The Reeler


May 3, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Mega-budget franchise goes a little too heavy on the heart the third time around

It's weird to try to apply a "less is more" critique to a Hollywood blockbuster, because the whole notion of big-budget (or, in this case, astronomical-budget) storytelling is based around the idea of "more is more." But you wish someone had tried to apply a little "less is more" to Spider-Man 3. As a Spider-Man fan since childhood, it's equally weird to think that there could be a thing as "too much" in a Spidey movie, but again, it's seemingly true.

The film resumes the saga of costumed adventurer Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco). Now given that Harry used to be Mary Jane's boyfriend and still holds feelings for her, and Harry's father was the Green Goblin, Peter's archnemesis, and Harry thinks Peter killed his father in his alter ego as Spider-Man and has previously hired an evildoer with mechanical arms to kill him, you'd think there's enough going on just between these two characters to fill any feature film of reasonable length. But wait, there's more: A petty thief accidentally transformed by a freak particle physics accident into a literal Sandman (Thomas Haden Church); an alien goo that attaches itself to Spider-Man's costume and turns him evil; a vindictive photographer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who competes with Peter for his job at the Daily Bugle and who, comics fans know, will ultimately bond with the alien goo to become Venom.

It also piles on more previously untapped elements of the Spider-Man mythos, including the first appearances of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Captain Stacy (James Cromwell). They're both crucial players in the comic book life of Spider-Man, but are established here with no pay off. Their inclusion without any sort of resolution is maybe the best evidence that there will be a Spider-Man 4, even if it's made without some of the franchise's major players. There's enough plot for a whole series of movies, and its all crammed into one very overstuffed 140-minute film. There's a lot of characters to juggle and enough time passes between some of their appearances that you can forget they're even in the movie at all.

Sam Raimi, director of all three Spider-Man films, has made a trilogy of films before. His Evil Dead series stretched over a decade. Despite the fact that the original Evil Dead was a work of gory horror, the third film, Army of Darkness, was practically a comedy, maybe the only zombie picture in history that owed more to The Three Stooges than George Romero. Whether it was out of a need to explore a different side of himself or just outright boredom, Raimi used that third film to really expand the franchise's boundaries. He's done that here as well. This Spider-Man has not one but two musical sequences, an outlandish montage that could only be described as Spider-Man Night Fever: a full-on Fred Astaire freakout in a jazz club that feels like something out of The Band Wagon.

There's also a bit of Written on the Wind here; though Spider- Man is, to his core, a melodramatic hero, this is easily the most melodramatic of his films. In the past, Raimi's been quick to undercut moments of tension or sadness with humor. Here he indulges his inner Sirk and lets the emotions fly; for a few moments, the film threatens to wash away on a tide of its characters' tears. To the degree that it doesn't often work, it's frustrating. On the other hand, it's nice to see that a director as restless and inventive as Raimi is still experimenting with form, even in the midst of an assignment as difficult as one of the most eagerly awaited and expensive sequels of all time.

With all this stuff going on, all these people fighting and making out and making up, you keep waiting for the whole thing to totally derail into Batman & Robin territory (there's another comic book sequel where less would have been more), but Raimi manages to keep things on the tracks, if only barely. When he does employ a lighter touch it works really well, as in one classic scene where Peter plans to propose to Mary Jane with the help of a snoody French waiter (Raimi's old pal Bruce Campbell). And the waterworks never get in the way of the action sequences, which are both plentiful and exciting.

Spider-Man 2 was the movie that showed a lot of people that super-hero movies could be more than mindless entertainment. It had action, charm and heart. Spider-Man 3 has plenty of action and charm, but it's a bit too heavy on the heart. In that department, more is ultimately less.

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