Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man, in his black suit, looks a the viewer through the rain.

We saw Spider-Man 3 on Friday, as we’re big fans of the first and second installments. The second is one of the best comic superhero films out there, so the expectations were very high. It was a lot of fun, and they packed tons into the film. It’s a very entertaining and thrilling flick, but it loses track (a little bit) of what made the Spider-Man franchise work, falling prey to the Bigger Is Better philosophy that drained the original Batman movie franchise of all its worth. Fortunately, everyone involved still delivered thrills and laughs to make up for the wafer-thin helpings of everything but action.

Minor Spoilers: Most of what I describe is in the trailers, but if you don’t know anything, you might have some plot points spoiled.

Spider-Man, in his regular blue and red suit, crouches on a yellow cab, caught in a black web above the city.

Spider-Man falls towards the viewer, along with chunks of concrete.

The action choreography in this film is very spectacular. It seems heavily influenced by the acrobatic, aerial fight scenes in Japanese cinema, particularly anime.

I was never a big reader of Spider-Man. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I liked other books more. However, there was no ignoring Venom (the black alien symbiote seen as the black suit), who became an immensely popular character, and spawned his own series, and yet another alien symbiote character (Carnage). Rami’s decision to bring Venom into the story was a brilliant marketing move, but the film’s handling of the character drains him of much of the interest the character inspired in print.

I don’t know that Rami avoided the obvious approach, I just think the film strained under the weight of it: if you have Venom, you have to have the black Spider-man, then the separation of the two, then the battle against Venom. In order to make this work, you need another villain. Then, because this film franchise trades partly on Peter Parker balancing his life and his alternate identity as Spider-man, you need personal conflict. So then we bring in Gwen Stacey. But what about the new Green Goblin and Peter’s friend Harry? Well, we have to wrap that up… The movie bloats with expectations and obligations, forcing Rami to reduce characters and relationships to sketches, as well as dramatically altering them from the originals. Sandman, the other villain in the film, was developed to the bare minimum required to sustain his role. The role was very well acted, but ultimately I had a hard time focusing on his story in the midst of the 12,000 other things going on at the same time. I bet the DVD release will see a very robust director’s cut, that’ll likely be a real reward for fans.

Eddie Brock looks up, trying to figure out

Venom leaps towards the viewer, arms out, fangs bared.

Topher Grace does a good job delivering the character of Brock: the insecure, small man who acts big and noble to hide his true nature, which blossoms once he comes in contact with the symbiote.

As a result, this Spider-Man flick is bigger, fuller, and packed with more incredible fight sequences than the others. Unfortunately, the film lacks an element that was the real distinguishing feature of the preceding films: jeopardy. When Spider-Man fell from a rooftop, he felt it the next day. When he fought to save lives, he risked his own. When villains attacked, we got the sense that Parker wasn’t guaranteed to make it out unscathed. In Spider-Man 3, huge, mind-blowing fights happen at every turn. Parker gets hit in the head with enough construction material to rebuild every building that gets wrecked in his wake, but he seems to bounce back just fine. The fights are now in the realm of comic books, but they start to lose their spark: jeopardy. And once jeopardy is gone, spectacle usually fills the gaps. And once spectacle is the star, everything else is disposable. For me, this was central to my problems with the whole thing.

Mary Jane Watson, wearing a dress and flower-shaped ornament in her hair, talks to Peter.

Harry, who's been beaten, looks over his shoulder at an explosive passing by his face.

Aunt Mae speaks earnestly to Peter in her home.

Spider-Man punches Sandman in the stomach, sending a burst of sand out his back.

There are a flurry of characters in the Spider-Man series. Mary Jane is actually well-handled in this story. She behaves like a reasonable person with real stresses in their life. Aunt Mae fills the nurturing, somewhat generic, motherly role for Peter. I don’t like the actor who plays Harry, but he was a good choice for the somewhat schizophrenic role. Sandman is a well-delivered but thinly covered character. He sure does know how to take a punch.

All of that being said, it’s a lot of fun, and they don’t forget to focus on the people in Peter’s life. For every piece that let me down, there was a good laugh, or a thrilling fight to fill it out. Rami even develops a nice little theme or two in there about marriage and choice. Rami also develops some strong female characters, which is often a flaw in even the best superhero stories. I suggest that you not expect more than an entertaining spectacle, and perhaps see this film as “Spider-man grows into his job”. Rami lets Parker get past his growing pains as Spider-Man, so he can serve up a story that demands streamlining throughout. The movie opened to record numbers, and I’m sure it’ll continue to perform well. I have to admit there’s a lot to like. But considering what’s come before, I expected a lot more from a lot less.

Ad Exec Review: “Next summer, the greatest battle lies… within.” “The battle within.” “How long can any man fight the darkness… before he finds it in himself?”

MPAA Review: “Sequences of intense action violence.”