Spider-Man 3

Three may not be the lucky charm for “Spider-Man 3,” the new, eagerly awaited installment of the franchise that began five years ago and has generated $1.6 billion in worldwide grosses.

Likely to divide reviewers, “Spider-Man 3” may prove to be critics-proof, just like Columbia's “Da Vinci Code” was last summer (though there was unanimous agreement that “Da Vinci Code” was a bad picture, which is not the case of “Spider-Man 3”).

Indeed, despite narrative and tonal problems, this blockbuster follow-up should score high at the box-office, if the $822 million grosses of “Spider-Man 2” in 2004, and $784 million of “Spider-Man” in 2002, are any indicators.

“Spider-Man 3” received its world premiere in Japan April 19 and will have its domestic premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival May 1, following a whole “Spider-Man Week” in New York City beginning April 30, before opening day and date the first week of May. It's the first “Spider-Man” to be released theatrically overseas before opening in the U.S. May 4, an interesting statement in its own right about the changing orientation of Hollywood tentpole movies vis–vis the rest of the world

“Spider-Man 3” is certainly the “biggest” in terms of budget-size, running time, and special effects. Sony's official figure is $250 million (which means it could be even higher) and running-time is 139 minutes, 12 minutes longer than “Spider-Man 2,” and 18 minutes longer than the first one. The CGI shots, which highlight two or three spectacular set-pieces, are estimated at 1,000 or so (which is more than their numbers in the last chapter of “Lord of the Rings”).

However, adding more villains and a new femme simply means having more characters, subplots, and emotionally tangled web of relationships, but doesn't necessarily translate into a more engaging or enjoyable film. Indeed, “Spider-Man 3” represents a step down from the second, 2004 installment, which improved over the first in every department. That said, opinions would differ as to whether “Spider-Man 3,” which is considered to be the “most Sam Raimi” picture, is stronger or weaker than the first. Sam Raimi and brother Ivan Raimi are credited with the script, along with Alvin Sargent, who got most of the credit for the better quality and greater fun of “Spider-Man 2.” (See Review)

Perhaps reflecting the zeitgeist, Spidey, the Marvel comic book character that was created by Lee and Steve Ditko in the 1960s, has gotten much darker, and even more burdened now by issues of identity than his persona was in the previous installments.

New segment's main novelty is having several villains, all determined to take the walls-climber down, and turning the hero, Peter Parker, into sort of a bigger enemy of his own.

Thomas Haden Church (Oscar-nominated for “Sideways”) joins the cast as Flint Marko, an escaped convict who becomes known as the monster Sandman, a result of DNA and sand particles in a molecular fusion experiment.

Topher Grace (“In Good Company” and “P.S.”, but still better known for TV's “That 1970s Show”) plays the second adversary, Eddie Brock, Peter's rival photographer at the Daily Bugle newspaper, who is transformed into a nasty Venom after being enveloped in a black alien goo (you have to see the film, but it's from another galaxy).

Unfortunately, neither villain–nor actor, for that matter–is a real match for Alfred Molina's vibrant, mutant, and colorful foe in “Spider Man 2.”

Also new to the story is Gwen Stacy (red-haired Bryce Dallas Howard, who's now blond), the daughter of a police captain (James Cromwell) and a classmate of Parker's, whose crush on Peter annoy old girlfriend Mary Jane, as well as Brock, who believes he's Gwen's beau.

Continuing from the previous chapters Harry Osborn (James Franco), now a semi-villain, who is determined to make Peter pay for the death of his father, Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).
Longtime girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is back again, though not in good shape. In this chapter, her acting career suffers a setback, which makes her more vulnerable and needy.

Story begins in a state of equilibrium (or balance), depicting a peaceful nearly crimeless city, which allows the characters to pursue their personal and professional goals. Mary Jane is a rising Broadway star, and Peter Parker studies science at college. Peter and Mary Jane's quiet evening with stargazing is interrupted when a meteor lands close by, emitting a gooey black silk. (Pay attention to the color black: Peter's sleek black suit reflects his character's increasingly darker instincts).

In quick order, it's revealed that Marko is responsible for the death of Peter's Uncle Ben (played by actor Cliff Robertson, who won an Oscar in 1968 for “Charly”). Now a fugitive, Marko can transform himself into the shape-changing Sandman and then become a giant hulk. The granular monster is given a new cause (non-existent in the comics, his sick daughter needs expensive medicine he can't afford (a reference to our problematic health system).

Enters adversary Brock, a street photographer who competes with Peter for getting the first recorded image of Spidey's true identity. Whoever succeeds is promised a significant promotion from J. Jonah Jameson (J. K, Simpson), their strange editor at the Daily Bugle. What begins as an aggressive but still amiable rivalry quickly turns into a more overt and nastier conflict.

The Freudian angle of the previous chapters also gets more pronounced here, when Harry, still blaming Spidey for the death of his father, engineers a new designer Green outfit and follow in his dad's footsteps.

The film revisits the themes of the power and civic responsibility, redemption and forgiveness, but unlike the first chapters, these ideas are not grounded in a particularly compelling emotional context, and they are not well integrated in describing the complicated relationships among the main figures.

As expected, the visual and sound effects benefit from the state-of-the-art technologies, supervised by Scott Stokdyk and Sony's Imageworks. To be sure, there are some thrilling sequences, such as Marko's first transformation, from molecular deconstruction to his monstrous Sandman's reconstruction, or Brock's turn into the evil Venom when black alien goo hits his twisted soul.

There's an awe-striking sequence in Gotham, in which a construction crane crashes a skyscraper, threatening to kill Gwen, only to be saved at the very last second. (The demolished high-rise building may elicit conflicted emotions among some viewers).

The same creative team responsible for the previous segments is back again: Alert cinematographer Bill Pope and editor Bob Murawski, and brilliant costume designer James Acheson and production designer Neil Spisak; this film relies more on costumes and sets changes than the previous ones. Music is good too: Christopher Young, who worked on the second picture, again is inspired by the original tunes of Danny Elfman in 2002.

So what's missing An engaging storyline and the right tone or mood, which is a tough challenge when it comes to a mega-franchise. Understandably, the filmmakers have to navigate through sensitive terrain, since the basic formula needs to be observed to fulfill expectations of viewers and readers. Yet the creators are also expected to offer a new, fresh angle (other than just more villains) to enrich the proceedings and distinguish “Spider-Man 3” from the former episodes. This is particularly hard due to the fact that “Spider-Man 2” was an A-picture.

Moreover, there is always the problem of degree of faithfulness to the basic Marvel comic strip, aggravated here by the issue of how dark can Spidey get. In an interview, Tobey Maguire admitted that he supported the decision of making Peter darker, though the question remains of how far, or how much darker, can Peter get and still remain a legit hero for mainstream audiences to root for

Major problem is not the film's darker impulses (the public will accept that in the post 9/11 climate, even for a megaplex blockbuster), but basic script, the very ingredient that elevated “Spider-Man 2,” by vet scribe Alvin Sargent, who was able to enrich the formatand it is a formatwith deeper characterization, greater resonance, and even humor.

Tobey Maguire is a likable and handsome performer, but he has not developed much as an actor in the new millennium. As a character and actor, he has not matured (even physically) since the franchise began five years. His squeaky-clean looks and frail, vulnerable voice, which were assets when he was a youngster in movies like “The Ice Storm” or “Pleasantville,” or “Cider House Rules,” may become liabilities for a gifted actor pushing 30.

Final note: As a result of adding many new characters, some of the older and secondary ones, such as Peter's aunt (the lovely Rosemary Harris), have less to do. A larger ensemble also means less opportunity for the thespians to build a character. Hence, acting-wise, “Spider-Man 3” is also inferior to its predecessor, in which the women scored just as highly as the men, again due to the scenario.

Reviewed by Yoko Umeki and Emanuel Levy

Credits

Sony Pictures Entertainment Release
Columbia Pictures presentation of a Marvel Studios and Laura Ziskin production

Running time: 139 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

Cast

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Harry Osborn: James Franco
Flint Marko/Sandman: Thomas Haden Church
Eddie Brock/Venom: Topher Grace
Gwen Stacy: Bryce Dallas Howard
Capttain Stacy: James Cromwell
Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons

Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriters: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
Screen story: Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi
Based on the Marvel Comic book by: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Producers: Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad, Grant Curtis
Executive producers: Stan Lee
Kevin Feige, Joseph M. Caracciolo
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designers: Neil Spisak, J. Michael Riva
Editor: Bob Murawski
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Stokdyk
Costume designer: James Acheson
Music: Danny Elfman, Christopher Young