Friday, February 26, 2010

And How I Finally Did Watch Spider-Man 3

I mentioned in the previous post that I really enjoyed "Spider-Man 2" and only marginally liked the original "Spider-Man." I'd put "Spider-Man 3" somewhere between the two. On the one hand it's technically impeccable, nicely acted, and does a great job of delivering action sequences that don't feel labored or repetitious. But on the other hand, I don't think I've seen a movie that had so much and so little happening at the same time.

There have been countless dissertations on the failings of "Spider-Man 3," written by every disappointed comics-literate geek with access to a computer, so I'm just going to focus on the two major elements that I thought caused the most problems: 1) The story was too ambitious, and 2) They made Peter Parker unlikable. The first is easily forgivable, but the second is harder to ignore, and both issues are pretty intimately connected.

I like that Ramis and his collaborators tried to include a variety of different sources of conflict for our hero: a new supervillain, a new rival, ongoing issues in old relationships, and the hidden pitfalls of his own success. What sets Peter Parker apart from his costumed brothers-in-arms is that he's young, has limited resources, and juggles a complicated life that never seems to give him a break. Anyone who is struggling to hold down a job or make time for loved ones can relate to him, because Peter's troubles are so wonderfully normal.

But while the previous films let myriad problems compound on top of each other, the ones in "Spider-Man 3" end up pulling Peter Parker in too many different directions. The Sandman brings out Peter's vengeful side, the alien symbiote turns him into an over-confident jerk, the Eddie Brock and Harry Osbourne storylines need him to be a straight-arrow good guy deserving of our sympathy, and his relationship troubles with Mary Jane require a lot of self-centered cluelessness. It doesn't feel like the same person is showing up from scene to scene.

The inconsistencies don't end there. Despite being well over two hours long, the movie often feels like it's missing scenes, rushing to deliver exposition but rarely lingering long enough to fill out its characters. The villains suffer the most here - Sandman only seems to show up for action sequences, and Harry Osbourne's personality veers wildly between vicious and friendly depending on what the plot needs him to do at the time. Eddie Brock comes out about right, but only because he's the shallowest character. Ultimately none of the bad guys get a full-fledged story the way Goblin and Dr. Octopus did, not even poor Harry.

Peter Parker and his multiple personalities get the bulk of the film's screentime, and they need it. The script forces the character to go through so many painful contortions, it's a wonder Tobey Maguire didn't throw out his back. One of the major themes of "Spider-Man 3" is Peter discovering his dark side, which manifests in some bizarre ways. The famously mocked dance sequence wasn't as bad as I was led to believe, but I thought a later scene did far more damage to the character: the club sequence with Gwen Stacy.

"Spider-Man 2" drove the message home that the hero wasn't the suit, but the kid who wore it. Peter Parker might have a bumpy life, but at the core of his character was that wonderful moral center that kept him going. Even when faced with horribly unfair or unreasonable situations in his normal life, Peter didn't whine, didn't retaliate, and didn't stop doing things the hard way. He persevered, because that's what heroes do, and deviations from that standard always came with consequences.

So to see Peter throw all caution to the wind, mercilessly sabotage Eddie, disfigure Harry, and then deliberately humiliate Mary Jane - it was crossing way too far over the line. Acting like a dorky bad-boy version of himself was silly, but fairly harmless. Watching him deliberately hurt the girl he loved in an act of utter petulance was another matter entirely. The film almost lost me completely at that point, and the subsequent lack of any truly serious negative consequences from his behavior still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

All in all I do like the film. There are lots of wonderful little moments in it that belong in a much better story, and every time the suit comes on, all the other problems seem to melt away. I think my favorite bit in the whole thing was during the climatic fight scene where we see Spider-Man trying to web-sling his way out of a fall, only to run out of space and end up slamming himself into a roof. He does that move so often, so perfectly, we don't expect him to crash until it happens. And then all you can do is wince.

But you know he'll pick himself up and try again. Heroes do that.

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