Every once in a while, Hollywood delivers a picture that offers more entertainment value to the critic than it does to its intended audience. "Spiderman 3" is just that sort of movie; it will, with absolute certainty, deliver at the box office, delighting Spidey fans with its expected blend of action sequences, CGI special effects, and (count ’em) three villains to track. But this movie won’t win new fans to the franchise, largely due to the fact that its flaws overshadow the fun.
Here they are, in order of magnitude: Dunst sings, Maguire stagnates, the script sags, the pace stalls, and an alarming percentage of the plot centers around goo from outer space. It’s a critic’s dream.
At the top of the film, New York City is riding high on Spidermania (art imitating life) thanks to the masked hero’s (Tobey Maguire) contribution to the reduction in crime. His contribution to his relationship with his girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst), however, is less impressive - her burgeoning Broadway career has been ripped by critics (I agree with them), she’s depressed, and Spiderboy is far more interested in good press than empathizing with her. In her frustration, she turns to bad-boy Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose early confrontation with Spiderman results in a temporary bout of amnesia. Meanwhile, two new menaces have risen to challenge the city: a hardened criminal with a moral center named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped, fallen into an electromagnetic sandstorm, been genetically altered, and has opted to take his anger over life’s imbalances out on innocent civilians... and the aforementioned goo splats down on Earth, gloms onto Spidey, and turns his outfit, his soul, his attitude, his taste in clothes, his dancing skills, and his brain to black mush. Can Spidey free himself from the goo, fight the Goblin, survive the Sandstorm, and keep Mary Jane from falling into a blubbering heap of self-pity?
I found myself not caring; and I was a big fan of the first two "Spiderman" films. The source of the problems (if not the most overt offense) is Sam and Ivan Raimi’s script. Gone are the character complexities that so effectively drove the first two films - especially the second; here, Peter Parker appears to be the same innocent, lackluster sop he was before coming into his superpowers, his evolution through "Spiderman 2" nowhere in evidence. And the Mary Jane we’ve come to know would never let a complete stranger’s opinion send her into a blubber, much less cause her to careen from one man to the next like a spineless waif. In short, the conversion from comic book to nuanced, adult characters has been reversed in the course of one film.
To make matters worse, the script relies on plot speed and special effects to cover its own laziness. We’re not even granted an attempt to explain the transformation of Sandman. Harry’s amnesia is nothing more than a conspicuous convenience for the sake of a plot contortion. And in the apparent interest of evading long-form exposition and new plot invention, the scriptwriters rewrote a plot point from the first movie a second time: yawn.
Dunst works hard at keeping Mary Jane credible, and her performance at times lends the film a much-needed realism; but the character suffers mightily from a weakening spine nonetheless, and - put bluntly - Dunst cannot sing well. I’ll extend kudos as well to Thomas Haden Church, who manages to keep Sandman likable throughout, and Topher Grace, who enters the Spidey fray from the fringe but adopts a more central - and enjoyable - role as the film climaxes. Rosemary Harris continues her heartfelt portrayal Aunt May, providing in her perfunctory way a superior example of acting to the other thespians in the picture. And, as always, J.K. Simmons steals every scene in which he appears as the rough-hewn publisher of the Daily Bugle.
But Tobey Maguire in the titular role is betraying a lack of professional progression. He’s nearly unwatchable as Peter Parker, his mood swings - even given their plot-related causes - unpalatable and unnecessarily extreme, his performance centered around goofball expressions that worked in the first film, but are now undermining our likeability of the hero. The character’s ability to explore his dark side - clearly the film’s marketing beacon, given its dependence on tired hero and outer space antics - is severely hampered by Maguire’s inability to bring a believable level of cognitive brooding to the man beneath the suit.
On technical merits, the picture shines - and herein lies its thinly-disguised pleasure center. Kids and adults alike will gawk at the CGI, the action sequences, and Sam Raimi’s inventive control of the camera. But the picture drags through its second act, limited largely by its writing deficiencies, and a level of exhaustion sets in by the time the film spools out its 139 minute length. The movie’s lowest point arrives midway through the ending battle sequence when a ground reporter actually utters, "Oh, the brutality!" as she watches the baddies pound on Spiderman.
The result is a picture more inadvertently comedic than comic. I’m bound to grudgingly predict that a significant percentage of those who flock to the theatres this weekend to watch Spiderman swing in the Summer 2007 movie season will chatter about how great the movie was. The terminology is wrong: it’s not great. It’s just big.