SPIDER-MAN 3: A Study in Syrup and Molasses

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The syrup is provided by Christopher Young whose score nearly ruins the movie. At the beginning it’s annoying but excusable, but near the end when one character forgives another, the would-be poignant moment is ruined by the emotions-dictating music intruding right on cue.

The molasses is provided not just by the sticky alien symbiote but by the editor and probably the screenwriters, who keep the movie as slow and boring as possible. This effect is produced despite the first few minutes randomly cutting from character to character like a soap opera that keeps tabs on multiple characters without logical transitions. (The first act of Batman Begins is still a clinic on maintaining continuity between short scenes that aren’t even chronological.) Thus it establishes a three-ring circus’ lack of focus from the beginning, long before Eddie Brock is even introduced in the second act.

The best part of the movie, undoubtedly, is the first emergence of Sandman like the creation of Adam formed from the dust. It deserves appreciation as a short film in its own right that, without a word of dialogue or human acting, conveys more emotion than the rest of the film put together. Too bad it’s over within the first fifteen minutes.

The character best served by the film is Harry Osborne, whose dedication to the franchise has finally paid off in the form of more screen time after his disappointing role in Spider-Man 2 was made worse with one-note acting. But finally James Franco has been given a chance to demonstrate his breadth as his character doesn’t merely return to his personality in the first movie but shows a completely new side of him.

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Unfortunately Kirsten Dunst doesn’t halt the trajectory of the last movie but is, impossible though it may seem, actually less attractive than she was in Spider-Man 2. In the first sequel she merely looked like a drowned rat, but in the new one there’s no doubt her groomers were instructed to make her look as unattractive as possible in order to heighten the contrast between her and Gwen Stacy, most obvious in the scene at the French restaurant.

Words are insufficient to describe Gwen. Among the movie’s stars Bryce Dallas Howard is simply the sun: whenever she’s in view you can’t even see them.

The movie ought to be called “Peter Parker 3” because Spider-Man is rarely in it. I know everyone says the Spidey movies are so good because they focus on characters first and action second, however Spider-Man 2 was not only dramatically superior to 1 and 3 but it also had two of the best superpowered fights ever filmed. Spider-Man 2 retained the visual brightness of the first movie, which I used to feel were collectively just a bit too colorful (unlike the carefully limited palettes of Batman Begins and Superman Returns) but now, when compared to the visual darkness which makes the action so difficult to follow in the new film, the action in Spider-Man 2 remains superior simply because you can see it.

The result is that the best action sequence in Spider-Man 3 doesn’t involve him fighting any villains but only rescuing a falling girl early in the film — simply because it’s during the day. It is exceptional because most of the film takes place at night, which achieves both a thematic and a practical: visually it reflects the hero’s psychological descent into darkness assisted by the black alien symbiote, but it also helps to disguise the extensive digital effects employed in the action sequences.

The first two acts of the movie are the most fun, if only in contrast to the tedium of the last act. The final obligatory fight between all the characters is both huge and a huge disappointment, and venerable Los Angeles anchorman Hal Fishman’s incredibly un-Fishman-like delivery as a New York newsreader adds to the cheese rather than the tension of the proceedings.

Therefore (for me) the battle royal achieved interest primarily as an image of metacinema, in which an audience like us of entertained bystanders watch the fight which is itself filmed and televised for the world to see on screens, reflecting the movie’s global same-day release. However both X-Men 3 and Superman Returns already depicted similar images of theater more subtly and innovatively.

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I don’t necessarily look forward to a fourth installment by the same filmmakers because I doubt they have another Spider-Man 2 in them, but since Sony is intent on milking their spider to death (so to speak) we can only hope that the Lizard will finally rear his ugly and much-teased head.

But I don’t think a Spider-Man 4 would be the unqualified financial success that Sony seems to think it would be, because in franchises the first weekend’s box office is always a reflection of the public’s approval of the previous installment: thus the record-breaking hauls of The Matrix Reloaded and Pirates of the Caribbean 2.

Accordingly I predict that The Dark Knight will double the opening box office of Batman Begins, but Spider-Man 4 would be lucky to earn half that of its predecessor. After achieving practically instantaneous saturation point, expect a huge second-week drop-off for Spider-Man 3 as ambivalent word of mouth spreads.

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21 thoughts on “SPIDER-MAN 3: A Study in Syrup and Molasses

  1. natebell says:

    Good observations, especially in regard to the film’s oppressively dark look; I miss the candy colors, honestly.

    Once again, you show Dunst no mercy.

    Oh, and what about the bit with the butler? Didn’t you find it one of the laziest, most contrived developments ever? I mean, he just pops up with impossible knowledge about Norman Osborn’s death? Was this guy in the previous two films?

  2. Nobody says:

    I wouldn’t criticize an actress just for her looks except that in the movie MJ is not only an actress but, in Spider-Man 2, a MODEL whose face is plastered all over New York.

    Genetically enhanced spiders and an alien parasite are plausible, but it is the concept of Dunst as a perfume model that strains credulity beyond the suspension of disbelief.

    At least in Spider-Man 1 she looked remotely attractive, but since then we’ve just had to accept as a premise Peter Parker’s childhood obsession with her: web spinnerets grew out of his wrists, he makes his own costumes, he loves Mary Jane.

  3. Ryan says:

    Hahahah, I love it. You guys crack me up.

    Well, darn it, I don’t think I’ll see this until the dollar theater now. I had been waiting for your review, Nobody (Nate, yours was important to me as well), so this seals it. Oh well. One less movie means one more round of drinks for me and the wife on our cruise.

  4. Nobody says:

    I wouldn’t say it’s THAT bad (in fact I’ll probably see it again before it leaves theaters), it’s just that the trailer made it look like the greatest movie ever made and it turned out not to be.

    At least we have 28 Weeks Later, Pirates 3, Day Watch, FF2, Die Hard 4, Transformers 1, Harry Potter 5, and Bourne 3 to look forward to fulfilling our expectations.

  5. jeri says:

    Wow, great review, which captured a lot of th eissues I had with the movie. As for Nate’s comments on the Butler, I heartily agree. When he told Harry about his father’s death, I just wanted to speak for the poor, scarred boy and say, “And you couldn’t have mentioned this SOONER?!”

    Oh, and Dunst could actually take some hair, makeup, and clothing lessons from her character in this movie. As ugly as you thought she was in the movie, she’s 10 times worse when she’s not playing MJ. I actually didn’t think she was that bad, and thought BDH’s hair and makeup were weird.

    The trailer for Harry Potter 5 was worth it enough for me. I’d already seen it, but seeing it big was awesome. I”m so excited.

  6. Nobody says:

    On second thought, it really is that bad. The more I think about it the more incoherent this movie appears.

    You’re right about the butler, Nate. I didn’t think he was in the first two movies either, and given his awkward acting I assumed he was a friend of Raimi’s dad that he had promised to put in one of his films.

    However my research (thanks IMDb) proved me completely wrong:

    (1) “Houseman” was in the first two movies, and I vaguely remember a butler shuffling in and out of the background but I’m sure his face was never shown in closeup.

    (2) The actor isn’t the friend of Raimi’s father, he’s the father of Raimi’s friend (Bill Paxton) and had already appeared with his son in Raimi’s A Simple Plan.

    I think David Poland said it perfectly:

    And then, after 2 2/3rds of a movie series of near silence and total irrelevance, he changes the complexion of all three movies (not that they appear to care about our memories of the first two films) by kicking in a speech that should have happened early in Spider-Man 2 if it was ever going to happen at all.

    Honestly, Raimi uses Houseman like James Bond saves the day by using a gadget introduced by Q in the movie before the last one.

  7. Nobody says:

    Hi Jeri, I just saw your comment. I was hopeful at the beginning when MJ was performing on stage but after that I thought she returned to her dowdy self. I guess her wig in SM1 made her look better than dying her hair.

    Obviously BDH’s hair was also dyed which I think made it look kind of fake and they were pretty much forced to replicate the character’s trademark bangs and hair band.

  8. Ryan says:

    I’ve only seen one picture of BDH from SM3, but she was very pretty. And she actually looked like a real blonde!

  9. Ryan says:

    Ok, well, I just Google Image Searched “Gwen Stacy” and found her picture from Leno where she looked like a Paris Hilton groupie, but the pictures I’ve seen of her in the actual movie looked good.

  10. linds says:

    Hit the nail on the head, my friend. It was just trying to be too many things – too many classic storylines (oh how I was hoping Eddie Brock or Peter would accidentally kill Gwen while trying to save her and that would spiral him into Venom), no clarity of theme (I can’t talk about being responsible for what you can do without my students quoting Ben Parker’s line at me, and it’s years after the first film),and a refusal to trust the audience (did we really need the cheesy church flashback in the middle of the battle with Venom?). Ugh. I was so very disappointed. But at least I got to see trailers for Across the Universe and The Bourne Ultimatum.

  11. Nobody says:

    SPOILERS:

    I didn’t discuss theme in my review since I was trying to keep it spoiler free, but I thought SM3 did have a clear theme of vengeance vs. forgiveness, Peter wanting revenge against Sandman, reflected by Harry and Eddie’s desire for revenge against Peter. While Peter’s dilemma was admittedly a rehash of SM1, it did give him an opportunity to act differently and prove he learned something besides “WGPCGR”.

    The Power/Resonsibility lesson was what Peter learned from his failure to stop the crook before Uncle Ben’s death, not his confrontation afterwards. In SM2 he admits to Aunt May that he didn’t stop the crook beforehand because he wanted revenge against the wrestling director, but his rage after Ben’s death and in SM3 show that he still hasn’t learned that mercy is part of the responsibility that comes with power.

    However, I’m still uncertain whether Sandman’s confession that it was an accident lessened the impact of Peter’s forgiveness. Likewise, Harry’s forgiveness of Peter isn’t very meaningful because Peter wasn’t guilty. Though the alien suit was a good symbol of hate or revenge or jealousy or whatever, the overall theme loses focus because Eddie Brock’s greviences are so petty. Presumably Brock doesn’t deserve forgiveness because he hasn’t asked for it, like Sandman, so his (apparent) destruction is justified — but then the morality becomes confusing because the movie is fighting against its own desire for poetic justice.

    I think the second movie was the best thematically because its theme of duty vs. self-fulfillment was never encapsulated in a trite slogan. WGPCGR is true enough, but it doesn’t contain any insight into what that means practically, which SM2 explored. Most importantly SM2’s implication that people do not have a right to gratification is applicable to everyone not just those with “great power”. In SM2 that gratification manifests itself as romance and in SM3 it is revenge.

    Unfortunately SM3 suffers from being reinforced by too many redundant layers of theme, and so loses its impact. Not to mention that Venom’s final defeat was too reminiscent of how Bullseye thwarts Daredevil.

  12. Beady eyes Al says:

    As promised, here’s a riposte to your Spidey-bashing (see how I swoop in to save it like a belated and bloated Goblin #2). In response to two of your points:

    1) I think the lack of Spiderman, or rather the absence of his mask was possibly necessary, given how much it was made to stand indexically for his secret identity in the first two films. In SM3 they stopped using secret identity as a dramatic or plot vehicle, which was a wise decision I think, and so the mask had to go for the larger part of the film as well. Also, it made sense to have Harry and Peter fight with their masks off, which kind of leads me to point two…

    2) I think the fact that the first fight between Harry and Peter was in darkness (though not necessarily why the other sequences were) should be considered in relation to the theme of secrets (though not secret identities) – Harry and Peter at this point have kept their feud secret from Mary-Jane, and indeed the feud itself was caused by the secrecy of Osbourne Snr and Parker. The darkness doesn’t just represent Spidey’s descent into swinishness, but it also stands for the thick impenetrable web of lies (pun fully distended) left over from the previous films, and it also enables them to have a private fight without attracting the attention of the public who’d be out on the streets during the day. The crowd scene and the floodlights at the end can be understood to symbolise the public bringing to light of past grudges, misdeeds and misunderstandings – a public reckoning like that at the end of Measure for Measure (see Olson, Lecture Room 2, a few weeks ago)

    3) Finally, I don’t care what any of you cold-hearted buggers say, Kirsten Dunst is sweet, dimpled and redheaded princess and I would happily stalk her if the pay and holidays were good.

  13. Nobody says:

    Thanks for the defense, Alex.

    (1) You’re absolutely right about the irrelevance of Spidey’s secret identity (and therefore the costume) as a point of drama after MJ and Harry both discover it in SM2. Secret identities provide tension only with regard to the hero’s close associates, and even Aunt May has always hinted that she’s aware of Peter’s clandestine activities. In fact Sandman is the first antagonist in the series who did not know Peter personally prior to becoming a villain (and even he turned out to be connected to him somehow).

    (2) Alex wrote: The crowd scene and the floodlights at the end can be understood to symbolise the public bringing to light of past grudges, misdeeds and misunderstandings

    That’s a great observation about the floodlights. I’ve been thinking about them myself; as facile as this may be I think they also represent (in my metacinematic analogy) the light of the projector which illuminates the action before the audience.

    This scene is also the first time J. Jonah Jameson is ever shown outdoors I think. In SM2 he is shown out of the office at his son’s party, but SM3 is the first time he acts like a reporter himself. Of course JJJ’s two photographers are themselves involved in the fight, but I can’t helping thinking it is a kind of triumphant inversion of the power binary between Peter and his Editor, with JJJ now in the subservient role of photographer. In his prior public appearance (his son’s party) he orders Parker to take pictures, but now he must do it himself.

    Though a photographer is the inferior in relation to his editor, however, the photographer is usually the power-wielding party in relation to his photographic subject. But the disposable camera bought by JJJ lacks a phallic lens — which in SM1 had hung so prominently from Peter’s belt buckle when he proudly told an unimpressed Betty Brant he’s a photographer — and it has no film in it: a castrated camera.

    In my opinion the concept of Peter as photographer qua photographer was never satisfactorily taken advantage of in the movies (apart from the p_rnographic angle in which Peter exploits himself for money to the detriment of his public “image”). But the one trope I appreciated that recurs in each movie is that of the photographer discovering — through his camera lens — the object of his desire with a rival.

    In the first two movies Peter discovers MJ with Harry and John Jameson, respectively, through his camera. In the third movie the trope is transfered to Eddie Brock who discovers his would-be girlfriend kissing Spider-Man, making him jealous of Spidey while MJ, witnessing the same kiss, becomes jealous of the girl. I can’t recall specifically if the kiss is actually seen through Brock’s camera — if not then my point falls, and worse, Raimi missed an obvious opportunity.

  14. linds says:

    Alluded-to spoilers:

    On your comments about the reveals that made the forgiveness cheap: that’s exactly my problem with it. It’s ironic that Peter and Sandman end up wrongly accused and reconcile, and I like the spin of having to confront someone you ‘knew’ was a villain and changing your suppositions about them. That was cool. But it made the forgiveness offered in the film cheap. You can’t do both at the same time – forgiveness has to have something to forgive, and that’s what I hated the most about the butler. He cheapened Harry’s choice so immensely that it made it meaningless. Of course Peter’s best friend will ride into battle to save his other best friend once he realizes Peter is innocent. That’s not an interesting choice. It would have been fascinating to watch Harry put forgive Peter for killing his father without being told that Peter technically didn’t do it. The Sandman thing still could have worked, and been a different beat to show a different facet of forgiveness. This way, it was the same, cheap beat twice in a row.

  15. Nobody says:

    Continued spoilers:

    It would have been fascinating to watch Harry forgive Peter for killing his father without being told that Peter technically didn’t do it.

    I agree, Lindsay, at least then it would’ve meant something even though it was still mistaken.

    This way, it was the same, cheap beat twice in a row.

    But at least in the case of Sandman he really did kill Uncle Ben though it was an accident. So there was still something substantial to forgive.

    But admittedly, Peter’s forgiveness was palatable because Sandman was already a sympathetic character. Raimi did a great job of making him sympathetic, but in doing so he expected the audience to forgive him easily.

    Furthermore, while Peter’s forgiveness of Sandman for killing his uncle (accidentally or not) is fair enough, Peter can’t forgive Sandman for his other crimes — only those from whom he’s stolen can do so. In everyday life this wouldn’t present a special dilemma, but the first two movies made a big, fat, hairy deal out of the conviction that if it’s in your power to thwart wrongdoing you should do so, especially if you’re the only person who can do it (depicted powerfully in SM2 when Peter walks away from someone getting beat up in an alley). So, since the cops can’t stop Sandman’s crime spree, then whose job is it? Apparently the Fantastic Four’s because Spidey lets Sandy off the hook.

    Another issue raised by the movie is whether forgiveness ought to be requested before it is given, or whether it should be freely given in the first instance regardless of whether it’s accepted. But this is an ethical and inevitably theological question for which I can’t criticize the film because I don’t have an answer myself.

  16. Beady eyes Al says:

    Cripes. I should be working but you’ve given me another reason not to get on with it. Two more things:

    1) As second-hand as is Spiderman’s use of sound to defeat Venom, it’s significant in that it’s the first time in the whole franchise that he’s used his considerable scientific virtuousity to defeat a villain. There were hints of it in SM2 but in the end he basically sorted out Doc Ock by pummelling his face and throwing him in a puddle (which I enjoyed, don’t get me wrong).

    2) Re: the whole forgiveness thing: the film seemed to be more interested in forgiveness as a way of releasing oneself from the destructive cycle of revenge, than it was in the minuter questions of whether the forgiven deserves it or not. This makes sense, as the morality of Spiderman 3, like that of pretty much all drama, is in the way individuals act, rather than in retrospective judgements upon those actions by other characters, or alternatively in abstract laws and codes. Phew. There’s a generalisation and a half. Oh well…

  17. Ryan says:

    Dangit, now I have to see it sooner just to be able to participate in all the discussion going around. There’s an 11 page thread on it on Doug’s forum.

  18. Nobody says:

    Thanks for the heads up. Doug’s best line: When I saw the close up of Topher when he has jacked up fangs I couldn’t tell if he was possessed by Venom or Dunst.

    That’s one of those lines you just wish you’d thought of yourself!

    But on to Alex’s points: (1) So what you’re saying is Bullseye was a scientific genius for using pipes to make a lot of noise? In any case, as soon as they decided to give Peter organic webshooters (which I got over quickly) I don’t know why it was important to retain his being a scientist, apart from a shorthand way of communicating his nerdiness.

    (2) You’re absolutely right on this one. In SM3 forgiveness is therapeutic and cathartic, doing more for the subject than the object of forgiveness. It is essential for the subject in order to escape the “cycle of violence”, but that means it’s done for ultimately self-serving reasons.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that (I say genuinely without irony). Admittedly freedom from hatred is a better form of self-fulfillment than nursing a grudge, and as you point out, in drama the focus is on the character. Thus Scrooge is himself the primary beneficiary of his newfound charity. So at movie’s end it doesn’t matter what happens to Sandman because the beneficiary of the forgiveness is really Peter himself.

    I think you’ve persuaded me! (But it was still the worst musical cue of the film.)

  19. Beady eyes Al says:

    No, Bullseye wasn’t a genius because he just smacked a bell around, but Peter significantly improved on it by creating that ring of pipes which produced a special harmonic effect. I’m no physicist – I spent all of my physics lessons at school flicking elastic bands into the backs of people’s heads (people like Peter Parker I should add, hmm, wonder what they’re doing now…) – but I’m sure the frequency or wavelength or whatever of sound is transformed by such a structure. That doesn’t make him a genius, but it does mean that he was using his noggin for a change. But I agree, in general Pater’s scientific knowledge does seem to be used as shorthand for his geekiness.

  20. […] — I liked Marie Antoinette actually — just the portrayal of Mary Jane as a model. As I’ve said before: I wouldn’t criticize an actress just for her looks except that in the movie MJ is not only an […]

  21. […] Jim is asking the questions that matter over at Decorabilia.  Incidentally, Mere O reader Nobody didn’t like Spiderman 3 much either. […]

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