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Spider-Man 3

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/07/07 22:51:54

"Consider this web way too tangled."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The “Spider-Man” movies are well-formed parts stuck in an underwhelming whole. The first film was an excellent origin story lost in a sea of undercooked plotting and uninspired action; the second, while an all-around improvement, still fell short in terms of connecting its pieces properly, leaving us with too many holes in between the great bits. These are films undone by lazy scripts too uninterested in tying things together properly, especially in the villain department.

Now comes “Spider-Man 3,” which again offers a gallery of solid scenes, then fails to connect them in any reasonable manner. The problem here is that, frankly, it’s too much movie: in addition to the three villains, two of whom require in-depth origin stories of their own, we must also wrap up the romantic storyline of the leads, continue the hero’s own personal journey, further complicate his origin tale, give ample screen time to a fan favorite female character, remember to do the same for the cranky boss, find room for the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo, pause to let Stan Lee have some screen time, toss a bone to a character who might become a top baddie in a later sequel, and try to work in some completely needless action scenes so the fans don’t complain about too much drama and not enough thrills - all within a tight two hours, twenty minutes.

Again: too much movie. There were many times when major characters would reappear after a lengthy absence away from the plot, and I’d realize I had completely forgotten than they were in the darn thing in the first place. The screenplay (by Sam Raimi, who once again also directs, Ivan Raimi, and Alvin Sargent) tries so hard to juggle so many ideas that there are aching gaps in the storyline as a result - it’s twenty, thirty minutes in between plotlines, as the movie tosses aside the Sandman thread in order to show us Peter Parker’s problems with Mary Jane. It’s as if the studio was so worried about its stars not renewing their contracts that they opted to cram everything they could into this potentially final chapter, and never mind the consequences.

What a movie this big needs is focus and energy. Which is quite possible, even with so many things happening at once - watch “The Empire Strikes Back” or “The Return of the King” again to see epic fantasy action bounce from place to place with style, or “Batman Begins” again to see an overstuffed comic book flick manage to handle too many characters by smartly weaving them together in all the right spots. With “Spider-Man 3” (even the hyphen feels unwieldy), the script doesn’t seem to want to be bothered with the chore of connecting the dots; at times the movie feels like the result of some do-it-yourself superhero randomizer - shuffle the same scenes fifty other ways, and you more or less get the same movie.

It’s tiring and tiresome. How can we possibly be thrilled by the idea of, say, a deadly Spider-Man look-alike if we never have enough time to learn about him, to see how he fits into the grand scheme of things? Folks itching to see Venom at work will walk away disappointed, having been given a story that can only deliver Venom as an excuse for one action set piece, the end.

For those unfamiliar with the Venom character: Once upon a time in the comics, Peter Parker was given a spiffy new black costume to replace his famous red-and-blues. Problem is, the suit was an alien life form with a life of its own. Spidey ultimately ditched the suit, only to later have it fall into the hands of whiny rival Eddie Brock, who allows the alien-suit-thing to overtake him, becoming the deadly Venom.

All of this is here in “Spider-Man 3,” but the catch is, this isn’t all of “Spider-Man 3.” It should be - needs to be - all there is to the movie. (Or, if not this movie, then some other Spider-Man movie.) We need enough screen time for us to watch Peter discover and then ditch the black suit, and then for Eddie to do the same (minus the ditching). This should be a singular tale, enough to get the ins and outs of the characters, their inner conflicts, their outer battles.

But watch how Raimi and company use the Venom story instead. A meteorite crashes, black ooze wiggling out, finding its way to Peter Parker. Some thirty minutes later, long after we’d forgotten about it, we see it jiggling around his apartment, just to remind us it’s still there. Another thirty minutes or so pass before we see it finally take over Peter’s body. Peter spends the next chunk of the movie being evil (kinda like the “Bad Superman” sequence in “Superman III,” only instead of de-leaning the Tower of Pisa, Peter Parker ogles babes, buys a black suit, and musses his hair). We ignore the whole storyline for a while, spending time instead on other plot points about which we had by now forgotten. And then back to the black suit, some badness, some regret, and a big tearing-off-the-suit scene (complete with shower-as-baptismal-metaphor epilogue).

Before we actually get to Venom (some, what, two hours into the movie?), let’s look more closely at the “Bad Peter” plotline. The suit amplifies aggression, and following a sequence in which Spider-Man goes nuts and Peter Parker screams at his nice landlord, we watch him discover his mistake and make amends to those wronged. But then he brings the suit back out, hoping it will help him strike vengeance on the Sandman (he is revealed early on to be the real killer of Peter’s uncle, which is an unfortunate stretch for the franchise, as it negates some key moments in the first movie). The earlier apologies, then, become phony. Granted, that may have been the writers’ point - treat the suit like an addiction, and Peter like an abuser, to whom backslides are common and apologies are shallow.

But it doesn’t seem like that’s the intent here. Instead, it’s merely sloppy writing, as if the apologies were meant to be used later, when they would fit better within the overall story. Later, you see, Peter realizes he’s gone too far after he strikes Mary Jane, the main words there being “too far.” By having our hero become so vile that he punches his girlfriend, we need more than some flimsy “oh, thanks for saving my life at the end of the movie, I guess that makes up for the domestic violence” gloss. We need to see that same heartfelt apology that Peter delivers an hour or so earlier to the landlord, only more. Sure, we know Spider-Man isn’t a jerk anymore, and the suit was to blame, etc., but the story still needs to openly reconcile all of this. It does not, assuming that we will forgive Spidey on our own terms. By taking the hero to the darkest depths but then dropping the ball by skimping on his return to the light, we’re left with a gaping hole in the film.

Back to Venom. It’s not until after all of this goes down that we finally see him, and here’s how it works. The black goop falls on Eddie Brock and he becomes Venom. Cut to: Venom finds Sandman in an alley and says something along the lines of “hey, let’s team up and go kill Spider-Man.” Cut to: a news report shows Mary Jane has been taken hostage, Venom has placed a massive web atop a construction site, and Sandman, now able to grow dozens of times his original size, is swatting at the cops trying to stop them. This is our lead-in to the big finish, a four-part battle royale. But come on. We obviously need a cool half hour, maybe twice that, to go from point A to point B in this part of the story, yet the writers - perhaps in a panic that they had maxed out the running time by having Kirsten Dunst dance around the kitchen while oldies play on the soundtrack (add in a ladle used as a microphone, and suddenly Sam Raimi’s remaking “Boys on the Side”) - figure by this point, nobody in the audience will care if we just say enough’s enough, let’s just skip right to the end.

You notice that I have not even mentioned the third villain, Harry Osborn, the “New Goblin.” We do not need him here at all, and the filmmakers know it. Why else would they conk him on the head in an early scene, give him short-term amnesia, and write him out of the picture until the plot requires he come back in? His appearance here is entirely out of obligation: “Spider-Man 2” ended on a cliffhanger in which Harry was about to turn into the new Green Goblin. But Raimi shows no interest in dealing with him in this outing, despite the promise of the previous film. The writers find mediocre ways of working him in, mainly as a romantic rival, and then they try hastily to link him to the movie’s themes of revenge and forgiveness (which works in spots and fails miserably in others - especially the finale). He’s also given a flying snowboard and a goofy helmet, which seem added in merely to sell toys; even the filmmakers can’t bring themselves to care about these gizmos as an actual character point. For the most part, Harry’s a fifth wheel, a plot point hanger-on, a storytelling and merchandising obligation.

The same can be said of Venom himself. Aside from the middle segment, in which Peter Parker unleashes the power of the black suit (again tying into the revenge/forgiveness themes), there’s no need for the black suit at all. (Heck, you could have Spider-Man get mean just by himself, really. The black suit is just a convenient item to help push ideas forward.) The first three-quarters of the movie show little to no interest in the Venom character, and once he shows up, he’s just some generic villain. Team up against Spidey in a big fight? They could’ve used anybody for that part. Why not Mysterio?

It’s obvious that the Sandman is intended as the real center of things here, considering the ample time given to his backstory and the links to the movie’s themes. On its own, this story might have worked wonders, especially considering Thomas Haden Church’s excellent performance, a few scenes detailing the character as a reluctant villain haunted by his own past, and special effects that truly wow (minus that dopey end sequence). Alas, the Sandman storyline keeps getting bumped aside for the other chapters in this overcrowded affair. So by the time we reach a major confrontation between Spider-Man and Sandman, instead of the emotional and physical wallop it should deliver, the whole bit comes off with a shrug - as if the screenplay knows both will meet again at the end, so why bother wasting any good moments here?

What makes “Spider-Man 3” such a letdown is that there are many talented people involved here, both in front of and behind the camera. In addition to Church, we get fine performances from Tobey Maguire and James Franco; Topher Grace makes a brilliant Eddie Brock, a sniveling-weasel version of Peter Parker; and Bruce Campbell and J.K. Simmons prove why their comic relief asides are the best things in these movies. (Coincidentally, the two weak links in the cast are the two key romantic interests: Dunst, as Mary Jane, is her usual blank self, while Bryce Dallas Howard brings little to the Gwen Stacy role - perhaps due to the character being far too underwritten.) Raimi directs with his usual glorious flair, and when the screenplay’s dealing on individual scenes, it can manage to really zing.

Ah, but it’s in pasting everything together that the movie collapses. By the end, even the cast seems tired of the colossal mess we just had to watch. “Spider-Man 3” is three, maybe four movies clumsily crammed into one, a jumble at best and a junkyard at worst. And like its predecessors, its occasional good parts can’t overcome a lousy whole.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the engagement ring, or Harry’s butler, or the jazz club dance sequence, or the Sandman’s ill daughter, or...

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