Spider-Man Franchise Loses Steam
By Cole Smithey
After bucking the pitfalls of creating a sassy big screen superhero based on a popular comic book, and following it up with an even better sequel, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film series fizzles into a flagging mix of confused passion and diluted villainy. Gone is the bright tempo and unbridled enthusiasm of the first two movies that seemed to offer limitless possibilities for the genre.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) appears to have been recently pulled from a cryogenic freezer where he spent the past three years since "Spider-Man 2." Parker sits in the same dull college science classes, lives in the same one-room fleapit, rides the same yellow moped and hasn't managed to settle into a stable relationship with his true love Mary Jane Watson (AKA "MJ" — Kirsten Dunst). Director/co-screenwriter Raimi dawdles through an uninspired opening act, wasting crucial Spidey-time to elaborate on MJ's ill-fated Broadway singing performance. Raimi imparts the origin of Spidey's new archenemy "Sandman" (Thomas Hayden Church) from the person of prison-escapee Flint Marko. Marko's culpability in murdering Peter's cab-driver father Ben (Cliff Robertson) plays into the picture's morally driven theme of forgiveness that gets hammered home on several occasions.
During a star-gazing date in Central Park, Peter and MJ are oblivious to a meteor that crashes nearby before releasing a crawling black tar-like substance that attaches itself to Peter's moped. The twitchy black goo eventually takes over Peter's body, turns Parker's Spidey suit black, and darkens his mood into an arrogant Goth punk womanizer with a flair for black designer clothes and slick dance moves. Peter's metamorphosis coincides with his being carelessly dumped by MJ after Spidey is photographed kissing college classmate Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a public ceremony celebrating Spider-Man for rescuing her from a high-rise building partially destroyed by an out-of-control crane.
Harry Osborn (James Franco) returns to the franchise for a superfluous curtain call to show off his new "Goblin" outfit and flying-board with which he hopes to destroy Spider-Man. Harry's strained presence goes a subplot too far with his bid to woo MJ away from Peter. The movie goes all romance-comedy gooey for a retro rock music sequence wherein MJ and Harry cook omelets and dance around Harry's opulent kitchen to the tune of Chubby Checker's "The Twist." It's a nauseating filler scene that loudly announces the filmmakers' inability to distinguish the wheat from the chaff of the story.
More plot fumbling ensues with the initiation of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) as a rival photographer at The Daily Bugle, attempting to usurp Parker's freelance spot. Brock seeks to land a staff job under the tabloid's gentler editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) who manages his earsplitting anger with prescription medication. Topher Grace's peroxide blonde hair barely conceals the actor's golly-gee persona that hardly makes an impression. Brock becomes the fall guy for Spidey's evil-twin war paint when the creeping black tar drips on him from a church tower where Peter uses a bell's harmonic vibrations to escape the inky snare. Brock consequently turns into a spider-man-monster dubbed "Venom" who joins forces with Sandman to lure Spidey into an ambush baited with MJ trapped inside a taxi cab suspended from yet another high-rise building.
The action sequences in "Spider-Man 3" fall flat compared to those of the sequel because they seem like mere re-workings of battles we've seen before. The high-rise conditions become predictable and there seems to be less at stake for everyone involved. Mary Jane proves to be a fickle object of waning desire. Peter Parker isn't as excited as he once was about saving humanity. The "forgiveness" message of the story's moral is nonetheless overrun by a revenge motive that fuels most of the action. Finally, there's too much abstract villainy going on for the story to pick up an energized thread of momentum. Every performance feels modulated and slowed-down. Thomas Hayden Church fares better than the others due to his character's CGI construction that draws on available deposits of sand to alter his size. Still, Church play's Marko's melancholy so on-the-nose that his dramatic scenes reek of melodrama.
Plans are already underway for "Spider-Man 4" but without a significant change in the way the filmmakers and actors approach their duties, the future of the franchise does not look as promising as it once did. Like the Jazz ballads that MJ sings, "Spider-Man 3" is a slow-tempo ramble that should have been set to an uptempo rocker like Elvis Costello's "Lipstick Vogue." Instead, we get a superhero movie with no lip.
Rated PG-13. 138 mins. (C) (Two Stars)
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