from J K Simmons (perfect, as ever, as J Jonah Jameson) and Bruce Campbell (as the least convincingly French man this side of Jean Luc Picard).

The finale combines the emotional strand of the plot with dazzling physical, pyrotechnic action and is followed by a lot of sobbing and crying which manages, despite its histrionic nature, to feel almost completely earned.

However, the movie also takes the best part of two hours to get to its last act, flailing around as it tries to keep its many characters and massive number of plot threads (in none of which anything much actually happens, in this sense it is assuredly ‘short on plot’ as George Lucas recently observed) under control.

Characters disappear for more than half an hour at time while Harry Osborn takes an hour and forty minutes of the film to arrive at the exact same character point he was at at the end of the film series’ previous instalment. These and other elements, such as the film’s lack of a clear idea of what it’s about and how that relates to lives of the audience, seem to suggest a script that has either been not drafted enough or re-written too many times.

It’s often a problem with Hollywood blockbusters that they are a two hour movie out of which a ninety minute version is fighting to get out. This is not the case with ‘Spider-Man 3’. No, this is a two and a half hour movie out of which three separate films about Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man are struggling to emerge. One is about Peter and Harry’s relationship, Harry using MJ against Peter and Harry’s emergence as a New Green Goblin. The second is about Flint Marko, accidental super criminal, his dying daughter and unhappy wife and Flint’s unhappy involvement in Peter Parker’s past and present. The third is about Eddie Brock, wannabe photographer and dark mirror of Peter Parker and his growing obsessive hatred of the man whose life he would steal. These stories, crudely intertwined here, are substantially different and about different things.

The Flint Marko strand, grounded by a lovely performance by Thomas Haden-Church and topped off with a magnificently staged, well thought through and emotionally effective retcon (not a comment I ever thought I’d make) concerning the murder of Ben Parker, in particular deserves its own movie, a lean 90 minuter about a difficult week in Peter Parker’s life. The Harry story is a proper sequel to the previous two movies and needs more room to breathe than it gets here (Harry spends about three minutes bitter and scarred). The late addition of the plot involving Brock (and his alien symbiot alter ego ‘Venom’) to the list of requirements placed upon Sam Raimi and co is obvious from the movie’s uncomfortable structure, with some events rushed and others handled achingly slowly, and Venom’s staggeringly late entry into the story. (Although thematically the Brock/Parker rivalry does fit better with the Goblin/Harry story than the Marko one does.) Maybe two films rather than three would work best? With the Harry story working as a background to both? Hmm.

The special effects herein vary from the inspired (the birth of the Sandman, the screaming Venom trapped by sound) to the dreadful (Maybe Lucas was, as one of cinema’s major technical innovators, rattled by ‘falling through a city at night’ scenes which are significantly less impressive technically than those in his own ‘Attack of the Clones’ made more than five years ago) and there’s some compositing which rivals the notorious ‘boat shot’ in ‘King Kong 2005’ for eyeball-searing inadequacy.

In a broad sense, Sam Raimi is a victim of his own previous successes here. Before the first ‘Spider-Man’ a film like this one seemed impossible to imagine. After two mega-hits it seems almost ordinary, even commonplace. There are scenes here that Raimi hits out of the park. The gloriously silly ‘dark parker’ scenes as Peter romances Gwen Stacey (a not terribly convincing Bryce Dallas Howard) and plays the hip cat in a jazz club for example or the brilliantly designed and achingly brutal fight between Peter and Sandman in the subways and sewers of New York. On the other hand some beats from the previous film suffer from being replayed. Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May is now distinctly dull and the actresses’ performance one-note, for example. Crude as it might seem I kept wishing for the character to go the way of her comic book counterpart and catch a bullet. Harsh, I know.

The ‘Spider-Man’ movies are a film series and one of the most successful in film history. They have an enormous amount of material to draw on for stories and the success of this third instalment guarantees further celluloid adventures for Spider-Man. One of the most asinine comments made in recent weeks about second sequels, was the observation that few filmmakers have ever sat down and decided to ‘save something for the third film’. As well as betraying the speaker’s staggering incomprehension of the demands of both serial narrative and of adapting source material that comes in series form, the comment seems particularly wrong-headed as a specific reference to ‘Spider-Man 3’. Had some of the many elements fighting for space and ample screen-time herein been kept for ‘Spider-Man 4’ then ‘Spider-Man 3’ would have been much improved. Too much, not too little, is the problem here – and that’s a problem that multi-million dollar, blank-cheque-cashing, guaranteed to continue series shouldn’t be bringing upon themselves.

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