Spider-Man, in Black and White 

When good superheroes turn reductive

Wednesday, May 2 2007
{mosimage} Like Sandmen through the hourglass, so are the days of our superhero lives. At least that’s how it feels for most of Spider-Man 3, in which there are so many new characters, hastily revised mythologies, split personalities and bouts of temporary amnesia that you keep hoping for young Peter Parker to wake up in a sweat, realize it was all a dream, and for the real movie to begin. No such luck. Firmly rooted in the bigger-is-better mentality that has been the bedevilment of so many movie franchises, Spider-Man 3 is undeniably big — with a rumored budget in the $300 million range, it’s downright gargantuan — but it lumbers across the screen so joylessly that I found myself glancing down at my press notes to confirm that the movie really was the work of the same creative personalities (director Sam Raimi, producer Laura Ziskin and screenwriter Alvin Sargent) responsible for 2004’s exuberant Spider-Man 2. Yes, Raimi, Ziskin and Sargent (who here shares the writing credit with the director and his brother, Ivan Raimi) are indeed back, but for all the money that Spidey has by now funneled into their respective checkbooks, they seem to be collectively overdrawn at the idea bank.

What made Spider-Man 2 so much more than just a passable, popcorn-munching time-filler — what turned it into a deeply absorbing pop entertainment — was the way Raimi and Sargent built upon the origin story of the not-bad first Spider-Man film by digging deeper into the inner conflicts of its three compellingly flawed protagonists: the boy wonder superhero (Tobey Maguire) who blames himself for his uncle’s violent death; his best friend, Harry (James Franco), haunted by a sinister patriarchal legacy; and the aspiring starlet Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), torn between her affections for the two men. It was a superhero movie less about self-assured super-men (and women) than about awkward teenagers suddenly burdened with weighty responsibilities. Beyond that, there was Raimi’s lyrical, imaginative direction, which turned the movie’s New York City setting into a glittering, old-Hollywood fever dream of cigar-chomping newsmen, wide-eyed ingénues, rain-soaked embraces and speeding elevated trains — an M-G-M musical minus only the songs. In Spider-Man 3, you can feel Raimi reaching for the same effect and falling short at nearly every turn. He even opens up with a genuine musical number, as M.J. makes her Broadway debut in a show called Manhattan Memories. On stage, she descends a prop staircase in a flowing white gown and warbles a little Comden-and-Green-style ditty, but the scene itself, like most of what follows in Spider-Man 3, is laid on too thick.

Very few movie franchises, of course, make it to part three with the same vim and vigor with which they started, and watching Spider-Man 3, you more than once get the impression that, for the principal artists and technicians who’ve been with the series from the get-go, the thrill has somehow gone out of it for them this time around. When, in the movie’s first major action set piece, Harry (having given himself an extreme makeover in his father’s Goblin-y image) chases Spidey about the Manhattan skyline on what looks like a jet-powered snowboard, the CGI-enhanced images lack Raimi’s customary clarity and snap, and the whole sequence feels oddly halfhearted, as does the tension underpinning it. A bit later, when Spidey swings to the rescue of some office workers who’ve been imperiled by an out-of-control construction crane, the scene — bits of skyscraper raining down upon the streets of New York — so queasily recalls the World Trade Center attacks that any hope of rousing heroism is quickly deflated. And New York itself looks decidedly grimier, more modern, more ordinary this time around.

In those early passages, Raimi and Sargent seem to be setting us up for the Shakespearean showdown between Peter and Harry — those two old friends brought asunder by family loyalties and, of course, their love for the same woman — that has been foreshadowed since the early days of the franchise. But no, after suffering a convenient bump on the noggin, Harry forgets that he and Pete were ever anything but the best of buds, after which the movie more or less benches the character altogether, until it decides it needs him again at the end, like Mariano Rivera in the ninth. In the meantime, Raimi floods the screen with a small army of replacements from the Marvel Comics minor leagues, including police Captain John Stacy (James Cromwell), his comely daughter Gwen (the fatally underused Bryce Dallas Howard), her boyfriend — and aspiring Daily Bugle photographer — Eddie Brock (Topher Grace, sporting an unfortunate blond dye job) and, last but not least, the melancholic escaped bank robber Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) who, after finding himself in the wrong physics experiment at the wrong time, transforms into the shape-shifting semi-villain Sandman. While I suppose that the die-hard geek crowd may giggle in delight at seeing so many supporting players from the Spidey comics getting their big-screen due, everyone else may find themselves uncomfortably reminded of the music video for that 1980s charity anthem, “We Are the World.” Oh, look, there’s Stevie Wonder! And over there, it’s Kenny Rogers!

As if that weren’t enough (when it is, in fact, entirely too much), Spider-Man 3 gives us an honest-to-goodness deus ex machina — an unidentified fireball that descends from the heavens and unleashes a slithery ooze that turns Spidey’s bodysuit black, his hair messy, his libido into overdrive and (I kid you not) his feet into lethal dancing machines. Call it Dr. Parker and Mr. Spidey or, perhaps more appropriately, The Nutty Superhero. Call it Superman 3 with Maguire in both the Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor roles. In any case, by the time the movie arrives at the transfixing (like a car crash) scene where the “bad” Parker engages in some faux Fosse softshoe in a boho jazz club, the tone has become so manic that it feels as if Raimi is throwing everything he can possibly think of out there and not even waiting to see what sticks. The satirical jabs at celebrity culture smell like rotted leftovers from The Fantastic Four. The token ruminations on the tension between a superhero’s public and private lives seem flown in from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (to say nothing of Raimi’s own, superior Darkman). Most egregious, though, is the way Raimi and the writers reduce Spider-Man 3 to the very sort of abject distinctions between virtue and sin that the series has heretofore studiously avoided. Even here, Flint Marko gets a sickly young daughter as the morally murky motivation for his criminal life, but when it comes to Spidey himself, no such ambiguity is allowed: In the red-and-blue suit, he’s a patriotic American hero; in the black one, with its foreign contaminant, he’s an evildoer. Presenting your friendly neighborhood propaganda tool in the War on Terror.

SPIDER-MAN 3 | Directed by SAM RAIMI | Written by SAM RAIMI, IVAN RAIMI and ALVIN SARGENT | Produced by LAURA ZISKIN, AVI ARAD and GRANT CURTIS | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

Spiderman 3 Trailer

click to enlarge Hit me with your best shot. (Columbia Pictures)
  • Hit me with your best shot. (Columbia Pictures)

Related Stories

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 20
  2. Thu 21
  3. Fri 22
  4. Sat 23
  5. Sun 24
  6. Mon 25
  7. Tue 26

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • 20 Neo-Noir Films You Have to See
    The Voice's J. Hoberman was more mixed than most on Sin City when he reviewed it in 2005, but his description of the film as "hyper-noir" helps explain why this week's release of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has us thinking back on the neo-noir genre. Broadly speaking, neo-noir encompasses those films made outside of film noir's classic period -- the 1940s and '50s -- that nevertheless engage with the standard trappings of the genre. As with most generic labels, there isn't some universal yardstick that measures what constitutes a neo-noir film: Where the genre might begin in the '60s with films like Le Samourai and Point Blank for one person, another might argue that the genre didn't find its roots until 1974's Chinatown. Our list falls closer to the latter stance, mainly featuring works from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Though a number of the films mentioned here will no doubt be familiar to readers, it's our hope that we've also highlighted several titles that have been under-represented on lists of this nature. --Danny King

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

Now Trending