Sunday, May 06, 2007

Spider-Man 3 / *** (PG-13)

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Toby Maguire
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Harry Osborn: James Franco
Flint Marko/Sandman: Thomas Haden Church
Eddie Brock/Venom: Topher Grace
Gwen Stacy: Bryce Dallas Howard
Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Running time: 140 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense action violence).

As of Wednesday evening, when many of the internet fanboy critics had opined on the latest geekcore summer blockbuster extravaganza, “Spider-Man 3” was sitting at a comfortable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer critics’ opinion poll. But by Friday morning, as the mainstream print critics began to post their thoughts on the web slinger’s latest adventure, it was possible to witness the film’s rapid fall of from “fresh” to “rotten”. First the poll was at 78%, then 72%. A few hours later, it had dropped to 68, then 63. As of my writing this, the film rests at a not-so-fresh 62%.

I attribute this decidedly mixed bag of reviews to a sequel’s worst enemy, expectation. With many scribes hailing Spider-Man’s previous dance upon the silver screen as “the greatest super-hero movie ever”, and a budget reportedly nearing the $300 million mark for this follow-up, it was nearly impossible for industry watchers not to expect to be blown away this time. But sometimes with great effort, comes less reward.

That’s not to say the film is a failure, it just doesn’t soar quite so high. You see, as with any genre film, these comic book adaptations aren’t necessarily designed for universal appeal. This is fanboy territory, and in director Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”), the “Spider-Man” franchise has itself been helmed by a fanboy. Raimi sees the true essence of the Spider-Man universe, which is why the first two films were so successful. But he also wants to make sure all his favorite parts get squeezed in somewhere. With this third installment, that meant throwing a great deal into the pot.

While “Spider-Man 2” wisely restrained from adding the customary two new villains into its mix, Raimi just couldn’t help himself this time around; we get three villains and three separate but equal storylines. For the uncommitted, this could mean too much stuffed into a film that is both too long and overflowing. For some fanboys, this means more of what he wants to see. Others might be happier to see each of these storylines developed more diligently in more than one film. I found myself between the two camps.

Continuing from the previous films is the storyline focusing on the friendship triangle between Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn. Toby Maguire (“Seabicuit”), Kirsten Dunst (“Marie Antoinette”), and James Franco (“Annapolis”) reprise these roles respectively and the webs they all weave become more tangled than ever. As the film opens, Harry still broods over his newfound knowledge that Peter is Spider-Man, whom he feels is responsible for the death of his father. That Peter and Mary Jane seem to have found happiness together as a couple doesn’t help comfort Harry in his growing isolation.

But things aren’t as rosy as they seem for Peter and MJ. She struggles with the fact that he spends so much time helping others as Spider-Man when she needs him emotionally. Peter’s newfound acceptance as a true hero in the eyes of New York’s citizenry chafes at MJ as well. When Harry realizes the cracks in the surface of their relationship, he seizes upon the opportunity to cause his former friend some emotional pain to accompany the physical pain he dishes out as a new costumed nemesis made in the image of his father’s alter ego, the Green Goblin.

In another storyline, we’re introduced to Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church, “Sideways”), an escaped convict with a closer connection to Peter and Spider-Man than is comfortable. Marko has his own problems: his daughter is dying of a debilitating disease and, while he’s on the run from the authorities, he stumbles into an experiment that leaves him with his own debilitation. He finds that he now appears to be made only of sand. He figures out how to regain his former appearance and use his new powers to steal the money needed to help his daughter.

Finally, there is Eddie Brock (Topher Grace, TV’s “That 70’s Show”). Eddie is the new photographer in town, vying for Peter Parker’s job at the Daily Bugle. He finds himself the host of an alien parasite that feeds off of aggression and mutates him into the hate-filled super villain Venom.

To give any of these plotlines any justice, I would have to spend a few thousand more words recounting them. Thus many critics are accusing Raimi of bloating the plot. But I was happy to take in all of these divergent Spider-Man tales. Some holes, however, are left unfilled, most notably the underdeveloped character of Eddie Brock, who never seems evil enough to deserve the transformance that turns him into Venom.

The plot holes, however, are more a reflection of just how broadly Raimi explores his separate storylines. Although he sometimes stays away from each storyline a little too long, he doesn’t sacrifice the story to the action. He also does a good job tying these stories together thematically, as the central character of each finds himself engaged in a battle against his own morality. The action maintains the level of excellence established by the series’ last film. Each fight between Harry and Peter is a spectacular battle, and Marko’s transformation into the Sandman is stunningly realized.

No, I don’t think this installment of the series is good enough to satisfy critics looking for the perfection of “Spider-Man 2”, but it does provide the thrills and some of the emotional explorations that Spidey fans will want. And it is the technically savvy, special effects-filled extravaganza that has come to be expected from the summer blockbuster season. It may not win any screenwriting awards, but this fan was won over by its aim to please.

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