Spider-Man 3

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Peter Parker, man behind the man of the moment, has everything going his way: a beautiful girlfriend and a super-hero identity which has finally earned him adulation from the people of New York. But his self-satisfaction, aided by a mysterious extra-terrestrial force, threatens to engulf him; and that’s not to mention the other villains that continue to trouble the city.

Following the massive critical and commercial success of Spider-Man 2, director and co-writer Sam Raimi could probably be forgiven for thinking that the public would go with him whatever direction he took the Spidey franchise. However, reaction to this latest effort showed that – like the web-slinging wonder himself – you only need to put one foot wrong for everyone to turn on you.

The action continues with a re-cap of the first film over the credits and events following on from the second: Peter (Tobey Maguire) is now in college and in a relationship with Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst), herself taking to the Broadway stage for the first time. Peter seems to have achieved a balance between his normal life and his masked one, with MJ now aware of his identity; even his enmity with former friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) is overcome after an early battle which results in Harry – a part time New Goblin – suffering from amnesia.

However, such are things in Spidey’s world, a new threat to the city emerges in the shape of a petty criminal who (entirely revising the events of Spider-Man) is transformed by a particle testing machine into the constantly-shifting Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). It’s handy that he appears, really, because otherwise the facility would merely have been blasting sand for no reason. But I digress.

Pride threatens to over-run Peter too, when he is awarded the key to the city after a dramatic rescue of police chief’s daughter Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) from a skyscraper-destroying crane accident and takes – in front of MJ, mind you – an upside-down kiss from her. Even though he has thoughts of marriage on his mind, Peter is too full of his own achievements to care about what’s going on in MJ’s life, and his attitude is intensified when a sticky black compound, fallen from a meteoroid earlier in the film, infects one of his suits and brings out a cruel, arrogant streak.

Peter uses his new meanness to embarrass rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), humiliate MJ by dating Gwen in front of her, and – when Harry suddenly regains his memory, and his father’s advice, after stealing a kiss from MJ herself – defeat the New Goblin, callously hurling a bomb at him which messes up his face. Spider-Man also deals with Sandman, but he is resistant to being washed away and regroups himself for a joint attack on the town in conjunction with a terrifying new villain. And – poor MJ – you just know who the lure is going to be to get Spidey to turn up.

As you will gather, this is not the simplest of plots, featuring the New Goblin, Sandman and Venom in addition to the self-conflict brought about by the black goo from beyond. It could have worked, too, but the plot is scattered all over the place and the pacing of the film is completely off. Villains appear and disappear almost at will, so you’re never quite sure how threatened Peter is supposed to be.

Although the black stuff – the major selling point of the film, remember – turns up early, it is over an hour before Peter feels the effects of it, and its main effect seems to be on his fringe; and the film’s method of disposing of it feels distinctly unsatisfactory, during a climax which has no build up at all but is suddenly thrust onto the screen.

Even the main driver of the film, Peter’s precarious relationship with Mary-Jane, swerves all over the place, Peter acting like an arrogant fool long before the black gunge has a chance to take control. I couldn’t help feeling, too, after Spider-Man 2’s love versus super-heroism tussle which inevitably brought Superman II to mind, that Spidey fighting (albeit not literally) with an ‘evil’ version of himself in the third instalment was a somewhat blatant borrow.

What irritates more than any of this, however, is the way the plot is brought to the screen. Raimi is apparently adamant that his characters should be seen to dance whenever possible, having MJ and Harry do a cosy little twist routine before their guilty kiss, and having Peter dance a sultry routine with Gwen at the jazz club where MJ is forced to work when her Broadway dream evaporates. Both routines add very little to characterisation or story, and if they are meant to be light moments they are misjudged.

The same is true of Bruce Campbell’s John Cleese-like appearance as a comic French maitre d’ when Peter plans his proposal; though the scene has its moments, the comedy is too broad for the rest of the film. Rather than the plot growing organically, Spider-Man 3 feels as though it has been written in lumps, with action bits tacked onto romantic bits and awkward linking scenes filling the gaps, meaning talented actors like Rosemary Harris (as Aunt May), James Cromwell (as the police chief/Gwen’s Dad) and Dylan Baker (Parker’s lecturer) are reduced to plot-churning bit-parts.

And quite why Lucy Gordon’s news reporter is considered necessary at all is beyond me; with the first sequel trusting the audience’s intelligence, this character insults it by stating the bleeding obvious in an out-of-place accent. Thank Heavens, then, for J. K. Simmons as brutal Daily Bugle editor JJ Jameson. His brusque humour livens up the film no end and the scene with his juddering intercom was, for me, the highlight of the film.

The unique feature of Spider-Man (in recent film form, at least) has always been the evident humanity of both our hero and his adversaries; Spider-Man 3 takes this idea to stretching point and beyond. When Harry, with his memory intact and disfigured at Peter’s hands, has more reason than ever to despise him, he suddenly decides to join forces with him; and Sandman, whose vengeance has survived the (you might expect final) dispersal of his parts into the river, suddenly finds his love for his daughter overpowering, and with a humble apology floats off with the wind, to where one knows not. Alfred Molina’s selflessness was touching, but in these characters the decisions seem illogical.

Strange though it may seem, none of the above leads me to the conclusion that this is a bad film. The lead actors are effective in their roles and the action sequences are a blast, the CGI work having improved markedly since the first film (Sandman is particularly impressive). Yes, it’s long, but it has a lot of story to tell. The real disappointment is that with all the resources available, a little more effort didn’t go into tightening up the plot and script to make the third Spider-Man instalment as consistently gripping as the second.

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