ARTS

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May 4, 2007

Spidey fends off vicious villains, but not bad romance

Spider-Man 3 is a movie that suffers, unfortunately, under the weight of its predecessors. At the end of 3, we can begin to see how the Spider-Man series as a whole hangs together, and in comparison with the first two installments, 3 will probably be seen as the point at which the franchise begins to show its age.

All of this is not to say that Spider-Man 3 is terrible or that you shouldn’t see it. I mean, the marketing blitz alone ensures that you probably can’t even avoid it. It is rollicking-good summer entertainment, and hey, what can I say, I love Spider-Man—always have, always will. Plus, at any rate, neither of the first two Spider-Man installments gets anywhere close to being a perfect film. But all three are exquisitely entertaining because, even if they are not perfect wholes, they still contain individual moments of perfection that recall the best of what cinema has to offer.

The latest in the series, however, contains fewer of these moments of perfection, due in large part to the limitations the first two have placed upon it. One of the reasons why Spider-Man 2 was so unbelievably awesome and, indeed, affecting was because its precursor (which I shall refer to as 1) gave it the perfect set-up. The unresolved romance between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) bloomed in 2 as the most poignant story of longing and romantic tension that has ever appeared in any superhero film.

But by ending with Peter and MJ getting together, 2 burdened 3 with a story of romance that is largely static. Think about it: When movies end with the two lovers getting together and living happily ever after, we don’t expect more of the story to be told. They just live happily ever after, and that’s it, at least as far as we’re concerned with the story. So once we get to 3, the filmmakers have had to manufacture some drama between Peter and MJ. The relationship foibles in the third installment are more along the lines of, “Oh, so it was the evil alien that caused all those unfortunate misunderstandings between the two lovers,” rather than events with which we can actually relate.

Speaking of the evil alien, however, the villains in 3 are probably the best of the series. To compare, the Green Goblin in 1 was a blot that is best forgotten, and while Doctor Octopus was an improvement, his climactic battle with Spider-Man involved a nuclear something-or-other that was as incomprehensible as it was forgettable. In 3 we get to see the alien symbiote that merges with Peter Parker’s rival at the Daily Bugle, Eddie Brock (played by Topher Grace, who, surprisingly, is a convincing villain), to become Venom.

Adding to Spider-Man’s woes this time around are the Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church, who, coincidentally, looks exactly like the villain in the comic), as well as Harry Osborn (James Franco), who adopts his father’s Green Goblin powers but not the ridiculous mask and cheesy cackle.

But even the superb villains aren’t enough to mask the fact that the screenwriters seem to be running out of steam this late in the series. In 3, Spider-Man is finally enjoying the limelight; having become something of an icon, he’s given the key to the city in a public ceremony, at which kids in little Spidey costumes dance to a marching band playing the theme song to the old TV cartoon. It’s cute, but the whole scenario seems a little contrived, especially when the buoyant Peter walks down the street to disco music while leering and winking at female passers-by. These episodic attempts at humor fall short and show how the screenwriters had a hard time making the movie cohesive.

The action scenes are merely passable, even granting the fact that the epic fight between Spidey and Doc Ock on the El in 2 is a hard standard to beat.

In 3, the filmmakers have little idea how to draw the action scenes to satisfying conclusions that fit seamlessly with the flow of the plot. The most glaring example is when the Sandman disappears after a robbery, and Spidey is left standing alone with the empty armored car and thus appears to have committed the crime himself. This event is dropped and never comes up again. It appears to be an elaborate red herring, and a poorly executed one at that, since we aren’t sure how to take this scene—is it humorous, portentous, or something else entirely?

Still, while not the best of the three, Spider-Man 3 is not bad as an end to the series—if, indeed, this is the last time around for Raimi, Maguire, and Dunst. If there is a new Spidey film, let’s just hope that director Raimi doesn’t go all George Lucas on us with a series of prequels portraying the Green Goblin as a little kid. Then we might have to write our congressmen or do something to prevent such a travesty.