Saw Spiderman III on Saturday. Although I’m as incredulous as Scott regarding Matt’s self-assessment as “usually a relatively harsh judge of films”, I do think Yglesias is more or less correct on the merits of the film. It’s a decent summer popcorn flick, flawed, and not the disaster that some have argued.
I suspect that much of the negativity about the third film stems from how poorly it stands up to the second. I think that we have an “Empire Strikes Back” problem. Thinking people everywhere understand that Empire was, by far, the best of the original Star Wars trilogy. Jedi appears to be a weak entry in large part because of the strength of Empire, but Empire, and not Jedi, is the real outlier. Similarly, Spiderman III really isn’t any worse than the first Spiderman flick. The problem is that Spiderman II was much, much better than it had any right being. One of my favorite scenes from the second movie comes when Ursula (Parker’s next door neighbor) brings him some milk and cake. He accepts, and they sit down and eat the cake. It’s a complex, interesting, understated, and generally outstanding scene, but what struck me as most notable is that it had no business whatsoever appearing in a summer popcorn blockbuster. For whatever reason, Spiderman II, like Empire, transcended the form. A repeat performance was too much to expect. Nevertheless, there were some genuine problems with the execution of Spiderman III.
The structural problem in the film is the Flint Marko character. Long story short, he doesn’t add anything, and should have been cut entirely. There was ample plot to be had in the continuing rivalry between Parker and Harry Osborn, and the developing rivarly between Parker and Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock. Excising Marko would have given Raimi more time to develop Venom, and potentially to create a relationship between Venom and Osborn’s Goblin. The tension with Mary Jane’s work situation (which I thought was well done) could have remained, as could her potential rapproachment with Harry. There was also the potential for an evil Alfred-Bruce Wayne relationship between Osborn and his butler, but this was hardly explored. Marko did nothing but re-open a plot line that was settled in the first two films, and on which there was little productive left to say. I like Thomas Haden Church as much as the next guy, and perhaps Raimi was seduced by the Sandman special effects, but it was a character and plotline for some other movie.
The ending of Spiderman III has also been justly criticized. As noted above, I think that the fundamental problem arises from the inclusion of the Flint Marko character, as an interesting three way duel could easily have been developed between Spidey, Venom, and Goblin, and would even have allowed the deathbed conversion of Osborn. Instead, we get an extraordinarily predictable and hackneyed fight (sound hurts the symbiote, for some reason that’s completely unclear) that doesn’t really cap off the narrative (since Spidey doesn’t even really know who Venom is before the fight starts). Most annoying, however, is how Raimi uses the crowd and the media to help pace the fight. To go against my own advice in the previous paragraph, let’s compare the use of the crowd in the train fight sequence of S2 with that of the final sequence of S3. In S2, the train passengers are an integral part of the plot; they’re the reason Spidey and Ock are there, and they affect (and are affected by) the behavior of both. In S3, the crowd is simply there; its presence has no impact on the fight, and there’s no investment on the part of the crowd above the excitement of the battle itself. Now, surely it would have been implausible to stage a giant fight in the middle of Manhattan with no one watching, but that fact doesn’t determine how the crowd was to be used. Even spectators would have been better than cheerleaders; we don’t need the gasps and applause of the crowd to tell us when Spidey is doing poorly or well.
On this last point, my filmgoing companion noted that it’s still a bit uncomfortable to watch scenes of falling buildings and debris in New York City. I think that’s right, and I think it’s quite interesting that the Spiderman trilogy has almost entirely avoided any reference to 9/11. The finale of the first film, of course, was supposed to occur between the Twin Towers. Events made that finale impossible, although I do remember a early film poster at a Seattle poster shop that showed a reflection of the Towers in Spidey’s eyes. Instead of a price, the post simply had a note saying “Inquire Within”. The second and third films don’t touch on 9/11 at all. Now, this wouldn’t be notable (it’s a popcorn movie, after all) except for the fact that the other recent New York superhero movie did deal with the September 11 attacks. No one mentioned 9/11 explicitly in Superman Returns, but they didn’t have to; September 11 infused the film. The early scene of Superman rescuing a crashing jetliner and landing it in a baseball stadium could not but evoke memories of 9/11. More important, the film was structured around the questions “Where did you go?”, and “How did we manage to get along without you?” The first carries with it an implicit rebuke of Superman for abandoning Metropolis to the depredations of evil-doers, while the answer to the second is, again implictly, “Not very well.” Superman Returns is a sad film, and part of that sadness comes from the recognition that something horrible that only happens to New York in comic books happened to New York in real life, and that Superman wasn’t around to stop it.
Each approach has its merits, and Spiderman’s focus on smaller problems (street crime, saving babies from fires, etc.) is probably more true to the ethos of the character than some grand fight against ideologically driven supervillains. It’s Superman (who I believe is an illegal alien) who has always been burdened with the ideological baggage. Of Batman I have little to say. Anyway, the critics are correct to say that Spiderman III is overlong and has some serious structural flaws. Nevertheless, I found the film entertaining, and I think that there’s still some value in exploring the Spiderman character.
Cross-posted to the attractive new TAPPED.