2007Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Thomas Haden Church, Kirsten Dunst, Tobey Maguire
very summer, schools let out, heat waves move in, the Boston Red Sox start losing, and Hollywood rolls out a fresh line of popcorn movies for the flip-flop clad masses. At this point, complaining about summer blockbusters is as hazardous a temptation for film critics as steroids are for athletes. So, before I start in on Spider-Man 3, the opening salvo in this summer’s annual crop of stupidity, let me put those fears to rest by saying that I have no problem with blockbusters. As someone who is still very fond of Spider-Man 2, I was looking forward to Spider-Man 3. Advance word said it was a disappointment, but so what? It’s Spider-Man. How bad could it be?
Answer: Pretty bad.
This is not to say that it will disappoint all viewers: Spider-Man 3 probably has just enough goofy humor, set-piece spectacle, and special effects wizardry to give the casual weekend crowd its ten bucks worth. But for discerning audiences, it represents an embarrassing stumble for one of few movie franchises with artistic credibility. Spider-Man was a solid piece of entertainment, a bit campy in places, but effective and fun.
Its follow-up was something else—a significant step up from its predecessor, Spider-Man 2 managed to fully translate the giddy fizz of superhero comics into a cinematic form, bringing the fun, silliness, and soap-opera heart to life in a truly artful way. It felt like the work of an auteur—it had director Sam Raimi’s perverse wit, his love of genre, visual flourishes, and slapstick comedy. Best of all, it felt joyful, breezy, and effortless—as insubstantial as a glass of champagne. The fascination of Spider-Man 3, then, is what went wrong.
When we last left Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), he’d finally gotten the girl (Mary Jane, played by Kirsten Dunst), and was comfortable with his role as a superhero at last. Now, Peter’s ready to propose to her, but she’s not so sure about him—lately, Spidey’s developed a bit of an ego. When a creepy alien suit bonds to him (only in comic books do aliens “bond”), it amplifies his negative qualities, especially his love of public adoration.
So far, so good—having vanquished external problems, Peter has to confront his dark side. Not a bad premise for a film, but not a great one either. Superheroes aren’t supposed to “go bad”—remember (or better yet, forget) the creepy scenes in Superman 3 where an unshaven Christopher Reeve menaces schoolchildren and hangs around in bars (no kidding)? So the suit—which sometimes folds like clothing, and other times gurgles like hot tar—gives Peter ‘enhanced’ powers (supposedly; the movie never specifies), a nasty temper, and a new emo-ish look, complete with a Brandon Flowers haircut and purple eyeliner.
Ok, so, that’s pretty campy. But it’s a comic book movie—it’s supposed to be campy. And I could overlook clumsy missteps like this, if the story as whole redeemed them—but it doesn’t. Instead, director Raimi throws together one elaborate set-piece after another, destroying skyscrapers, construction sites, and all number of cars, trucks, and cranes. He throws in not one, not two, but three supervillains. And it’s not enough that Peter has problems in his love life—Bryce Dallas Howard has to serve as a rival for Mary Jane, seemingly only because the studio wanted another ingénue. But Raimi throws even more paint at the wall, hoping, praying, that something will stick: he stages three (!) musical numbers, revises Uncle Ben’s murder from the first film, and sets time aside for a handful of endless, drippy lectures from Aunt May (who all of a sudden sounds like Dr. Phil). Thomas Haden Church appears as the Sandman, whose various transformations provide the movie’s biggest thrills, and Topher Grace shows up as Venom, whose scenes provide the movie’s biggest “so what” moments. All of this hangs on a remarkably slender dramatic thread: will Spider-Man cheer up? The result is a film that feels both empty and overstuffed, that never really manages to start, and takes forever to end.
The failure of Spider-Man 3—which seems to me absolute—does not lie with its actors. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst manage to avoid embarrassment, even though three times he’s required to cry, and three times she’s required to sing. Grace and Haden Church manage to make underwritten roles play—even Rosemary Harris, saddled with a thankless job as Aunt May, conducts herself admirably. The fault lies with Sam Raimi, co-author of a messy script that does not enough with way too much, and director of a splashy summer blockbuster that manages to be an utter drag. The charm and breezy confidence of Spider-Man 2 have been replaced by sluggish, weary, and expensive attempts at spectacle. Judging by the repeated walkouts, bathroom breaks, and nervous tittering throughout the screening I caught, it may not even catch on with those flip-flop-clad masses, even though they expect so little. Someone should go to the top of a lifeguard tower, get on a megaphone, and sound the alarm: Spider-Man 3 sucks.
Spider-Man 3 is currently in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-05-15