Spider-Man 3 (2007)Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence.
Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.
It's Crowded in Good Ol' New York
I admit no other current movie franchise turns me into a little kid more quickly than the Spider-Man series. When I view these movies, I'm still wearing a critic's hat, but it only serves to help me justify why I'm experiencing the shows with such glee. After I watched each of the first two films, I was on a high; the following morning, I was still on that high, so I knew things were good. At that point, all that mattered was for me to write down how I was feeling.
It comes with a bit of sadness, then, to report that when I woke up the morning following my viewing of Spider-Man 3, I no longer had that same kind of high. I felt something was amiss immediately after the movie, but a high was there -- a "gee whiz" sense of unquestioning awe from watching the webslinging superhero swinging around in colorful kineticism, battling some crazy villains and dealing with the identifiable emotional struggles that come from being a nerdy do-gooder in love with his dream girl. However, something wasn't quite right -- it's the first time I watched a Spider-Man outing and had a nagging sense to go along with the wonder.
I think, simply put, things are just too crowded in Spider-Man 3. Spider-Man 2 had a sense of focus and economy, with a story centered strongly on Peter Parker, who was brought to his lowest lows and highest highs, thanks to his relationship with Mary Jane Watson and a new father-figure-like nemesis, Doctor Octopus. There was plenty of action to go around, but ultimately there was a solid narrative foundation.
In Spider-Man 3, the maturation of Peter (Tobey Maguire) still forms the central story, but a gazillion subplots and characters are now competing for space. It's all right for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to share more of the spotlight this time -- her and Peter's relationship has formed the main arc of the series -- but now their friend Harry (James Franco) is reasserting his end of the love triangle. Meanwhile, there's also an escaped convict, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who has a marginal relationship to Peter's history, and a competing photographer, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), threatening Peter's job security.
And to top it all off, there's an alien symbiote stalking our hero. Longtime fans of Spidey will know that it's the bio-substance that gives the hero his temporary new look -- the black suit. That transformation alone should be enough for one whole movie by itself, and you think this would be the case in Spider-Man 3, but frankly nothing happens with it until almost half way through the movie. Spider-Man's experience with the symbiote actually feels like, roughly, one-fifth of the movie. The other fifths consist of his faltering relationship with Mary Jane (thanks, in part, to yet another new character played by Bryce Dallas Howard), the re-emergence of Harry, the origins of the new villains, and a climactic superhero/supervillain battle royale.
None of these elements are particularly unsatisfactory in thematic or contextual ways. They each have a function, and most of the more outlandish events really serve as metaphors -- Eddie acts as a mirror of Peter's id, which gets to act out on its own in the form of the symbiote/black suit. Marko becomes the Sandman and the object of Peter's new grudge; however, due to his powers the Sandman may be too powerful to completely defeat, thus representing the nature of Peter's psychological hurdle.
Still, when they each have little parts to play in a big whole, none of the elements can maintain their substantive weights. Also, because of their fantastic natures, they each have to work a little harder to preserve both believability as a fantastic element and their weight as a thematic element. What happens here is that they all cut very close to feeling perfunctory as superhero movie elements. The symbiote arrives on earth Blob-style, on a meteorite -- its presence and link to Peter are extremely coincidental, with little explanation, so its function as a visual metaphor appears too obvious. The Sandman makes for a great special effect, but he doesn't get to create a rivalry with Spider-Man nearly as heated as the one between Spidey and Doc Ock in the last movie. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was Venom (no spoiler in saying this is who Eddie becomes), who is supposed to be one of Spider-Man's major arch-enemies. He's barely in the movie -- his presence, again, more functional than substantive.
Well, it's starting to sound like I'm pouring on the sour grapes, and I don't want to give the wrong impression -- I still had a wonderful time with the movie because so many of the themes and elements are familiar. I'm very happy Sam Raimi and his team stuck around to do this third go-around because seeing the movie was like visiting the home of a favorite relative or friend -- everything's already so cozy and comfortable, all we have to do is pick up where we left off. And that's the best thing about Spider-Man 3: it's able to retain so much of what made the first two movies so good -- Peter's earnest struggles and psychological growth, the love story with Mary Jane that tries to stay defiantly (bitter)sweet in the face of cosmic obstructions, the love of New York, the overall buoyancy of the cast and sincerity in the storytelling.
Yes, I wish the Spider-Man 3 material had been split up into more movies, giving us a chance to savor each new thematic wrinkle -- but this team may not be back together again to create the next installment, so perhaps we should just be thankful for the big bag of stuff we're getting right now.
©Jeffrey Chen, Apr. 26, 2007