Sunday, May 06, 2007

"Spider-Man 3": the review


Yesterday, I went to an 11:40pm viewing of "Spider-Man 3," which proved to be a worthy, if somewhat overstuffed, sequel to the previous two Spidey outings (in my opinion, "2" remains the best). I've just compiled a list of things off the top of my head, and will discuss them in no particular order.


Peter Parker opens the movie with a Sally Field-style narration: You like me! You really like me! Parker notes that the city thinks of Spider-Man as its hero, and so does the nation (Spidey appears on the front page of USA Today, among other rags). In the meantime, the web-slinger fights crime and finds himself both at the top of his game and ready to propose to his one and only, Mary Jane (hereinafter "MJ"). Kindly old Aunt May gives Peter her own wedding ring to allow him to propose to MJ with something meaningful (Pete still lives in his dump of an apartment and, until Aunt May came to the rescue, he had been contemplating buying an engagement ring "on layaway").

During a nighttime outing in a park with MJ, lying on a giant web he has spun for them both, Pete professes his love, and while kissing MJ, somehow fails to hear a large meteor* impacting only a few yards away, "Empire Strikes Back"-style. His spider sense also fails him when a shapeless alien creature that looks a bit like living tar creeps out of the impact crater and hops onto his moped when he and MJ leave the place of their tryst (in this universe, do New Yorkers mind seeing huge webs randomly dispersed through their parks?). The alien, apparently sensitive to the screenwriters' need to balance several storylines, abandons Peter's moped, follows Peter into his apartment, and quietly hangs out in his bedroom, doing absolutely nothing for a good chunk of the movie.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, escaped convict Flint Marko (does anyone else think this name has a "Clint Eastwood" vibe to it?) sneaks into his estranged wife's apartment and looks lovingly at his sleeping daughter, who keeps an oxygen tank by her bed because she's apparently quite sick, and has been so for a long time. Marko's wife angrily shoos him out; he ends up on the run from police again, and after hopping a fence with a menacing "Particle Physics" sign on it, falls into a pit filled with sand right as some sort of "demolecularization" experiment is about to be performed. You can guess what happens next. Yup: Marko is fried in the experiment, and his DNA fuses with the sand. It's not until the following morning that the new creature, which newscasters will later call "the sandman," pulls itself together and shambles off.

Harry Osborn, still convinced that Spider-Man killed his father (the Green Goblin of the first movie, played with gusto by Willem Dafoe, and still my favorite villain, even though I like "Spider-Man 2" better), pumps up on Dad's Green Goblin steroids and finds Peter not long after Peter acquires the engagement ring from Aunt May. A fight ensues; Peter loses the ring but recovers it eventually; Harry is knocked out and ends up losing his short-term memory-- which is to say, he's back to being friends with Peter because he can't remember that Spider-Man supposedly killed his father.

While Spider-Man basks in glory and the adulation of his fellow New Yorkers, MJ's career as a Broadway singer is in freefall. MJ tries to express her hurt after she receives a bad review from one newspaper critic; Peter's response-- essentially, "Buck up!"-- doesn't help her out of her funk. It later turns out that MJ was panned by all the major critics, and she is booted from the show. She takes up a job as a singer/waitress at a jazz bar; in the meantime, her relationship with Peter sours, especially after she becomes convinced that Peter is flirting with another woman-- Gwen Stacy, Peter's physics lab partner as well as the daughter of the NYPD Chief of Police. Peter's attempt to propose to MJ goes awry in the midst of all this strife.

In the meantime, the police call Peter (they don't know he's Spider-Man) and tell him that Flint Marko, whom Peter recognizes as the sandman after a fight inside an armored truck, is the real killer of Uncle Ben (who was murdered in the first movie, but who has enjoyed Kenobi-like revisitations in both sequels, thanks to flashbacks). Peter is steamed at the idea that the real killer is still loose in the city. While thinking vengeful thoughts, Peter goes to bed in his Spidey suit, and it's at this late point in the movie that the tar-alien makes its move. The alien, some sort of symbiote, seems to feed on the darker aspects of human personalities. In Parker's case, this manifests itself as a transformation from geek to hip-thrusting geek who yells at people and sometimes punches them.

Harry Osborn's memory returns not long after a distraught MJ visits him, kisses him, and then leaves in guilt over what she has done. Green Goblin Junior once again, Harry heeds his dead father's advice to "attack the heart," which in this case means forcing MJ to break up with Peter, then telling Peter quite frankly that he is "the other guy." This eventually leads to another physical confrontation between Peter and Harry inside Harry's mansion; Harry gets his ass kicked a second time, partly because Peter is wearing the alien symbiote, which has taken the form of a black Spidey suit and is fueling Peter's viciousness. Harry survives the explosion of one of his own grenades thanks to his amped-up Green Goblin physiology, but half his face is torn up and he is (we assume) left blind in one eye.

Peter, meanwhile, is spiraling out of control as the symbiote goads him to perform increasingly rash deeds (most of which amount to little more than ogling women, doing sidewalk geek dances, and buying black clothing to match The Blackness of His Soul). Along with alienating his girlfriend, Peter wrecks the budding career of rival photographer Eddie Brock, exposing the latter as a fraud when Brock attempts to pass off a doctored photo of the new, black-suited Spider-Man as legit. Brock is humiliated and is fired by Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. Peter, still in Evil Mode, tells Brock, "You want forgiveness? Get religion," a line that warns us of things to come.

There is a turning point in Peter's behavior, though: after inviting Gwen Stacy on a date to the jazz bar where MJ works, all in an attempt to hurt his ex, Peter gets into a fight and ends up accidentally striking MJ, knocking her to the floor. Aghast at what he has done, Peter resolves to get rid of the black suit. Following his own advice to "get religion," Peter goes up into a church bell tower and wrestles with the alien symbiote, attempting to tear it off his body. The disgraced Eddie Brock, in the meantime, has come to the same church to pray to Jesus Christ. His prayer: "Please kill Peter Parker." Immediately after this, Brock hears the sounds of Parker's struggle, runs over to the bell tower, looks up, and sees that Peter is up there, in the Spidey suit. He puts two and two together.

Peter's struggles cause him to bang against the church bell, which apparently freaks out the alien symbiote, causing it to loosen its grip. Peter shakes the thing off... and the symbiote falls on (or leaps toward) a new host-- Eddie Brock. Brock almost immediately becomes an evil travesty of Spider-Man. In the comic books, he's named Venom, but in the movie, he has no name.

Venom, still a newshound at heart, quickly tracks down sandman Marko, and the two decide to team up against Spider-Man. MJ is kidnapped while in a taxi; the taxi ends up being suspended high in the air in a horrible, Venom-created web. Peter, knowing he now faces two powerful enemies, implores Harry to help him, but Harry refuses. Spidey moves off to face the two enemies alone, but it soons becomes clear that they will finish him off. The battle takes place in front of hundreds of onlookers and several news crews; the reporters offer editorialized commentary as the fight rages on.

Harry shows up in the nick of time, now resolved to help his friend Peter against Venom and the sandman. The sandman is temporarily defeated, but Venom proves tougher than he looks. Venom binds Peter and is about to kill him with Harry's Green Goblin surfboard blades, but Harry leaps in front of Venom and allows himself to be impaled through both lungs. This doesn't prevent him from saying rather a lot later on.

The fight with Venom spills some large metal pipes, whose clanging and bonging sounds again freak out the alien symbiote. Realizing this is his chance to save Eddie from the alien, Spider-Man stabs pipes into the concrete floor, forming a musical cage around Venom. Spider-Man keeps making music until the alien's grip on Eddie is weakened; he then pulls Eddie free and tosses a Green Goblin grenade into the cage to finish the alien off. At the last moment, though, Brock breaks free of Peter's grip and attempts to rejoin the alien. Too late: the grenade explodes, and both the alien and Brock die in the blast.

The fight is over; all is quiet, and dawn is breaking. The sandman, much calmer and somewhat contrite, reappears to Peter and takes the human form of Flint Marko; he explains the events of the night he killed Uncle Ben and talks about his sickly daughter. He tells Peter he doesn't expect forgiveness, but wants Peter simply to understand why things worked out as they did. Peter, taking the advice of his Aunt May, forgives Marko for the murder. Marko then becomes a cloud of sand and flies off to parts unknown, presumably to help his daughter somehow or other (he had spent a good part of the film trying to steal a huge sum of money to pay for his daughter's medical treatment).

MJ is already at the dying Harry's side when Peter finally joins them; he and Harry express their friendship for each other; everybody sheds tears, and Harry Osborn breathes his last. Later on, MJ is singing at the jazz bar, and she and Peter reconcile, but the matter of marriage is put off for another movie. The closing voiceover by Peter Parker is a short sermon on choice and responsibility, which is a recurrent theme in the movie as the main characters deal with circumstances that sometimes seem out of their control-- MJ and her fizzling career, Peter and the alien symbiote, Eddie and the same symbiote, Marko and his unasked-for transformation, Harry and his chemically enhanced vengefulness. We fade to black on a somber, yet tentatively positive note that put me in mind of the ending of the Korean action movie "Shiri," which is one of the most thoughtful action movies I've ever seen.

So that's the story of "Spider-Man 3." If you haven't seen the movie and didn't want to have it spoiled for you, you're an idiot for having read this far, and I love you for it.

And now-- on to my thoughts.


I had an aisle seat, but the three seats next to me were taken up by squirmy little high school girls who spent the first half-hour of the film chatting and checking their fucking cell phones. God, how I hate that. They peeked at their phones later in the film, too, which annoyed the hell out of me.

But by the end of the movie, at least two of the three girls were in tears, touched by the ending, especially the reconciliation between Peter and Harry. While "emotional depth" is a term we normally reserve for chick flicks, I'm old and crotchety enough to expect some emotional depth in my films, too (especially if it distracts teenagers from their electronic devices). All three Spider-Man movies have been uncommonly deep in this regard; director Sam Raimi and his writers have shown themselves dedicated to character and story, with special effects always taking a back seat to the plot (are you listening, George Lucas?).


The composer for this film was not Danny Elfman, but a gent named Christopher Young who took over for Elfman and riffed off Elfman's leitmotifs. The score was solid. Not being very observant, I hadn't caught who the composer was in the opening credits, and had assumed Elfman was still on board. According to media scuttlebutt, however, Elfman claimed he had had a miserable time working with Sam Raimi, so he refused to sign on for the third film. That's a shame; I thought the score for the first two Spider-Man films was fantastic, despite the reuse of some elements from the Batman score.


This time around Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, gets a long cameo in one scene with Peter Parker. He says something like, "You see? One man can make a difference." It was a cute moment, and symbolically, it shows that Lee gives his blessing to Raimi, who has been faithful to the spirit of the Marvel comic.

Bruce Campbell also returns for a cameo. In the first movie, he was a ring announcer at a cage match; in the second movie, he was a rude usher who keeps Peter Parker from entering a theater to watch MJ perform. In "3," Campbell gives us what has to be a deliberately poor rendition of a snooty-- yet bizarrely accommodating-- French maître d'.

Peter hopes to meet MJ at this fancy French restaurant and propose to her. When he approaches the maître d' about his table reservation, the maître d' seems a bit frosty until Peter explains that he needs the Frenchman's help so he can pop the question to MJ. The maître d's demeanor changes completely, because, as he explains, he is French, so he is all about romance.

Based on this hilariously goofy performance, I'd say Bruce Campbell is about as French as Adolf Hitler, but it was still great to see him doing his B-movie thing. Maybe the next Spider-Man movie should feature Spider-Man teaming up with Ash in some sort of Spidey-and-Evil Dead crossover.


I like Kirsten Dunst. There's something about her voice that gets me right below the belt line. Yum. I think she has a perfect handle on how to play MJ, but my one problem with the character-- and this is not Dunst's fault-- is that every fucking movie features MJ in trouble.

I thought we were beyond the whole damsel-in-distress business and living in the Age of Uma Thurman (though, for my money, Grace Jones and Tina Turner had more of an ass-kicking aura than Uma did). Apparently not; "3" features at least two major scenes with women in peril: before MJ ends up in Venom's web in the third reel, Spidey has to rescue Gwen Stacy, who is punted out of a building when a construction crane goes haywire on the next building over.


As always, an awesome performance by Simmons, who has nailed the character. This time around, his secretary makes him jittery by constantly buzzing in to remind JJJ to take his pills. The buzzer is so loud that it makes Jameson's desk vibrate, and gives us the impression that the secretary is administering electric shocks to her boss. (Bzzzt! "Not that one!" she says when he reaches for the wrong pills. Bzzzt! "Not that one!")

The cool thing about this scene is that we're normally used to seeing JJJ in his element. He's flawed but in control, responding to every situational change with instant (if often blind) decisiveness. Watching him hesitate as he reaches for a bottle of pills, fearful of that damn buzzer, we see what may be, for lack of a better term, the tender human side of Jameson's otherwise gruff character. The secretary is badgering JJJ on orders from his wife, and while he doesn't seem to take kindly to this, he ultimately respects his better half's wishes (we never see la esposa).


George Lucas's Yoda and Peter Jackson's Gollum have shown us the way: CGI, when well animated in the service of a fictional character, is itself a form of acting. Yoda was arguably one of the better actors on screen in the Star Wars prequels (he was a damn sight better than Hayden Christensen), and Gollum often stole the show in the Lord of the Rings series.

In "Spider-Man 3," the origin story of the sandman is corny as hell-- the idea that a "demolecularization" process could fuse sand to one's DNA is beyond ridiculous, and the night of the sandman's genesis isn't particularly impressive. But the following morning, the sandman awakes, and this scene impressed the hell out of me, not least because it takes what must have been a complicated narrative in the comics and compresses it into five minutes of great acting, both by the CGI team that animated the living sand, and by Thomas Haden Church, who reappears as his reintegrated self at the end of this process.

When the sand is first drawing itself together, all we initially see is particles flowing in an unnatural manner. But then a humanoid forms; several more humps come together, and soon we have something like a body, a golem or elemental made of sand. The sandman is somehow able to perceive its environment, and it finds the silver locket containing an image of Flint Marko's precious daughter, his only reason for living.

And this, right here, is the moment that does it for me: when the sandman first tries to grasp the locket-- which is more solid than his hand-- the hand crumbles and the locket falls through it. The camera moves to the sandman's face, which is now defined enough to show some expression, and we see the intensity of a being that is concentrating mightily on literally pulling itself together, trying to make itself solid enough to grasp that locket.

And then... it succeeds.


It's a beautiful emotional moment, motivated entirely by a man's uncomplicated love for his daughter. The sandman strikes me as more than a mere supervillain; he is rather like a creature of myth-- a wraith, a golem, a being made of pure ki, life-energy focused by will. The ki idea stuck with me as I watched the sandman duke it out with Spider-Man later on. By that point, Marko had mastered himself enough to make himself either solid or permeable, much the way some ancient Chinese spoke of ki that was light or heavy, diaphonous or turbid. How do you beat such a being?

Turns out that you can't. As I mentioned in the synopsis, Spider-Man doesn't defeat the sandman; he merely comes to terms with him.


A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required when watching superhero flicks; even a human hero like Batman is able to accomplish the outright impossible, and we are asked to accept this. But there are limits to what an audience can tolerate, even within the strictures of a fictional universe.

For example, I grow weary of mutagenic etiology. Why do so many heroes and villains have to be the freakish result of some assault against their DNA? Peter Parker is himself bitten by a radioactive spider (one wonders whether the spider went on to bite other people, or whether it bit insects and rats and left them with Spidey powers); the Green Goblin appears to have been affected at the genetic level by whatever formula he had breathed in; and now we see that the sandman is yet another victim of mutagenic happenstance. (I'm happy that Doctor Octopus was simply the result of an accidental welding of the human nervous system to technology.) Exactly how much of this are we expected to swallow?

The reaction of Peter Parker's physics professor when he examines a piece of the alien symbiote also rang false to me. Shouldn't the arrival of alien life be national news? Shouldn't that prof be hiring an agent and getting ready to rake in some dough? Shouldn't the military be converging on that university, locking it down and taking the specimen for itself? But no-- the prof (who acknowledges that he is a physicist and not a biologist) is a kindly soul, primarily concerned with whether Peter has remained in contact with the living goo. As the alien gets blown to bits by the end of the movie, the question of what it is, exactly, remains unsolved.


You did see this coming, didn't you? The tragic arc was written in the stars from the very first movie. One reason for this is "The Batman Problem": too many people know who Spider-Man really is, and for the narrative's sake, those people probably need to die. Of course, all superhero movies leave loose ends; for example, MJ knows who Spidey is, and so does Flint Marko. The Batman series even made this into something of a running joke, as far too many people knew that Batman was Bruce Wayne. In an age of leaks from presidential administrations and supposedly hermetic military circles, it's impossible to believe that all these people who know a superhero's true identity can and will remain mum.


The more I think about it, the less I like the turn taken by the TV series "Battlestar Galactica," wherein it was decided that four of our beloved main characters would turn out to be among the Final Five Cylons. According to Ron Moore, the creator of the new series, the decision to make Tyrol, Tori, Anders, and Tigh into Cylons occurred during Season Three. As with George Lucas' plotting of the Star Wars story arc, this was simply an ad hoc move. And like Lucas's storyline (Luke was turned on by his sister?), the BSG storyline has suffered.

Now, "Spider-Man 3" comes along and succumbs to The BSG Problem. I was happy with the story in the first film-- a common thief had carjacked Uncle Ben, shooting the old man before speeding off. But no: as it turns out, it wasn't that guy who did the shooting, it was Flint Marko! The revelation of "the real killer" comes out of the blue and simply doesn't feel right. While I understand the dramatic necessity of creating an emotional connection between Spider-Man and the sandman, I think there might have been a better way to do this.


The alien symbiote is black, shapeless, and obviously a plot device. We are told that it enhances aspects of the human personality, and what we see is that it seems to feed on the darker regions of our psyche-- anger, fear, aggression, and all the other problems Yoda warned us about back in 1980. The alien wraps itself around a person, but it symbolizes The Darkness Within. As a symbol, it's pretty heavy-handed.

The alien's weakness is also a bit silly. I mean, come on-- sound waves? How "Daredevil" can you get? How could the alien possibly function in a civilization full of bells and other things that go "bong"? I'm reminded of the remarkably stupid aliens in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," which were defeated by, of all things, water, leaving us to wonder how the heck they thought they could conquer our planet. In the Spidey-verse, bonging noises are almost as ubiquitous as water; what was the alien symbiote thinking?


Spider-Man can't defeat the sandman, but he can do cool stuff like punch holes into him or split his head in half. If Marko had been a man of flesh during these fights, the movie would have been rated NC-17 for the gore. Apparently, it's all right to show grievous injuries to kids as long as we all know the villain is made of sand. Not that I'm complaining; I thought the fights were well scripted and directed. But I wonder what the parents of all those little kids in the theater must have been thinking.


I think James Franco did a great job as Harry Osborn, the friend, enemy, and amorous rival of Peter Parker. His role wasn't easy: over the course of two hours, he had to play three different people: Vengeful Harry, Amnesiac Harry, and Good-but-Doomed Harry. What struck me about Franco's performance during the amnesia scenes was that he seemed to be channeling Harrison Ford's performance from "Regarding Henry," a movie in which Ford's character Henry, a cynical, two-timing lawyer, gets shot in the head and suffers an irreversible change in personality. After the shooting, Henry is goofy and good-natured; his emotions are simple and show on his face. In "Spider-Man 3," Harry Osborn, after his knock on the head, acts much the same way.

But when Harry recovers his memory, he switches from a benign Harrison Ford to a malign Willem Dafoe in an instant, and the transition is marvelous-- a great example of good ol' acting. No CGI, no makeup. Laurence Olivier would have been proud.


All three Spider-Man movies have been far from shy in dealing with religion. The word "God" is mentioned without hesitation in all three films, and even Jesus gets a mention in "3," though this is mainly for comic effect (the Korean audience didn't seem to realize that "Please kill Peter Parker" was supposed to be a funny moment, so I was the only one in my section who laughed).

One major theme of the movie is forgiveness. Peter, while in thrall to the alien symbiote, tells Eddie Brock, "Want forgiveness? Get religion." Not long after this, there's a scene in a church. At the end of the movie, Peter pointedly tells Flint Marko, "I forgive you," thereby renouncing any further thought of revenge.

Cynics might call this corny, but the Spider-Man films, along with glorifying violence, seem intent on preaching old-fashioned Christian virtues ranging from charity to honesty to forgiveness. God and Jesus are par for the course in this universe.


And now for something that left me wanting to pull my hair out: why the hell did Harry Osborn's butler wait so freaking long to tell Harry the truth about his father's death? Had he done this one movie ago, there would have been no conflict between Peter and Harry in this movie.

To be honest, when the butler spilled the beans, I was sure that Harry's next move would be to go, "Thanks," and then run the butler through with that sword he (Harry) was holding. But no-- this was one of many Uncynical Moments in the movie; it was a true turning point for Harry, who was still fighting the aggro compulsions of his father's Green Goblin serum.


Aunt May reminds Peter that, if he wants to marry MJ, he needs to be ready to put his wife before himself. By the end of the movie, it seems that he realizes he's not quite ready for that yet. I thought this was a realistic turn for the story to take. After all, if Peter and MJ marry, what happens next?

"Pete, you're never there when I need you!"

"Not tonight, MJ; I've got multiple lacerations."

"Oooh, tie me up with your sticky fluid, you half-man!"

Yeah; married life for Peter and MJ would be strange, to say the least.

Then there's the question of children: would they be Spiderlings, endowed with some or all of their father's abilities?


The message at the end of "Spider-Man 3," given in a voiceover by Peter Parker, is that "you always have a choice." There's no hiding behind excuses based on circumstance or compulsion; if you've got compulsions, you have to fight them. This is a good message in a culture steeped in victimology, and it resonates as we think about things like the Virginia Tech massacre, or an obesity epidemic, or suicide. Yes: even when the world is bearing down on you, you've still got a choice. You're free, and therefore responsible. You can choose to give in to your darker impulses and fall into a well of hate, or you can master yourself and forgive. You can stand aside and let others fight your battles for you, or you can put yourself out there on behalf of your fellow man (or woman, or child). Life is many things, but among those things is the human faculty of choice.

In all, I give the movie a thumbs-up, and wouldn't mind seeing it again. As action fare, it holds its own with marvelous special effects, well-scripted fight and chase sequences, and catchy (if corny) dialogue. As a character-driven story, it's somewhat overcrowded, but still faithful to its principals.** As an exploration of themes like forgiveness, freedom, and friendship, it's more than what one usually expects from summer fare. And if the movie has its sequel-related faults, well... how can you hate a guy who looks as cheerfully goofy as Tobey Maguire? He was and is a great fit for the Spidey role. Hats off to him and the rest of the cast.


1. Parallels between "Spider-Man 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

2. My review of "Spider-Man 2"-- much briefer than the monster I just wrote

*A meteorite is a meteor that has reached the earth's surface, so I'm going to assume that the object, even if it's only an inch away from the surface, is still technically a meteor. In other words, if it's impacting (i.e., not through with the impact), we'd still call it a meteor. Someone can correct me on this.

Actually, the distinction strikes me as more legal than technical. Just before the impact, it's a meteor, and just after it's a meteorite? Poor thing's going to have an identity crisis. So... after it's cooled down, does this mean a meteorite can legally vote and drink? What other arbitrary boundaries can we inflict on it?

**Yes, principals, as in "principal characters." Not "principles." Hollywood has no principles, dammit.



Anonymous said...

I saw this tonight. Great assessment.

The only thing incongruous for me was when Church's character ends up in that "demolecularizer" or whatever it was... how the locket and picture remained unaffected when everything, including his clothing had been affected.

I also enjoyed the Stan Lee cameo, much in the way Stephen King does in the movies based on his books.

Anonymous said...


I've heard some disapraging remarks from some online reviewers about the birth of Sandman, but, like you, I found that scene to be quite beautiful and moving. I think the CGI team did a great job conveying Marko's confusion, sadness, and resolve with nothing more than a pile of sand. It was the best scene in the movie.

corsair the rational pirate said...

Holy crap! I am exhausted reading this. And, no I didn't see the movie yet. Now it feels like I don't have to!

Thanks. I saved some money.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah; the review printed out to thirteen pages on my office printer. Not exactly bathroom-reader length.


Lorcy said...

this was an amazing post, finally burped out mY spidey-3 review on me blog, couldn't match your post length, excellent review.