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Spider-Man 3 (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 04 May 2007
Is the whole world waiting breathlessly for “Spider-Man 3”? If news reports are accurate—always a big IF—it sure seems that way. And even though the movie isn’t quite up to the level of its predecessors, it’s still entertaining with stunning effects and memorable villains. At three, there are too many memorable villains. I hope this doesn’t indicate that “Spider-Man 4” will have FOUR villains.

Here, just having three strains the movie at times; the two new villains, Sandman and Venom (Spider-Man laments, “where do these guys come from!?”), are both colorful and worthy opponents for the Wall-Crawler, but neither gets as much screen time as their powers warrant. Venom doesn’t even show up until fairly near the end. It takes some maneuvering to create each bad guy, give them their own showcase, then team them up for the climax. Each is introduced in dazzling effects sequences, brilliantly edited (by Bob Murawski) and strikingly composed in Panavision images by cinematographer Bill Pope. Even though the movie is well-paced, it feels too long—almost every sequence seems a bit too long.

But it’s still dazzling entertainment; movies full of wonders are as old as cinema itself, and now wonders can be achieved both more believably and more spectacularly than ever before. A man dissolving into sand borne on the wind? Piece of cake. A guy on a flying surfboard battling an opponent who can make gigantic leaps and scramble up walls? Here it is. “Spider-Man 3” may be the most expensive movie ever made in the U.S., but every penny is up there on the screen.

As the movie begins (narrated by Peter Parker), we see that Peter’s/Spidey’s life is better than ever; despite the lurid headlines of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, still terrific), New York loves Spider-Man; there are t-shirts, balloons, posters, etc. all over town and he’s cheered everywhere he goes. Even the acting career of Peter’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) seems to be sizzling along, even though Spidey business often keeps Peter from arriving at the theater on time.

But things change. After they lounge on a web in Central Park, neither Peter nor M.J. notice a meteor strike the ground nearby and a tar-like black goo slither out of it. The stuff attaches itself to Peter’s departing motor scooter. We also see Harry Osborn (James Franco) still brooding over his mistaken belief that his pal Peter killed Harry’s father Norman, the Green Goblin of the first movie. (Willem Dafoe appears again, in Harry’s fantasy images.) Peter learns that escaped criminal Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) was the real murderer of Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, back in a couple of fleeting cameos). We see Marko visit the bedside of his young ailing daughter; as he changes into Sandman’s trademark dark green/dark blue striped T-shirt, he reminds his wife (Theresa Russell, surprisingly enough) that “I’m not a bad person—I just had a bad life.” The usual excuse of a criminal, although screenwriters Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan, plus Alvin Sargent, treat the announcement as novel and sincere.
After Peter leaves M.J., he’s attacked by Harry, in a new goblin suit (with a different head) and mounted on an improved flying board, still equipped with his father’s pumpkin bombs. They have a speedy battle in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, Peter (in civvie clothes) bouncing off walls, making gigantic leaps, while he’s paced by Harry on his propeller-driven board. It’s one of the most spectacular scenes in the movie, and is one of the sequences that some people are sure to return for.

Meanwhile, Marko, fleeing police, climbs over a chain-link fence, ignoring the warning sign: “Danger: Particle physics test laboratory.” Not a good thing to do in a comic book movie. He winds up in a pit with a floor of sand just as the test begins, with whirling lights and high winds. Afterward, all is still—just a heap of sand. Then in a great effects scene that manages also to be hauntingly beautiful, the sand coalesces into Flint Marko.

As things turn out, Church doesn’t get many acting scenes in this movie; much of the time he isn’t even human. But he’s a strong, sensitive actor, and brings to Sandman/Flint Marko an almost aching melancholy; he really ISN’T a bad man, and is disturbed that he has to do bad things in his quest to get enough money to help his daughter. His last scene is especially effective.

At the Daily Bugle, where his secretary Betty Brant (Elizabeth Banks) keeps fulminating J. Jonah Jameson on a pill schedule by giving him warning shocks—an odd but funny scene—Peter learns he has a rival for the position of official staff photographer: go-getter Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who’ll do anything to try to beat Peter out for the job. Somewhere in here, Peter meets blonde, pony-tailed Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), daughter of police Captain Stacy (John Cromwell), and on whom Brock has a fixation.

Topher Grace is very good as the slick but earnest Brock; he’s more than a match for Peter Parker in personality—Peter is still rather nerdish—but he’s impatient, and impatience can be a problem.

When the city throws Spider-Man a great bit New Yorker festival in the park, Peter/Spidey is smugly pleased, loving the attention—and neglecting Mary Jane, unaware that she’s just been fired from her play because of bad personal notices. That night, sleeping in his Spidey suit, Peter has nightmares about Uncle Ben, Flint Marko, etc.—and is enveloped by the black goo, which has been hiding under his bureau.

In the morning, he finds he’s now wearing a BLACK Spidey suit, and has become more agile and stronger, too—and his ego has enlarged. There’s a funny sequence in which Peter Parker changes from nerd to stud, striding down New York streets like Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” (why didn’t they use “Stayin’ Alive” in the background?). He gets new clothes, a new haircut, and a new, unpleasantly egotistical, attitude.

Lots of stuff happens: the black Spidey battles Sandman, coming away believing he’s killed him—but to Peter’s surprise, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) isn’t at all pleased to learn this, and refuses to believe that Spider-Man, whom she admires, would kill anyone. After a snappy routine at the night club where M.J. is now working, Peter doesn’t notice he’s badly upstaged her and made Gwen uncomfortable. There’s also a funny scene in a ritzy restaurant where the maitre d’ is a snooty Frenchman (Bruce Campbell, who got applause from the preview audience). And Peter runs into Stan Lee on the streets of Manhattan, who this time (he’s in most Marvel movies) gets to SOUND like Stan Lee. (More audience applause)

Harry lives in such plush surrounding it looks like he and Bruce Wayne probably belong to the same gentleman’s club—and Harry even has a butler rather like Batman’s Alfred. Things change for Harry, too, but it would be a spoiler to reveal just how. But it can be revealed that while in a church tower, Peter tears the black substance—which his teacher has revealed is a symbiote—off his body and it falls onto Eddie Brock below, who, by an impressive coincidence, was in the church praying for God to kill Peter Parker.

The result is Venom: another black (but blacker) Spider-Man-like creature with weird eyes, talons, and a huge mouth full of very sharp teeth. And he has all of Spider-Man’s powers, too—that symbiote learned something while it was associated with Peter Parker. He immediately (and improbably easily) finds Sandman and suggests they team up to wipe out Spider-Man/Peter Parker once and for all.

As you can see, the movie is jammed with incident; it ends in a vertical battle between Spider-Man, Sandman and Venom—and another super-powered character—in a building under construction, where MJ is imprisoned in a taxi bound by Venom’s webbing.

Established characters return: Ted Raimi as Jameson’s put-upon aide, Bill Nunn as his assistant editor, Dylan Baker as Peter’s admiring but cautionary teacher Dr. Connors (who eventually has got to turn into the Lizard, as he did in the comic books), Peter’s nicer-this-time landlord (Elya Baskin) and his daughter (Mageina Tovah), with her sweet, funny crush—not on Spider-Man, but on Peter Parker.

But there’s something perfunctory to some of this. Did we really need to see Peter and Mary Jane go through pretty much the same relationship arcs as in the last movie? Hasn’t she learned that Spidey duties will often make Peter late to her plays? Hasn’t he learned that her career is as important to her as his is to him? Evidently not, because they have to go through all of this one more time—and it’s getting a bit tiresome. We’re constantly eager for the movie to just get on with it—because when it does, it’s a doozy. There’s nothing here quite as awesome and weird as Dr. Octopus from “Spider-Man 2,” but the stuff that is here is colorful, beautifully rendered and exciting—at times almost TOO exciting: you can hardly catch your breath.

Despite the film’s weaknesses, the cast is very good (though next time, please give Gwen Stacy more to do), the special effects are state-of-the-art, especially the Sandman scenes, and even though it runs 140 minutes, the movie is very light on its feet, stumbling just a little in the Peter/Mary Jane quarrels.

When “The Godfather III” was released, I liked a comment by one reviewer: “Well, one of them had to be third best.” The same is true of these Spider-Man movies. The first had a freshness of approach and a style that managed to be both breezy and sincere; the second had one of the most awesome and unusual special effects creations of all time, Doc Ock—plus Alfred Molina’s intelligent, committed performance. “Spider-Man 3” has dazzling effects that, in the climax, border on the Gargantuan, it has amusing and sympathetic characters and enough visual style for three more movies. It does border on too much of a good thing, but I know the pressures on everyone to make not just another good movie, but another box office dynamo, must have been immense. It’s hard to relax making a movie you know the studio hopes will gross half a billion dollars.

But it is easy to relax and enjoy “Spider-Man 3”—hey, your money isn’t on the line, just the amount you paid to get in. This will probably be the special effects and production highlight of the year—an expensive movie that looks as satisfyingly expensive as it was to make. And it has Spider-Man whooping and yelling as he webs his way high above the streets of Manhattan.

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