Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review: "Spider-Man 3"

You know, it's funny how these things work sometimes. This week, as I posted my Recaps, I became aware of a so-called "Editor's Cut" of Spider-Man 3 that was due to be released soon.

I don't know too much about it, and when I first became aware of it, I thought it was a fan-made work, like the version of The Phantom Menace that cuts out Jar Jar Binks. But it seems to be a legitimate release, so perhaps someday I'll take a look at it and post my thoughts on it.

But as of right now... I don't think improving this movie is a matter of editing.

Right off the bat, I'm going to go over what, in my experience, I've seen to be the most consistent complaint regarding this film: the characters' interactions.

Spider-Man 3 is a more character-driven story than the first two, so, naturally, the interacts of the characters become more important. Every single main character basically ends up making things worse.

Mary Jane and Peter are incapable of communicating, Peter and Harry are incapable of communicating, Harry and his butler are incapable of communicating... so much of the plot occurs because nobody can just talk to each other. But if they could work out their issues, there wouldn't be a plot, right?

And you know, it's pretty unreasonable to ask fictional characters to always make the correct decision. Characters making foolish mistakes powers so many classic plots, even going back to Shakespeare and beyond.

Romeo and Juliet: Two kids from rival families acting on a crush. Not exactly the best idea.

Hamlet: Murdering the king to take his throne and his wife wasn't the best idea, either.

A Comedy of Errors: Everything.

And when a character perpetually makes mistakes, that can also work well. Perhaps a man is released from prison, only to find himself unable to stop himself from repeating his crime. The inability to learn from his mistakes becomes the basis of tragedy.

But when Spider-Man 3 takes all of its characters and gives them a pathological inability to talk through any of their problems... well, then we start drifting into farce.

The real problem is that these conflicts work very well independently.

Peter and MJ's struggles to talk through their relationship problems because Peter doesn't know how to comfort Mary Jane and Mary Jane doesn't want to ruin Peter's happiness?

Interesting plot.

Harry quests for revenge against Peter, refusing to listen to the truth?

Interesting plot.

Harry's butler hoping that Harry can just live in peace without knowing that his dad killed himself? 

Interesting plot.

But when you put them all together, it kind of becomes less than the sum of its parts. When none of these characters realize that they need to work on their communication skills and continue to make things worse over the course of the film... well, there comes a point where you have to stop caring and say "Y'all brought this on yourselves."

Although I think some of this would be remedied by a sequel. If the story didn't end here, then I think everybody ruining their own lives wouldn't sting so bad. There'd always be the hope that they could rebuild everything they'd torn down. At the very least, maybe the ending wouldn't leave feeling so... empty.

Many plots in this movie are simply fighting for screen time, to the degree that many scenes were either changed or cut out of the final product. And some of these scenes were arguably quite important.

Examples include:
  • Gwen breaking up with Eddie officially, cementing him at rock bottom and leading him into the church to beg for forgiveness.
  • Gwen getting kidnapped instead of MJ, leading her to deliver a trailer line to Harry to ask him to save Peter.
Mary Jane: "We've all done terrible things to each other. But we have to forgive each other, or everything we ever were will mean nothing.
  • Explaining why Flint was stealing money by having him demand a kidnapped doctor develop a cure.
  • Sandman becoming sand on a playground for his daughter, leading Eddie to meet up with him and offer the promise of a cure as long as he helps Eddie kill Spider-Man.
  • As I mentioned in the Recap, Flint's daughter would confront her dad and tell him that her illness is terminal, and all she wants before she dies is for her dad to be a good person.
I'm beginning to think that this movie should have been split in two. That way, it wouldn't be as jarring when numerous plots are put on hold to have a comedic scene with Jameson, or a big dance number. But maybe then we'd have been left with two less-than-good movies.

But while I think the movie fails in practice, once again, I have to admit that the basic outline of the plot, and even the execution of many scenes, works. Peter Parker gets everything he wants, including Harry's friendship, and slowly loses it all... because of his own actions. He fails to completely live up to his great responsibility because he succumbs to his inner darkness.

That is a phenomenal premise for a Spider-Man movie.

The most interesting idea this film explores, and the one at its very core, is the idea of a villain who does bad things for a good cause, and a hero who does good things for a bad cause, with each one gaining new powers to help them in their goals; Flint Marko gets sand powers, and Spidey gets the black suit, and each of them use their new strength to further their main goals, and both of them begin to lose themselves and their humanity. And at the same time, Venom, who found great power after his life was ruined, just like they did, represents what they could become if they lose themselves in their rage and their power.

Unfortunately... the devil's in the details.

Character motivations were cut, the movie has little room to breathe when you add all the minor characters and incidental scenes, and it never quite gels the way it should have.

I said it wasn't my job to fix the movie, but perhaps if Spider-Man 3 focused on Peter succumbing to the black suit and fighting a Sandman/New Goblin team-up (with Harry Osborn promising to fund a cure for Flint's daughter once Spider-Man's dead), and then have Peter realize what he'd done to Harry and MJ, making him give up the suit. Then Spider-Man 4 could have picked up with the birth of Venom as Spider-Man, Sandman, and Harry Osborn struggle not to fall into an endless cycle of revenge, with Venom symbolizing what they could become.

The pieces for a decent movie are all here... I just don't think they're put together properly. And I think that might be part of the reason this movie has gotten a bit of a reputation, despite having some excellent aspects. It has potential, and we never see the film live up to it.

I'm not mad, movie. I'm just disappointed.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire)

Spider-Man wasn’t much for wisecracks in the Raimi trilogy. We only really got one or two per film up to this point.

Spider-Man: “It’s you who’s out, Gobby. Out of your mind!”

Spider-Man 2: “Here’s your change!”

They’ve claimed that having Spider-Man make jokes while fighting would slow the pace of the fight, or be hard to film, or some such. But with Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland managing to do just that, I think Sam Raimi was simply keen to avoid the Bat-banter of Batman and Robin, the shadow of which still loomed over the superhero genre in 2002.

But finally, Spider-Man starts making jokes and smart comments, just like his comic counterpart! Except he only does so because he’s become the Amazing Spider-Jerk. Now, when you look at the themes of the film, the smack talk helps illustrate how full of himself he’s become. Except that the smack talk is the character’s trademark in the source material. A trademark we’ve been waiting three films for. And his descent into douche, while intentionally campy, feels like a tonal shift from the rest of the subplot, especially compared to when he hit Mary Jane.

But watching Peter tangle with his dark side brings out Maguire's acting chops. You feel his pain, and you believe that's he's becoming a self-centered jerk.

But Peter’s bonding time with his friendly neighborhood parasite seems to actually have a vaguely medical/scientific reason behind his behavior. Canonically speaking, symbiotes survive on their host’s adrenaline (which is why the black suit took Peter’s body on a joyride when they first bonded), and the adrenal glands are responsible for a hormone called cortisol. And imbalances of cortisol have been linked to manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder.

Now let’s look at a couple of the symptoms of a manic episode. Namely, irritability and the delusions of grandeur/feelings of importance. Hm. Certainly sounds like our Peter, now, doesn’t it? The symbiote makes Peter Parker irritable and overconfident, which isn’t a good mixture, considering the whole “Uncle Ben’s killer is on the loose” deal. And it’s the whole “overconfidence” thing that leads to… well…

Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)
It's a shame she was relegated to a screaming damsel for the third film in a row, because it sort of feels like it's negating her character growth when she ends up in the same predicament.

It really is a shame that her story will never be concluded. Her career has stalled, her friend is dead, and she might get back together with Peter.

Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)
She's not in much of the movie, but she remains Peter's incorruptible anchor to morality, which he needs now more than ever.

Harry Osborn/New Goblin (James Franco)
His arc completes as he chooses friends over the father who didn't really like him in the first place, loosely adapting his death in the comics.

Out of all the character subplots, Harry's has the most remaining depth and actual arc to it, as he becomes a monster, gets a chance to start over, and has it ruined all over again, only to decide to end the cycle of hate and revenge by forgiving Peter. He stops trying to be the man his father wanted him to be and becomes who he wants to be. ...By dying.

Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Hayden Chruch)
Church studied the great misunderstood creatures of cinema to prepare for the role. Frankenstein, King Kong, et cetera, allowing him to deliver a powerhouse performance of a man who ruins his own life for the person he cares about the most... which is why it's a shame that the most important thing he does in the finished film was just retconned into the events of the first film.

He's just there to be the impetus for Peter's anger taking control of him. If you need something to drive Peter berserk, killing Uncle Ben is definitely it. Which is why the retcon happened. That way, Peter could unleash his anger on his uncle's killer and slide into darkness.

It's a shame that Sandman was turned into little more than a punching bag for Peter's emotional issues when they took away his scenes. Some of the parallels between Sandman and Spidey were partially lost until his speech at the end, too.

Edward Brock, Jr./Venom (Topher Grace)
Topher Grace delivers a fairly solid mirror of Peter Parker, representing what Peter could easily become; self-centered, cocky, and corrupt. Cues are taken from the Ultimate Universe Edward Brock, Jr, as well, including his name and build.

Part of the problem with the character stems from the fact that his entire origin (and the symbiote's) has to be condensed.

Eddie Brock, in the comics, got an exclusive interview with a serial killer... that turned out to not be an interview with a serial killer. So Eddie Brock hated Peter Parker and Spider-Man for derailing his life, which is when the symbiote found him.

Here, Eddie sort of just gets caught up in things, almost like he's tangental to the actual plot until he hijacks it at the end. And when you take out the scene where Gwen leaves him, twisting the knife, it just makes matters worse. The movie is filled with the misery of Peter, MJ, and Harry. Throwing Eddie's pain on top of all that lessens its impact.

The other problem is that when Venom comes along, it's ruined by the way he peels back his face to let a sharp-toothed Topher Grace alternate between pouting and improv. The scary, fangly monster is essentially teased and then taken away.

More of this, pretty please.
The final climactic battle is all about defeating Venom, representing the defeat of Peter's dark side, but the rest of the film isn't really about Venom's story, so it feels like the real story is put on hold so we can deal with this intermittent symbiote story. And in a movie where multiple subplots are fighting for screen time, this is not a good thing.

In the comics, an incidental character becoming a powerful villain was kind of a twist. Here, it's just a disappointment, since Venom hijacks the film to fail to live up to our expectations.

Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard)
Gwen was not in the first few scripts. Her character was brought in to replace a random model that Spider-Man saves and kisses upside-down during a celebration, which definitely explains why Gwen Stacy is suddenly a supermodel.

You know, things have never been better for Gwen Stacy. Well, okay, she's still dead in the comics, but she's enjoying a level of popularity that she never had while she was alive.

When Gwen Stacy was alive, she was originally a bit of a popular party girl.

Here she is, planning on making Peter Parker her latest conquest.
Hey, you know what? I'm not going to slut-shame her over the implication that she's had sex with more than a few guys. Sleeping around doesn't make her, or anyone, a bad person.
Reacting like this when Peter doesn't pick up on her advances makes her a bad person.
I mean, those are some evil eyebrows.
And yes, that really is Gwen Stacy. A popular party girl. But when Mary Jane Watson was introduced to create a love triangle, MJ quickly ended up taking over that role.

"Sweet, innocent Gwen Stacy" was basically a retcon. You see, the sweeter they make her character, the more tragic it is that she died.  But these days, her portrayal in The Spectacular Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man gave her a firmly-established geekiness that many fans have come to utterly adore, myself included.  I love what they've done with Gwen in recent years. I really do. They take what was originally a stock character in a "Betty and Veronica"-style love triangle and often make her an interesting character in her own right.

Which makes her inclusion in this film even worse in retrospect.

Gwen has little, if any, personality in this movie. She's all surface. Lightly-bubbly, perfectly sweet surface, but surface nevertheless. Her most interesting dialogue in this entire movie is her reading a speech talking about how great Spider-Man is. The rest of it is just... chit chat.

"Oh, hi, Eddie! I've got a speech to give."

"Oh, hi, Peter! I'm eating here, too! Can you get me a picture of me and Spider-Man?"

"Oh, bye, Peter. I don't approve of you using me to make Mary Jane jealous."

She is a walking, barely-talking plot device. To be fair, fleshing out her character would require screen time that the movie was already running short on, but this Gwen is just Mary Jane-lite. A pretty face with a modeling gig (which was Mary Jane's job in the comics).

Was this karmic revenge for Mary Jane stealing her one iconic scene in the first Spider-Man film? 

"Hey, if it means I survive, MJ can keep the bridge scene for all I care."
Apparently, though, Bryce Dallas Howard did her own stunts during the crane scene. With no idea that she was pregnant at the time.

Dr. Connors (Dylan Baker)
Dr. Connors basically fulfils the role Reed Richards had in the source material, being a scientist who Peter confides in regarding the symbiote. Apparently, he was considered as the main villain at one point, just like how Ben Kingsley would have played Flint Marko’s cellmate who became the Vulture. (In the finished film, Flint’s cellmate is only alluded to.)

Bernard (John Paxman)
Bernard’s terrible judgement was originally going to be explained. By making him into a hallucination, representing Harry’s good side. This idea was scrapped, and the character was allowed to interact with Peter, much like how the Janitor from Scrubs was originally going to be a figment of JD’s imagination until Neil Flynn asked to be able to interact with other characters.

The CGI for Sandman took three solid years of simply figuring out HOW to make it work. In order to figure out how the sand should flow, they messed around with particle physics, talked to professional sand sculptors, and even just poured sand on top of things and tossed it at stuntmen.

The very first shot where Flint Marko returns as the Sandman ended up taking six months to fully create. And although the effects to look more like a videogame cut scene these days, every second of that time and effort shows.That's the risk with CGI; it ends up looking sucky after a few years.

It's like playing Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, really.
But for the time, the effects were top-notch. And honestly, a lot of the effects still hold up. The crawling symbiote looks suitably creepy (The Venom symbiote was redesigned into a sort of living web to be more visually interesting and to prevent its gooey tendrils from looking like an octopus’s tentacles), the green screening is good, and the practical effects (including as stuntman who was born without a hand to provide the scene where Spider-Man punches through the Sandman) and makeup are great.

Originally, the black suit was going to look like it did in the comics, shiny and skintight, but it was compared to a gimp suit, so they just made a black version of Spidey's normal getup and made the spider symbols look meaner. Venom's look changed accordingly from a rather faithful adaptation of the McFarlane Venom into a twisted, monstrous version of the normal Spider-Man film outfit. 

Honestly, I really like Venom's look in this film. His more slender build drives the point home that he's a twisted version of Spider-Man, and the raised webbing really pops onscreen to make him look gnarled. The yellow claws are a little silly, I suppose, but, no more so than the yellow teeth.

Par for the course Elfman and Young work together existing material with new themes seamlessly. Special mention to Sandman's theme, which is equally tragic and villainous.

Best Line
Eddie Brock:
"It's Brock, sir. Edward Brock, Jr."

Only because it reminds me of "Aaron Burr, Sir." This film has some good exchanges, but there wasn't any single line that stands out to me. Go ahead and leave a comment with your favorite line, though.

Best Actor: Thomas Hayden Church
When you look at his face, you can see sadness, regret, and determination all at once. Hands down. 

Best Character: Venom
I know that was an unexpected choice. Let me explain.

The brief moments in this film where Venom gets to be a fangly monster jumping around and being scary are freaking awesome, if rather Carnage-like. The news footage of the police getting taken down is one of the coolest bits in the trilogy, honestly. It's a shame Venom spends so much time with his mask pulled back trying to be funny, because the Venom that leaps around killing cops while shrieking like a Tasmanian Devil is awesome.

Final Thoughts
All things considered, it's a flawed film that still manages to do a few things right. When the Raimi trilogy was all we had, it was easier to appreciate it. But time has not been kind. It's not terrible, but as of this writing, Spider-Man has appeared in at least four better movies. (Spider-Man: Homecoming has not come out yet, and I'm counting Captain America: Civil War.)

At some point, I'll probably do a review of the Raimi Trilogy as a whole. But this time next year, it'll be time to look at the first time Spider-Man was rebooted.

See you then!

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