Thursday, July 30, 2009

Knowing How It Ends Doesn't Help

Don't worry, this post isn't about mortality. It's about a lousy movie I really wanted to like, so much so, I gave it a second chance this week. I warn you now that I'm going to spoil this movie for those of you who haven't seen it. For those who have, we can agree that it was spoiled from the start: Spider-Man 3.

I revisited the movie by chance--I was flipping channels, and it was on. But more importantly, I was in a hopeful mood and ready to watch this stinker in a new light. I figured knowing how the movie played out, knowing what to expect for better or worse, I'd be able to forgive the obvious negatives and simply enjoy the little things that made it fun. After all, that's the true appeal of comic book movies (and other popcorn/blockbuster/genre flicks)--all the requisite cheese and nonsense can usually be forgiven because the parts are almost always far greater than the whole. A roller coaster can't have all those wild ups without a few jerky downs. And when we look back on a Spider-Man or a Deep Blue Sea or a Matrix, we latch on to set pieces, action sequences, specific characters who pulled us through the story, cool one-liners. These movies strike some nostalgic chord that resonates beyond linear storytelling. You don't really get that with something like...The Reader. Either you like that movie or you don't.

So, having pretty much never looked back at the movie since walking out of the theater a few years back with my nerdy heart broken by it's suckiness, I sat back on the couch and hoped for the best. And you know what? It's a pitch-perfect Spider-Man movie...for about 40 minutes. The Peter/MJ dynamic established in the previous two films is there, recurring characters like Aunt May and Harry Osbourne pick up where they left off, and new characters--Eddie Brock, in particular--step into the mix convincingly. The J. Jonah Jameson-driven plot driver pitting dueling Daily Bugle photogs Parker and Brock against each other to get a shot of Spider-Man showing his "true colors" as a villain, with a staff job as the prize, is right out of the comics, and the tongue-in-cheek tone of the setup translates well to live action. It's fun and hokey and, considering the context, believable. The Sandman origin is also handled really well. I like the way he looks in the movie and I like the way the role is acted. Surprisingly, the action and conflict surrounding Harry Osbourne as "Goblin Jr" is probably the most satisfying part of the movie for me, in that it actually follows through on threads from parts 1 and 2 and, despite some cosmetic changes from what happens to Harry in the funny pages, feels like a true adaptation of Harry's ongoing comic story--right down to the coma, bouts of memory loss, and "dying." I think a lot of people dismissed the Harry stuff because they didn't like the idea of changing "Green Goblin 2" into a hover-boarding, bomb-throwing extreme sports caricature. In retrospect, it's a pretty cool character design and a nice step forward from the Power Ranger-esque Green Goblin in part 1. Without changing all that much, Harry becomes something new for the Spideyverse and, given how things play out in the movie, the kind of slick anti-hero who nearly outshines the hero hero of the piece.

But nobody went to see Spider-Man 3 for Sandman or Harry.

No, Spider-Man 3 was all about Venom--the alien symbiote that latches onto Peter Parker and, in the comics, became an evil, brain-eating perversion of everything Spider-Man stood for. In the comics, Spidey "becomes" Venom in a sense, before Venom becomes his own being, wearing the black alien as a costume while adventuring on another world in a comic plot far too convoluted to translate to film. But seeds had been planted by the filmmakers, so there wouldn't be much trouble altering the origins of the alien in order to bring Venom to movie Spidey's Earth in an exciting but sensible way.

As you'll recall, in Spider-Man 2, Parker's girlfriend MJ was engaged to marry astronaut John Jameson, but she left the poor sap at the alter to be with her web-headed honey. So, when John Jameson went off on his next space adventure, his heart was filled with anger toward MJ and Parker, and this anger drew the alien symbiote to him. A little far-fetched, but still logical within the context of a movie about a guy in tights fighting crime with the proportionate strength and agility of a spider. So, one thing leads to another, and Jameson returns to earth with the alien in tow, feeding off of his anger, and fueling his aggressive urges toward Parker and MJ. This gives him a reason to bring the symbiote into contact with Parker, allowing the rest of the Venom origin to unfold as it did in the comics, and allowing MJ to redeem herself from her runaway bride routine in part 2 by at least suffering some consequences in part 3, a common thread tying the sequels together toward a fulfilling conclusion.

I'm sorry, what is that? The alien just falls out of the sky? The symbiote just happens to come into contact with Spidey because Parker...steps on it? MJ's jilted ex doesn't even get mentioned again?

Oh yeah, right. And that's why this movie sucks. An unlikable love interest who makes the protagonist fawning all over her unlikable by extension, a major villain generated from some random space junk, and not even the slightest attempt to resolve a pretty major character-defining act from the previous film.

Also, about 40 minutes into the flick, we find out that (in the movies, at least) Sandman killed Spidey's Uncle Ben. So, not only are we going to ignore that whole "leaving a good man at the altar" bit from part 2, we're also going to reach back to part 1 and change the tried-and-true origin story that has suited Spidey for decades and across mediums...just to add an unnecessary dramatic twist to the B-villain subplot?

Why don't they just add a dance number, while they're at it?! (They did.)

Needless to say, my viewing experience fell apart fairly quickly. And the thing about already knowing how the movie ended? Well, it gave me license to do the only sensible thing--turn the crap off early.

But fear not, true believers! I was able to cleanse my palate with an episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, which happened to be sitting in my DVR queue and featured an infinitely more satisfying take on Venom. If there's any moral to this story, I guess it's that anyone looking for a live-action Spidey fix is better off settling for the far more intelligent cartoon on Disney XD.


Matt Bergin said...

Some comments from my Facebook page about this post. Don't be shy about leaving comments on this blog!

Carlos-I was disapointed with the way they handled Venom too.

Foxy-Exactly, Venom should of had his own movie.

Funke-I was always bothered by the "What does it matter to you anyway?" "Everything!" exchange. There is definitely a word or a few missing from Spidey's response. Even "It's everything!" would have served.

Peat-It would have been 10X better if Sandman had been limited to a quick opening fight that ended after 5 minutes with him webbed up for the police.

Matt-I agree, Peat... and I hope they use that formula for Spidey 4. I don't need a Scorpion movie, but I would love to see 10 minutes of him or Shocker or the Vulture getting thwipped before the title crawl and opening credits.

Myke-Should have cut Sandman out altogether. That movie tried to tell too many stories at once.

Peat said...

I think if you are true to the source material, Matt's take is better. Spidey swings around town every day and night looking for trouble. Sometimes he encounters a villain that makes for a larger story arc, but just as often it's some nut in a bird suit trying to rob a bank. A cool exchange like that with one of his b-list villains like the Rhino would make for an awesome intro before the credits, and make most fanboys pee their pants.

I would pick apart the other flaws in the movie, but they are really too many to count. It is a turd compared to the first two.

The fight with Harry Osborne where he's trying not to lose the engagement ring is awesome, though, as were the Sandman special effects.

Matt Bergin said...

I think it would be brilliant if they turn all those seemingly different characters Bruce Campbell played in 1-3 into the same guy: Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio. He's a struggling character actor who has a fairly good thing going hosting the wrestling show in part 1, but then, no thanks to his star attraction Spidey walking out on him, he loses the job and has to work as a theater usher to make ends meet while trying to stay close to "the industry" (part 2). But he's once again jinxed by his brush with the Spider-Man and loses that job too, ending up working as a host in a French restaurant (part 3). A few quick flashbacks to his perspective can show how Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and MJ all made his shitlist for revenge. Not the best villain rationale to carry a movie, but great for 15 minutes of punching and a classic punchline for Bruce Campbell's string of guest spots.

If not that, then it should be the Shocker, who makes for a great punching bag side joke in Ultimate Spider-Man and in the new cartoon.