Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The amazing web of the spectacular Spider-Man unlimited, part III: "Dear God... kill Peter Parker"

In celebration of his fifth cinematic iteration, this series of reviews is devoted to the only arachnid I wouldn't scream at and kill with poison.  Here comes the Spider-Man! 


Sam Raimi's third and final film in his Spider-Man trilogy is a paradox.  It is endlessly ambitious yet stultifyingly lazy.  It is a movie that fails, but a comic book adaptation that succeeds.  It is the result of some of the most tyrannical studio interference in history as well as of the most alienating directorial excess you could possibly imagine.  It is at once my favorite of the trilogy... and my least.  Defying all and embracing none, Spider-Man 3 is beyond "good" or "bad."  It must suffice to simply call it one of the most singular films ever made.

Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Alvin Sargent, Ivan Raimi, and Sam Raimi
With Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Rosemary Harris (May Parker), J.K Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Topher Grace (Eddie Brock), and Thomas Hayden Church (Flint Marko)

Spoiler alert: high

To get it out of the way as quickly and bluntly as possible: Spider-Man 3 is reviled.  It was a critical flop, an audience disappointment, and somehow, even though it made nearly nine hundred million dollars, it wound up being seen as a money-loser, too.  This triple failure mortally wounded the Maguire/Raimi Spider-Man series, and though it took a very long time to finally and truly die, Spider-Man 4 never became a reality.  Now it seems we shall never know the wrath of a snarling, flying old man in a bird costumepity.  But, hell, even its own director thought Spider-Man 3 sucked.

And I have, since its day of release, considered it one of the signal examples of our Internet-driven modern society's worst quality: its seemingly infinite capacity for enormous overreaction.  Yep, I'm that guy.  The one who liked Spider-Man 3.

And that's the review, I guess.  No one's reading past that.

What I like the very most about Spider-Man 3 is that it is a kind of natural narrative experiment.  By accident, what resulted is a comic book movie that all but implodes upon itself as a motion picture, but serves as a completely unfiltered adaptation of comic book storytelling itself.

Spider-Man 3 is infamously unfocused, to the point that it's nearly schizophrenic.  Scenes of fairly-amped brutality for a PG-13 family film are set next to nonsensical comedy that wouldn't seem out of place in Airplane!  It is a film that has three entirely independent antagonistshell, four if you count the black suit symbiote as a separate entity from Eddie Brock, as they in fact are for much of the film.  Even by the more conservative muster of our villains, two of them are appearing for the first time, and their origins are fully toldor as fully as possiblewithin the confines of a film that is also telling the story of a collapsing romance and the lethal blood feud between two families.  And it still finds time for Bruce Campbell to show up and be weird, for J.K. Simmons to show us that we haven't even seen zany yet, and for someone named "Gwen Stacy" to demonstrate that she and her dad, yes, do still exist in this universe, they just don't matter.

The roots of Spider-Man 3's arbitrary and capricious nature are well-documented, thanks to Raimi's public blame game.  Raimi wanted to do Sandman; Sony forced Venom upon him, with an eye to an eventual spinoff for the character, who was unaccountably very popular in the late 90s and is these days rightly considered kind of a joke.  Even by those who have an affection for the love story between Eddie Brock and his symbioteand as a teenaged boy in the 90s, I concede this number includes meVenom embodies an awful moment in comic book history, as a harbinger of both the Superhero Decadence movement and the massive line-wide crossovers that destroyed the industry like heroin destroys an addict.

I mean, Carnage was pretty cool.  But then there were like eighty of the fucking things.

Well, Raimi acceded, and then he went ahead and did his Sandman story anyway, along with the half-dozen other subplots that, collectively, form the meta-plot of this movie.

But if you've read comics, especially comics from the mid-70s and 80s, Spider-Man 3 is like coming home  Especially, I say, because while comics had always been a serialized medium, it wasn't until then that they really started to take advantage of it.  Stan Lee's work in general, and Gerry Conway's work on The Amazing Spider-Man in particular, were the precursors.  And once Paul Levitz and Chris Claremont took over The Legion of Super-Heroes and The Uncanny X-Men, respectively, modern comics really began to take on their final shape.  Claremont is, pretty much inarguably, the single most influential writer in comics history.  (Don't let anyone tell you it's Alan Moore.  You want deviant sexuality and violence in your kid's entertainment?  You can read a Claremont book.)  Without putting too fine a point on it, they turned comics into soap operas.  This meant doing something comics hadn't really done before: long-form storytelling.  Very long-form storytelling.  (So, who was the X-traitor again?)

However, this period of literary innovation predated the collected edition by over a decade.  Thus, long-form storytelling existedbut coherent story arcs geared to the trade paperback?  I defy one who's never read an X-Men book to pick up the The Dark Phoenix Saga and not be baffled by every other page.  Two words: "Majestrix Lilandra."  And no, I didn't just have a stroke.

And Dark Phoenix represented mainstream comics at their most focused and ending-driven... and then only because Jim Shooter forced it to be.  But that's a discussion for my comics blog that doesn't exist.

The point is this: comics of its dayand of this day, to a dismaying degreeweren't really stories as are conventionally understood.  They were clumsy plot points and non sequitur reveals that were dashed off in shorthand because of page constraints and monthly deadlines, filled in by barely-explained references to events from issues you don't even own, the copies of which were pulped years ago.  In the right hands, these never-ending, ever-mutating agglomerations of subplots that played out amidst bitchin' action set-pieces could be infinitely compelling, creating grand mega-structure mythologies that were as inexplicable as they were addictive.  You may have come for twenty-four pages of Magneto nuking Genoshabut you'll stay to find out if Rogue and Gambit ever realize handjobs and sex toys exist.

And that's very much what Spider-Man 3 feels like: disjointed, structurally unsound, and prone to both the hoariest of cliches and the unlikeliest of coincidences... and I sort of love it for it.

That said, boy, is it stupid.

Notably, Raimi himself actually wrote this one.  And just like the monthly installments of a comic, there is a palpable sense that he and his co-writers were making it up as they went along.

Not the slightest attempt is made to streamline the many plots of Spider-Man 3, even though efficiencies could be gained in practically every scene.  For example, there's no compelling reason for Venom to be Eddie Brock, when Harry Osborn has been here all along; and there's certainly no good reason for the Venom parasite to come from outer space, merely because the utterly unadaptable comics origin of the black costume in Secret Wars #8 took place in outer spaceespecially not when Harry Osborn runs a biological weapons lab.  I appreciate a nice nod to The Blob as much as anyone, I assure you, but a trilogy that has run to contrivance at every turn now presents the ultimate in lazy screenwriting: a symbiote-bearing meteor, landing no more than fifty yards from Pete and Mary Jane.

And it tops that in minutes, with a head injury that resets Harry until it's convenient for him to be villainous again.

"Amnesia?  You're kidding, right?"

By the way, don't be too surprised if the man Peter turned into an enemy just a few scenes ago happens to be on hand in the very same church where he divests himself of the symbiote!

And please, let us not even discuss the utter needless insanity of tying Flint Marko to Uncle Ben's death, which frankly undermines the entire point of the black suit and its dangerous influence.

"Where do these guys come from?" Peter asks.  Really unproductive script meetings, Peter.

Hell, it's so overstuffed with bad, sloppy narrative, it eventually becomes positively charming again, at least in the eye of this beholder.  When Peter forgives Flint Marko, and the Sandman flies away, his threat utterly unresolved, it takes a harder heart than mine to really hold it against the story: it's already page 23, and Peter still has to make up with M.J.!

There are things that one can more respectably enjoy in Spider-Man 3.  But if this winds up more like a list than a cohesive reviewwell, isn't that exactly appropriate?

The most obvious are the visualsif much of it actually seems like a step down from Spider-Man 2, it's only because the third installment is so much more ambitious that the ratio of physical to digital has been necessarily transposed.  For 2007, one certainly cannot legitimately complain.

The opening chase through the canyons of New York is phenomenally kinetic; it's a tense airborne duel between Peter and Harry, the latter in his "Goblin, Jr." dudsfar more sensible than dad's, if a bit too much like a spokesman for Mountain Dewwhile the former tries not to forfeit either his life or the engagement ring he's gotten for Mary Jane.

It's quite genuinely wonderful, and so is the final battle, with the Sandman swollen to the proportions of a genuine kaiju and Venom seemingly unstoppable.  Indeed, Venom's surprise defeat by a sonic cage of makeshift theremins, given to us in a long, circling take, is the single most striking action beat in the entire trilogy, short of Norman Osborn's own time-defying death by reaction shot.

On that topic: what would have been the very best moment, and what remains the most RaimiesqueSandman's initial defeat by water main, intercut with ever-closer reaction shots for each bolt Spider-Man breaks loose from the pipeis unfortunately ruined by what is either a terrible lapse in film continuity, or an unmentioned spider-power that permits Peter to bilocate.

On the other hand, the entire crane sequence is a tour de force of modern three-dimensional action filmmaking and sound design, but I do go on.

Of course, the most engaging imagery isn't even in an action sequence at all, and it is the only scene in Spider-Man 3 that I have ever heard anyone else describe in terms of unabashed affection.  This is Flint Marko's return to life in the form of the silicate Sandman following his science-related mishap.  The heaps of sand in the pit begin to stir and take shape.  In some of the better acting CGI technicians have rendered in an otherwise live-action film, the pain and triumph of Marko's rebirth is evident, held aloft by the score, but without resort to a single human sound.  The hand, as it grasps for his daughter's locket, is surprisingly capable of evoking Flint's brittle determination, considering that it is, in the end, only animated dust.

But, if I'm going to be very honest, and I know I must be, I have not mentioned Spider-Man 3's most thrilling nor its most deeply impressive sequence yet.  These are one and the same, and you know I can mean only one thing: the legend that is Emo Peter Parker.

They sure do.

The entire ten minutes between Peter's swaggering montage down NYC's streets of fire under the influence of his parasitic costume and his final jazz-schizophrenic confrontation with Mary Jane is, put simply, one of the most flat-out bizarre things I have ever witnessed.

It says something, though God alone knows exactly what, about studio power dynamics, when Sony could dictate Venom, but had no power to put a stop to this.  Truly, it is some of the bravest filmmaking I've ever seen, for as difficult as it is to imagine someone ever thinking this was cool, it is impossible to believe that Sam Raimi could have believed that anyone else would find it so.  Yet it represents Raimi at his most alive in the whole picture.  He clearly loved it.  Even more clearly, he didn't give a good God damn what you thought about it.

Every time I watch Peter shoot his finger-guns at passing women and dance on that bartop, I can feel my skin literally flush with embarrassment, especially for Tobey Maguire, who sells it with all his little acting heart and every square inch of his terrifyingly malleable face.  But partly, it's because on some level I recognize that I am, myself, enjoying it.  Irredeemably tonally deranged, it is almost completely dysfunctional as an actual dramatic turn in Pete and M.J.'s relationshipbut, whether you like your irony, or if you just genuinely think Maguire is hilarious (and these are not mutually exclusive positions), it is mesmerizing.  You will want to turn away; you may find you physically cannot.

Guardians of the Galaxy could yet prove me wrong, but Spider-Man 3 is probably the very strangest big superhero film there will ever be; yes, even stranger than Batman Returns.  And while I could never wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, it is one of the most uniquely entertaining movies I expect I will ever see.

It's obvious that there was a great, straight movie that Raimi could have made.  But part of methe biggest part of me, if perhaps not the bestis happier that it is Spider-Man 3 that exists instead.

Score:  7/10

Other reviews in this series:
Spider-Man: "Do what you need to with her, then broom her fast!"
Spider-Man 2: Not the superior Spider-Man
The Amazing Spider-Man: The clone saga
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Electro Max likes electro music

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