12/1/07

R055 Spider-Man 3

(2007, Action-Superhero, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and James Lileks

His strutting is an affront to anything that has ever gotten funky.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

The Amazing Spider-Man is suddenly beset by a host of improbable villains.

Summary:

Double your pleasure, double your potential marketing revenue.Looks like Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) misunderstood loner troubles of the first two films have blown over, because now everyone in New York loves his alter ego, Spider-Man. When he saves the police chief’s daughter from an unlikely crane accident, they even arrange to give him the key to the city.

Things aren’t going so great for his girlfriend, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). She finally lands a role in a big Broadway musical, only to have her first performance panned. She’s fired and forced to take a job as a singing jazz waitress. Poor oblivious Peter keeps having to run off and save innocent civilians before she can work herself up to tell him, so he keeps on complimenting her and congratulating her on her success while she grimaces and frowns. Things come to a boiling point when he lays an upside-down kiss on the police chief’s daughter during the Key to the City ceremony, while Mary Jane looks on. Later, she storms out of a fancy restaurant before Peter can propose.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned much in the way of web-swinging superhero action. A couple of villains have had their backstories established by now (we’re about an hour into the film, by the way), but not a lot has been accomplished in the way of villainy. Let’s take a look at our villains now:

Supervillain Number One: Flint Marko, a.k.a. The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). After breaking out of jail, the first thing Flint does is visit his sick daughter and angry wife. He promises to get the money necessary to pay for Sick Daughter’s undefined medical procedure and heads for the hills. The cops find his trail, though, chasing him into a top-secret science facility, apparently dedicated to the irradiation of sand. And, wouldn’t you know it, they’re just about to conduct their weekly midnight sand irradiation when Flint stumbles into the test area. The alarms go off, but the scientists go ahead anyway (“Probably just a bird,” they say), and Flint gets reduced to his component molecules.

Next morning, his component molecules strain to pull themselves back together. Thus, Flint has become The Sandman, capable of disintegrating and reintegrating at well. Plus, he has super strength and can fly, just like real sand. He uses his newfound powers to rob an armored car, quickly running afoul of Spider-Man.

In a completely unnecessary development, Peter and Aunt May are called in to the police chief’s office to revise a bit of history from a previous film. Apparently, the man whom they previously identified as Uncle Ben’s killer wasn’t really. It was his partner Flint Marko who pulled the trigger. Now under the influence of Villain Number Three, Peter flies into a rage and hunts Flint into the subway, disintegrating his sandy nemesis with a blast of raw sewage. Flint melts down the drain, and is assumed dead. Of course he manages to reconstitute himself in time for the finale.

Villain Number Two: Harry Osborne, a.k.a. New Goblin (James Franco). Harry hates Peter/Spider-Man from the previous films, still nursing a grudge about his father’s death. He’s finally harnessed his father’s Green Goblin gadgets well enough to try and bring Peter down. They fight their way across the city until Peter clotheslines Harry off his rocket-powered skateboard. The ensuing head injury results in partial amnesia, and for most of the rest of the film, he forgets that he’s supposed to be feuding with Peter.

After Mary Jane storms out of Peter’s proposal, she goes to talk to Harry, who puts the moves on her. She doesn’t want to betray Peter yet either, so she walks out on Harry as well. The emotional distress is enough to bring back Harry’s memory completely (and subject us to a brief Willem Dafoe cameo). He kidnaps Mary Jane and blackmails her into breaking up with Peter, then tells Peter that he’s going out with Mary Jane. This further leads Peter to succumb to Villain Number Three. Under this villain’s evil influence, Peter storms into Harry’s penthouse and beats the living crap out of his former friend, scarring him for life.

That's it Spidey!  Kick sand in his eyes!Villain Number Three: Alien Symbiote, a.k.a. Venom. Early in the film, a meteor crashes in central park near the place where Mary Jane and Peter lie canoodling. They’re so engrossed that they don’t notice the large orange explosion nearby, or the tarry black alien substance hitching a ride on the back of Peter’s moped. It tails him into his apartment, where it lies in wait until he is emotionally vulnerable, having fallen asleep in his Spidey costume while listening to the police band for news of his uncle’s real killer. He wakes up swinging through the city in a tarry black costume, with greatly enhanced superpowers and a very large chip on his shoulder.

He takes a sample of the costume to his physics professor Curt Connors (who will become a villain called The Lizard in a later installment...if the series survives this train wreck of an entry). Connors warns Peter that it bonds itself to a host and enhances that host’s innate abilities while filling the host with unchecked aggression. By the time he figures this out, Peter has fully succumbed to the symbiote, as seen in his rude behavior to his colleagues, his attempted murder of Flint, his bad James Brown impressions, and his violent jazz dance routine.

The last symptom of symbiote-induced madness mentioned is particularly painful, both to watch and to experience. It ends with a nervous breakdown in which Peter starts punching everyone in punching distance, including Mary Jane. Filled with remorse about what he’s done, he climbs into a church belltower, inexplicably aware that loud noise is the only way to get the maniacal costume off of him.

Meanwhile, Peter has exposed a rival photographer’s plagiarism at his place of employ. Said photographer is Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who gets fired and banned from every newspaper in town. He stops into the church to pray for Peter’s death, hears Peter/Symbiote’s cries of pain in the belltower and goes to investigate just in time to get covered in Peter’s melted costume. Eddie/Symbiote becomes Venom, a vaguely Spider-Man-ish villain bent on Peter Parker’s destruction.

To this end, Venom recruits the newly reconstituted Sandman to draw Peter into a trap. Of course the easiest way to do this is to kidnap Mary Jane. Peter realizes he can’t take on both villains at once and goes to Harry for help. The now-scarred Harry refuses, and Peter goes off to fight Venom and Sandman alone. They pretty much wipe the floor with him.

Meanwhile, Harry’s butler pops up with a bit of handy information: Harry’s father Norman died of self-inflicted wounds, so he wasn’t killed by Spider-Man after all! (Why he withheld that information through months if not years of revenge obsession shenanigans is anyone’s guess.) Harry flies to the rescue on his rocket skateboard. Several quips, punches and apologies later, Venom gets incinerated by a pumpkin bomb, Sandman flashes back to Uncle Ben’s accidental death and apologizes before disintegrating, and Harry gets a tragic hero’s death. Later, Peter visits Mary Jane’s Jazz Diner to apologize, and they slow dance us into the credits.

Thoughts:

I hold Venom personally responsible for the state of this film.All three movies have ended with the villain figuring out Peter’s identity and using his relationship with Mary Jane against him. Why hasn’t anyone ever noticed this? Surely someone at some news outlet or other must, at some point, have said to themselves, “Hey, isn’t that the same girl who was kidnapped and dangled above the city by the last three or four super-powered megalomaniacs?”

Of course, the idea of a secret identity staying secret was ludicrous back when superheroes first started having them, and has only gotten more so as technology has advanced to a point where secrets of any kind are ridiculously hard to keep. We, the superhero-consuming public, accept this as superhero storytelling convention, making it unworthy of comment. Sorry to waste your time. Let’s move on to this movie’s real problem... Which, I admit, are many and varied. But there is one element whose removal could have made the movie at least 100% better. I speak, of course, of Venom.

Now, among comic book fans, Venom is something of a polarizing figure—either you love him or you hate him. Me? I’ve got nothing against Venom as a concept. It’s not the character that counts, but how you use him, and in Spider-Man 3, the Venom storyline in general is very poorly presented. Consider:

1) The alien symbiote lands right next to Peter (who inexplicably doesn’t notice; the much-vaunted Spider Sense takes a break for the entire movie), follows him home, and waits until he’s emotionally vulnerable before striking. Then, when Peter removes it, it just happens to fall onto one of the few people in New York who want Peter dead. This is an unbelievable string of completely unmotivated coincidences. I’m guessing someone in the studio demanded they add him to the film in the later stages of script revisions, because it smacks of a band-aid job; if he’d been part of the script since the beginning, he’d have a better reason for being there. Couldn’t the alien tar latch on to Peter as a result of rescuing people from the destruction caused by the meteor’s descent? Maybe Eddie Brock could have been following Peter while trying to build up enough courage to attack him, but walked in on Peter’s struggle with the symbiote instead. Come on, guys. Even the various cartoon series did a better job of explaining this stuff than you did.

2) The “Funky Hitler-Hair Peter” sequences and the jazz dance sequence—the two most painfully stupid parts of the film by far—belong to the Venom storyline. Take Venom out and SHAZAAM! They’re gone. That ought to have been reason enough to scrap it in and of itself.

What remains can’t exactly be called good. Parts of Sandman’s backstory, for instance, are illogically goofy. On the other hand, director Sam Raimi has made this kind of goofiness maniacally entertaining in previous films time and time again, so I’m pretty sure he could have gotten the rest of the movie into shape if he hadn’t been tripping over Venom’s dead, bloated weight at every turn.

Joining Mike for this commentary track is blogger/columnist/novelist James Lileks (pronounced “lilacs”). I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently a writer of some renown in certain circles. He’s not bad as a guest commenter either. There weren’t a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but every minute of the commentary is insistently funny in an understated way, so that you’re never left waiting for the next good joke. In fact, Mr. Lileks is probably only the second guest to significantly impact the trademark Rifftrax voice. (The first was Fred Willard, whose bemused goofiness lent Missile to the Moon an old-school MST3K quality. Weird Al came close, but for all his hilarious trademark whining, the words to the Jurassic Park riff were still Mike’s). Comment-wise, James notes the heavy-handed attempt at pathos in Flint Marko’s first scenes with, “Think how Star Wars would have been if Darth Vader had been stroking a puppy in the first scene.” Later, when the police chief shows them a photo of Uncle Ben’s real killer, Mike says, “His name is Bob Retcon.” When Spidey’s costume turns black, James says, “He gets Tyler Perry all of a sudden.” In the tender slow dance finale, both riffers deliberately undermine the scene with a tender rendition of the Kennel Ration commercial jingle. This is one of the most even, consistent Rifftrax available.