By Elbert Ventura
Dir. Sam Raimi, U.S., Columbia Pictures
Like their unabashedly geeky protagonist, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are not hard to like. Budget and box office may mark them as efficient money-printing machines, but Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were so unfashionably square that they seemed like anomalies when stacked up against their summer superhero competition. Not for Raimi the impersonal pyrotechnics of Bryan Singer’s X-Men or the pretentious navel-gazing of Ang Lee’s Hulk. His Spider-Man is fleet, ingratiating and unhip, a dose of retro fun in a genre traditionally torn between camp and bombast. But admirable as Raimi’s stab at the blockbuster has been, it is finally not impervious to the limitations of the genre’s studio origins. If the first two Spider-Man movies soared above the banal realm of the Hollywood franchise, the third finds the series falling back to earth.
For its first half hour at least, Spider-Man 3 recaptures its predecessors’ infectious spirit. A breezy montage catches us up to speed. Life is good for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire)—Spider-Man is the toast of the city, Mary Jane is a rising star on Broadway, and a proposal is in the offing. But the chaste build-up leads to inevitable intimations of doom. Ominous portent number one is a meteorite that lands near Peter and Mary Jane’s make-out spot. Out of its ashes emerges a black plasma-like parasite that latches onto an unsuspecting Peter and will eventually transform him into a not-so-friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Meanwhile, in another part of town, an escaped convict runs from the cops only to stumble into a particle physics experiment. The resulting mishap turns Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) into Sandman, a villain who can transform into sand (a superpower that's actually cooler than it sounds). For good measure, Peter also gets himself an ordinary nemesis in Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a rival photographer who will later steal Peter’s job and Spidey’s dark mojo.
But wait, there’s more! Spider-Man 3 resumes the rivalry between Peter and erstwhile friend Harry Osborne, the son of Green Goblin, who has sworn to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Spider-Man. In the course of the film, Harry will hate Peter, fight with Spider-Man, lose his memory, love Peter, regain his memory, hate Peter again, steal Mary Jane, get half his face burned, forgive Spider-Man, save his life, and die a grisly death. Mary Jane’s roller-coaster is less eventful but no less traumatic: she gets fired from her play, nurses a grudge against her successful man, erupts in a jealous rage over Peter’s lab partner (a blonde Bryce Dallas Howard), and end up as a singing waitress in the least convincing jazz club put on film. Topping all that off is a revenge subplot involving Flint—it turns out he was the one who pulled the trigger on Uncle Ben.
With enough plot for a whole new trilogy, Spider-Man 3 zips along with carefree—and careless—abandon. Motivations are left unexamined; unaccountable changes of heart are the norm. Some might argue that such is the case with comic books anyway, but what made the earlier Spider-Man movies effective was how fantastical contrivances were rooted in the characters’ dispositions and relationships. This Spider-Man is so intent on stuffing the proceedings with incident that all connection to plausible psychology is lost. Better handled serially than in a 139-minute movie—which simply doesn’t allow for the accretion of information that would have made its twists less overdetermined—the distended narrative makes this Spider-Man the most soulless of the bunch.
But perhaps it’s foolish to expect something handmade and idiosyncratic from a production that is reported to be the most expensive in Hollywood history. The irony is that the bottomless budget has yielded the least involving set pieces of the trilogy. Nothing here approaches the Queensboro Bridge climax of the first and the subway showdown of the second. A riot of fragmented camera swoops, disorienting cuts, and cool (and cold) digital wizardry, Spider-Man 3’s action sequences don’t approach the exhilaration and inventiveness of those in Raimi’s best movies—and indicate, even, an atrophying creativity. Certainly it makes sense that one of Raimi’s best traits, his resourcefulness, would fall into disuse in the face of limitless resources.
That said, the movie is not without its pleasures. As in the previous installments, the background is foregrounded. Spider-Man’s candy-colored New York is as distinctive as the Tenenbaums’; every detail is heightened, right down to the fickleness of the city’s denizens, who can swing from Spidey fans to phobes with one bad headline. (For me, a Yankees fan, the capriciousness feels entirely accurate.) Even more cartoonish is an extended sequence that depicts dorky Peter’s parasite-driven transformation into a meaner, darker…and still kinda dorky Peter. Putting Maguire’s ineradicable nerdiness to good use, Raimi puts together a montage of the Peter’s comical metamorphosis that climaxes with a Travolta-esque flourish so bad it’s good. (The best running joke is bad-ass Peter’s new emo do, a bit of Conor Oberst bang magic that I’m still not sure was intended to be funny.) But the biggest laughs go to Raimi alum Bruce Campbell, who grabs the one scene he’s in by the throat with a brilliant Clousseau-ish bit as a snooty maitre d’. He brings the kind of madcap energy that defined Raimi’s cult days and is in short supply in this movie.
The darkest of the trilogy, the latest installment also ends up being the least affecting. In the first two movies, Raimi was able to tease out as much humanity as possible from comic-book creations—an achievement that did not preclude geek love for the material. It will make its money, no doubt, but judging by a screening crowd’s muted reaction, Spider-Man 3 may signal that Raimi’s ingratiating pop saga has outlived its welcome. At least he got it right twice.