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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man III

This is a post as part of “Raimi-fest”, the event being organised by the always wonderful Bryce over at Things That Don’t Suck.

Spider-Man III has a lot of problems. I’ll get to a couple of them in a moment. However, the single biggest issue with the movie seems to be that nobody seems especially interested in making it. It’s a feeling that it’s hard to back up with substantive evidence, but there’s just this general sensation that the film wasn’t the product of the same love and enthusiasm that made the first two films so refreshing. It almost seems like the movie was made out of a sense of obligation, rather than because anyone wanted to be there. It seems that they didn’t really care.

Back in black?

That’s a very serious allegation to make about anybody involved in the production of a motion picture – it takes a lot of work to get a story from script to screen, and I’m sure that there were quite a few points at which the actors, producers and directors were genuinely excited about the prospect of making a film like this. However, there just isn’t the same energy here that we saw in the two earlier films.

As I said, it isn’t one big thing which contributes to this feeling, but a whole host of smaller things. It’s the fact that Christopher Young’s soundtrack is efficient and effective, but still much weaker than Danny Elfman’s score to the first two films. It’s the fact that the recap playing over the opening credits seems so much lazier and less creative than the beautiful renderings of Alex Ross over the start of the last film. It’s little things like that which tend to add up over the course of the film.

Venom just sorta kills the film...

It’s easy to blame Sony and Avi Arad for the decisions that don’t quite work in the context of the film. After all, it was Arad who insisted on the inclusion of the villain Venom, despite the fact that the character was created in the nineties (rather than the classic era of Spider-Man with which Raimi is incredibly fond). Apparently, it was what the fans wanted:

Sam, … you’re not paying attention to the fans enough. You need to think about them. You’ve made two movies now with your favorite villains, and now you’re about to make another one with your favorite villains. The fans love Venom. He is the fan favorite. All Spider-Man readers love Venom, and even though you came from ’70s Spider-Man, this is what the kids are thinking about. Please incorporate Venom. Listen to the fans now.

Well, that’s not exactly fair. I don’t agree with Arad’s assumption that giving fans what they want always leads to a better finished product. In fact, giving into demands from those outside the creative process (whether fans or producers), often forces writers and directors to work with material that they are unfamiliar with, or actively dislike. Which undermines their own stories, it should be noted, and generally leads to a weaker finished product that feels like the result of a variety of false compromises.

Fans have a lot of Venom for that character...

So, despite the fact that all the fans were reportedly clammering for Venom (I wasn’t), Raimi himself clearly wasn’t comfortable. He conceded as much himself in the run-up to the release of the film:

I had been objecting to the lack of humanity [in Venom]… in studying him I gained an appreciation for him. Venom has always been a character that the fans love… that’s why he’s in here.

That is not a reason to include a character – simply because he’s a character that feels like he should be there, or through a sense of obligation to the fans. He should be there because he makes the story stronger, or because he serves a thematic or plot-related purpose. Reading the above quote, it’s hard to buy into Raimi’s comment that he gained a new insight into Venom – it sounds like he’s trying to do some damage-control. The important part of the statement is that the director couldn’t originally make head nor tail of the monster.

A mirror, darkly...

And, to be honest, I can understand why. Raimi’s approach to Spider-Man seems to hark back to the original Stan Lee stories, with bright colours, slightly corny dialogue, a fair amount of relatively camp humour and the notion that Peter is entirely relatable. You can see that very clearly in the first two films – from his portrayal of Peter’s run of bad luck through to his choice of villains.

Raimi’s Spider-Man is the character as presented in the sixties – and what’s wrong with that? I’m not saying that it’s the best approach to the character, or the “one true Spider-Man” or any nonsense like that. I am sure, for example, there’s a definitive film version of Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man out there. It’s just that Raimi’s Spider-Man is perfectly in tune with that sort of bright and colourful sixties version of the web-crawler.

Good Grace!

The very notion of Venom exists in stark opposition to that particular iteration of Spider-Man. Venom was introduced in the late eighties, a time when comic books were consciously getting darker and edgier. After tangling with Peter, the character went on to have his own collection of miniseries and even adopted the title “The Lethal Protector.” Can you see anyone named “The Lethal Protector” fitting in with Raimi’s version of Spider-Man?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who hate the villain or believe that there are no good stories out there for the character – all the talk I’ve heard suggests that Rick Remender’s new on-going Venom title might be the “definitive” take on the character. However, Venom needs to balance the lightness of Spider-Man against his own darkness. He needs better character motivation than most writers try to give him.

Darkness doesn't suit him...

So, when Raimi tries to fit the character into his own particular narrative framework… there are problems. The problem is that, as opposed to the tragic motivations of characters like Raimi’s Norman Osborn (trying to avoid destroying his company) or Otto Octavius (driven insane by the loss of his wife, trying to make the world a better place), Venom seems almost like a whiny teenager or a jilted lover.

The symbiote, rejected by Parker, hooks up with Eddie Brock to avenge itself on Peter. It wants to humiliate him (although I’m not sure how killing him as part of a heroic last stand accomplishes this goal). “Kinda like how you humiliated me,” Brock states. “Do you remember?” Here’s the thing – Brock wants revenge for Peter ruining his career by revealing him as a photoshop-using fraud. However, despite the douchebag way Parker did it, Peter was still entirely justified to clear Spider-Man’s name.

Back in black...

Brock ends up coming across a whiny punk kid who screwed up and wants to blame anybody but himself. That isn’t pathos, and it’s certainly not enough to drive a major villain like that. The symbiote seems to have some sort of desire for revenge as well, seemingly being rejected by Peter. This makes it seem almost like a spurned and bitter ex-girlfriend, which sets up more than a few uncomfortable parallels with the film’s portrayal of Mary-Jane.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the way that it deals with the relationship between Peter and his girlfriend. The couple find themselves facing the issue of personal and professional jealousy, with Mary-Jane coming to resent Peter’s popularity and Peter unable to understand her own worries and insecurities. It’s an interest angle to explore superhero antics through, but it feels (like so much else in the movie) unfairly compressed due to any number of other running and developed subplots.

It all slips through his fingers...

The result is that – rather than the divide developing organically – the script ends up painting MJ as somewhat shrewish and Peter a self-centred jerk (even before the symbiont bonds with him). “Lay one on me,” Peter remarks to Gwen as he dangles upside down, in a scene which somewhat justifies Mary-Jane’s insecurities. Who the hell reassures their girlfriend with the observation that their merchandise is a “big Holloween seller”? I understand what Raimi is trying to do, but it just seems somewhat forced and only serves to make both characters highly unlikable.

Which, I suppose, brings us to perhaps the most fundamental problem with the movie. There is simply too much going on, and quite a lot of it isn’t especially interesting. This means that interesting bits suffer because they are either inconsistent in tone with other sections or they feel relatively compressed as the movie tries to fit everything in. Even taking the three central villains – the second Green Goblin, the Sandman, Venom – each of those could easily have carried their own film, along with the personal issues that Peter and Mary-Jane go through (their relationship woes, the revelations about Uncle Ben and Peter going darker and edgier). Some of these are serious, some of these are comedy, some of these a mish-mash of both. The jigsaw doesn’t quite come together.

There’s evidence here to suggest that, even if the producers hadn’t interfered and forced Venom on director Sam Raimi, the final part of the trilogy still would have been troubled. For example, although the producers shoehorned Venom in at short notice, Raimi had always intended to include a third villain (though he favoured the Vulture), so the film would like have seemed almost as crowded (if not so inconsistent). There’s also the simple fact that even the stuff that we know came from Raimi himself isn’t quite as solid as his work on the previous two instalments.

Going against the grain...

Take the Sandman, for example. There’s no denying that the creature is definitely a “Raimi-esque” villain like Doctor Octopus. My favourite sequence of the entire trilogy is that great Operating Room sequence in Spider-Man II where Doc Ock’s tentacles just go wild, in the style of an old-school monster movie. There are elements of that apparent in Raimi’s portrayal of the Sandman. Consider the foggy wasteland he finds himself running through before he stumbles on the experiement, or that scene where he forces himself to manifest in the sand through what seems to be sheer force of will. I also appreciated the way that he screamed as the police shot him, like King Kong. The Sandman is a sort of classic “creature feature” villain and is right up Raimi’s street.

However, the character’s story is trite to the point of cliché. He’s your stereotypical crook with a heart of gold. He’s only stealing massive amounts of money to pay for an operation for his sick daughter. I know Raimi has a fondness for cheesy elements (like characters talking to themselves, for example), but that does seem just a bit much. I can’t decide if I love or hate the ridiculously stereotypical inept scientists running the experiment that creates the Sandman. “It’s probably a bird,” one scientist remarks of a spike in the weight readings, “It’ll fly away when we fire it up.” I wonder what human-sized bird he was thinking of.

Watch where you sand...

These criticisms aside, I remember reading about how the Sandman’s character arc was originally planned to develop, and I can’t help thinking that this version would have done much better than what ended up on screen. There was talk of a planned sequence where the character transforms himself into a sand pit for his daughter to play in (which is touching). Also, his final shift in motivation makes a lot more sense when you consider the original deciding factor: apparently, Raimi originally planned to make it clear that the daughter was terminal and no operation could save her, so her father finds himself struggling with what he wants her to think about her father.

It is, of course, a fairly standard piece of narrative, but it makes a lot more sense than the rather strange and erratic behaviour that made it to the film. As it stands, the sick daughter remains one of the countless plot threads that is just sort of left hanging by the end of the film – something it seems the movie almost forgot about. Instead, we get a really silly villain team-up that could have come from the seventies animated television show. Venom might as well have just rung up the Sandman and asked, “Hey bud, up to anything tonight? Wanna kill Spider-Man? Just because?” That final confrontation just feels rushed and forced, the kinda thing that just happened because the movie had already run a certain length and it was time to wind down.

Hole-y moley!

And, then, of course, there’s the movie’s retcon – one of the largest in the history of big screen comic book movies, at least that I can recall. In case you don’t know what a “retcon” is, it’s basically a revision to an earlier plot, thread or character development that was not intended originally – basically telling us that what happened isn’t necessarily what we were told had occurred, if that makes sense. These sorts of revisions are common in comic books, where seventy-odd years of continuity can jumble things up occasionally – but it’s rare to see such a blatant one on the big screen.

Here we are told that the Sandman is the person who killed Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben way back in the first movie. The guy that Peter caught speeding away from the crime scene was just a red herring. “This is the man who killed your uncle,” Captain Stacey remarks, sliding a photo across the table and making sure that the audience get it. I don’t like it. I really don’t like it.

Suit up!

I remarked in my review of the last film that Raimi really gets Spider-Man, and it certainly seemed true there. However, here he seems to forget that Spider-Man is not Batman. He’s not motivated to fight crime by anger or misdirected rage over the loss of a loved one – Peter Parker made his peace with the passing of his uncle in a way that Bruce Wayne has never really tried to with his parents. Peter is motivated by a sense of responsibility and (perhaps, at the very edge of his consciousness) guilt.

It feels remarkably out of character to hear Peter say something like, “This man killed my uncle and he’s still out there!” The scenes of Peter listening to a police radio, ignoring all the calls for help that don’t include the Sandman, seem strangely out of place. The loss of Uncle Ben isn’t an open-ended mystery and resolving it won’t resolve any of Peter’s issues (which, while still serious, are nowhere near as dark your standard superhero’s). Spider-Man is a character you really can’t push towards darkness and revenge – and, if you do, you need to be careful about it.

Be careful or you might end up board to death...

This is the real problem with the film’s much derided “emo” sequences where Parker’s “darker side” is played up by the symbiont. Peter has legitimate (if somewhat awkward) angst going on over the escape of his uncle’s murderer, and then the movie throws in this obviously over-the-top self-conscious parody as Peter becomes a “bad boy”, grows a fringe, starts thrusting his hips and strutting. The studio really should have just let Sam Raimi brand the words “I don’t want to do this plot” across the screen over the course of the montage – it would have been more subtle.

Bonus points for the sheer nerdishness of having Tobey Maguire play Peter as this sort of white-as-white seventies blaxploitation bad ass. “Get me some mo’,” he directs his neighbour as he drinks a glass of milk. Yeah, bad ass. “You’re lookin’ fine, baby,” he smoothly assures a young lady. How can any woman resist his charms, especially when you have a musical number like that? Because nothing screams “bad ass” like a large-scale improvisational jazz musical number. Being honest, taken in isolation, I don’t have the same problem with these scenes that most do. It’s very clearly Raimi laughing very loudly at the fact somebody wanted him to make a “darker and edgier” Spider-Man.

Strut tut, there, Tobey...

Having Peter Parker dress entirely in black, act like a spoilt teenager and become an emotionally stunted emo is a very effective and quite endearing criticism of the sort of comic books which produced characters like Venom. These sorts of “angst is good” and “darker and edgier sells” philosophies drove the comic book market in the nineties, popularising anti-heroes like the Punisher, and came across as an attempt to seem more “mature” while being perhaps more juvenile than ever. Raimi’s “darker and edgier” Peter Parker is a perfect spoof of this attitude – he’s more violent, more insulting and abrasive, more sexual in a creepy childish sort of way (lots of hip thrusting and big talk), dressed in oodles of black while pretending to be “deep.”

However, putting a parody like that in the middle of a movie where Raimi just told us that Parker has good reason to go darker and edgier (the dredging up of the murder of his uncle) seems a little inconsistent. Either we’re meant to take Parker’s darker side (looking like a reject from Twilight) seriously, or we take his emotional turmoil (including the issues with his uncle) as a joke. You can’t really do both – we can’t take one set of angst issues seriously while you mock the other one. It’s a sort of tonal dissonance which doesn’t fit well with the film, unfortunately.

It's difficult to pull off...

As an aside, am I the only one who found it odd that the entire point of the film was about Peter learning that he can’t be dark (because revenge, his aunt warns us, “turn us into something ugly” like an emo teenager), and yet the movie ends with Spider-Man killing his opponent? Just because the alien symbiont isn’t human doesn’t mean that it’s not alive. Hell, it screams. And Peter just throws a bomb into it, when he already has it captured and subdued (so it’s not a life-and-death situation or anything). I get the sense Raimi didn’t want to be forced to use it in the sequel, but it’s still a rather strange ending, given what came before.

The movie also gives more screentime to Bernard – who, in case you are interested, is the most lazy, rude and incompetent butler in the history of cinema. And he’s not even especially witty, either (which would sort of make up for it). “We’re having a guest,” Harry declares at one point. “A guest?” Bernard responds, seemingly slightly confused. Apparently, Harry doesn’t want to spend the next two hours of his life explaining Bernard’s job to him, so we cut to Harry doing his own cooking. Later on, after Harry’s vendetta against Peter has left him emotionally crippled and horribly scarred, Bernard decides to share the fact that Spider-Man didn’t murder Harry’s father. You know when that information might have come in handy? Maybe a film and a half ago?

Along came a Spider...

My own crazy theory is that Bernard had somehow (through the perfect storm of incompetence and inefficiency) worked his way up to being next in line for the Osborn fortune and was waiting for Harry to get himself bumped off. Either that or he actually really only has the most exceptional moments of lucidity. Apparently (and this is another element of the movie that got squeezed out), Bernard was originally going to be revealed as a figment of Harry’s imagination. It’s worrying that this actually makes more sense of the situation – even if it does raise questions about why Peter doesn’t find it odd that Harry is talking to himself at various points over the course of the film. Still, as I said, it makes more sense than what we got.

By the way, what was the endgame of Harry’s “break up Peter and Mary-Jane” plan? Sure, he seems to be in it for the sake of being evil, with the whole the pie is “so good” bit and the vanishing behind a truck thing, but I don’t follow the mentally unbalanced logic between “break up Peter’s romance” and “defeat my arch-enemy” in the grand evil villain playbook. What exactly is step two, there? Surely the whole “supervillain team-up” thing, while equally stupid, is at least more direct?

Spider-Man's original dark rain...

Then again, Harry gets hit in the head repeatedly over the course of the movie (and, in fairness, is taking an insanity-producing super-serum), so maybe he’s really not all there. Sure the laser-guided amnesia thing ( or “some memory impairment”, as the doctor diplomatically puts it) is convenient, but I can’t help wondering if I’m a bad person for laughing out loud at the “boing!” sound effect thing when Peter tries to “pull a Wile E. Coyote” on his best friend with a stunt from a Looney Tunes short. I kept expecting Peter to go “that’s all folks!”

In fairness to the film, once you get past the fact that there’s simply too many different things going on, too many characters in the mix and the fact that this isn’t the movie that the director wants to make, there are some nice touches. I do love the monster movie vibe that Raimi gives the Sandman. The action sequences are mostly effective and well-handled (though not a patch on the scenes in the last film), and I do like the scene in the subway and the sewers – it calls to mind those rumours that Raimi originally wanted to use the Lizard for his films.

Gliding into action...

There’s also the rather wonderful production design. While there’s nothing as superbly gothic as Doc Ock’s hideout in the last film, the Cathedral is beautifully rendered – it looks like a sort of highly stylised horror movie set, which seems like Raimi’s perfect playground. In fact, the visual design of the scenes featuring the alien symbiont (creeping up on Peter in bed, him trying to pull it off, etc) make it clear that – if Raimi did care about the character – he could do great things. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t seem especially enthused, so it’s hard for the audience to get excited.

In short, Spider-Man III is a mess. It’s a jumble. It actually has some decent ideas, but it seems fairly apathetic about them – as if the goal isn’t to tell one good story, but to cram as many different stories into one film as possible. This is particularly obvious when one looks at the earlier two films, which always seemed to take great care in the stories they set up and developed.

It’s a shame Raimi didn’t get to finish the trilogy the way that he wanted, but maybe the reboot might cleanse the palate. Although, to be honest, given the producers involved, I am not holding my breath.

7 Responses

  1. It’s very clear that Raimi was trying to take a dark force which existed outside of his Spider-man universe and somehow make it work.

    The sheer fact that the character was pasted into the storyline hurt the film. What hurt it more was the fact that Raimi’s emo-influenced version of Venom wasn’t at all what younger fans of Spider-man, like me, wanted. Todd McFarlane’s dark-Spidey and Venom were very poorly reflected by a man who had done so well with material he was familiar with.

  2. I’ve always found the emo scenes really funny. Maybe it’s just because I stopped taking the movie seriously up to that point, but even the dance scene I found hilarious.

    And Sandman being the REAL killer pissed me off. It felt cheap to reopen that old wound.

  3. Fine write-up on Raimi’s last installment to this series. The build up with the Harry Osborn arc in the first two films (along with the Curt Conner/Lizard) was wasted by the inclusion of Venom. But, I’m with you on the fact the filmmaker’s enthusiasm just wasn’t there for this one. Thanks.

  4. There’s an editor’s cut of the movie that’s been released. Will you be looking at that in the near future?

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