Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Film Appreciation - Forgiving Spidey

Film Appreciation takes a dark (but silver-lined) turn as Cody Hamman considers 2007's Spider-Man 3.

It's been a worrisome month here at LBF HQ. The trouble began, ironically, on Christmas morning, when I noticed a strange growth on the lower lip of my dachshund Zeppelin, the dog I've talked about on the blog before, most notably in my Appreciations for Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. I had noticed this growth before and shrugged it off as a wart or a mole, but on Christmas morning it really sank in that this thing wasn't either of those. It had grown more, and it didn't look right. Zeppelin is one of the most important things in the world to me, and while I've always been very vigilant about his health, now that he's getting up there in age, soon to be turning 11 years old, anything out of the ordinary is an even greater reason for concern. I took him to a couple different veterinarians to get the growth checked and neither could tell me for sure what it was just by sight, both acknowledged that he should probably have it surgically removed. After 10 days of antibiotics didn't get rid of it, confirming that it wasn't just an infection, the surgery was scheduled for 5 days later. I was pretty much just a walking ball of stress throughout this entire process, and as the day of surgery approached I got even worse. Zeppelin hadn't been under anesthesia since he was a puppy. I was worried about the procedure, about having to put him through it, about what we might find out about the growth after it was removed.

Since Zeppelin has been associated with the Spider-Man movies in my mind since the day I got him, the day I was seeing the first movie for the second time and the day I gave him the middle name Maguire after its star, and since I wrote about the first two movies last year, I decided that this troubling time was the right time for me to revisit the troubled and maligned third film in the series.

As I exited the theatre after my first viewing of Spider-Man 3, I was embarrassed. I had gone to the movie with my mother, friends of hers had been in the auditorium for the same screening and as they gathered together in the lobby to chat afterward, I stood off to the side feeling embarrassed that we had just watched a Spider-Man movie that was subpar compared its predecessors, that had collapsed under the weight of too many characters, bad decisions, and silly story elements. I loved the first two Spider-Man movies. Both were high in the running for Best Superhero Movie Ever as far as I was concerned. I wasn't looking forward to witnessing the bashing and mockery that this new one was surely going to get.

I had issues with the movie, but even from that first viewing I've been a defender of it as well. It's very flawed, but as in most cases when such a property is poorly received by the online film community, I've also felt that the negativity directed toward it has been way over-the-top.

The main problem with Spider-Man 3 is that there's just too much going on it. Part 2 had nearly had the same problem during the scripting stage, when the characters of Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, and Black Cat were all being juggled with the progression/mental deterioration of Harry Osborn into the second Green Goblin and the complicated relationship of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. By the time of the shooting draft, the story had been wisely streamlined. That didn't happen with part 3, they just kept piling more and more into it until it reached a tipping point, then still went forward with it anyway.

In the wake of 2, there was a villain who I really wanted to see in the next movie. Tobey Maguire was rooting for the same character. Sandman. A classic villain, introduced in issue #4 of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963, an era that was clearly director Sam Raimi's main source of inspiration for his films. With the effects possible today, I thought Sandman had the potential to be a visually stunning character. When it was confirmed that Sandman would be in the film and would be played by Thomas Haden Church, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Sideways, continuing the smart approach taken with the casting of Alfred Molina in part 2, talent over name recognition, I was a very happy fan.

Raimi and his fellow writers Ivan Raimi (the brother who had co-written Darkman and Army of Darkness with him) and Alvin Sargent intended for another classic villain to be in 3 as well. A villain introduced in issue #2 of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Vulture. Things start to get shaky when more than one villain gets involved, but they did have the perfect actor to play The Vulture - Ben Kingsley. Kingsley was cast, a Sandman/Vulture script was written, storyboards were drawn with those characters together. But late in pre-production, the idea was scrapped.

As much as I wanted Sandman in 3, there was a legion of fans chanting for a different villain. One who hadn't made it into the comics until the late '80s, long after the period Sam Raimi was focused on and a character he had expressed disinterest/dislike in. Though I was of the generation this villain was first introduced to, I was happy to stick with the classics and if Raimi didn't want to do this character, I was fine with him not being in the movies. I liked him on the page, but I didn't need to see him on film. Why put a psychotic alien with a taste for human brains in these movies? Think about the children! But many other fans cried out for Venom. Even my friend Noah, who I talked about in the Appreciation article on part 1, the guy who was a bigger fan of Spidey than I was when we were kids, said that while he had enjoyed the first two movies, he had little interest in seeing a third if Venom wasn't in it. Shocking to me. (And speaking of, I also really wanted Electro to show up in a movie.) Producer Avi Arad heard the voices of the Venom fans.

So the problems with 3 start with Venom getting shoehorned into the movie soon before shooting was to begin. For Venom to really work, with all the build-up that's required for him, he's a character you should have in mind for the story from the beginning. Instead, he got thrown in as an afterthought.

Another classic character got thrown in similarly. There was a character in the script of a random, attractive female college classmate who gets caught in the middle of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson's relationship issues in a plotline showing that the "happy ending" of getting the person of your dreams is just the beginning, that you really have to work on things from then on. Producer Laura Ziskin suggested that this character be named Gwen Stacy, after an ill-fated girlfriend Peter had before Mary Jane in the comics. A nice nod maybe, but strange. Since the films had skipped over Gwen she could never be the character she was on the page.

The story of 3 probably would've worked a lot better if it had stuck to the basics: Peter and Mary Jane's relationship, the Sandman as villain, and the progression/mental deterioration of Harry Osborn into the second Green Goblin as a trilogy capper. Have the college girl in there, maybe don't put the added importance of the name Gwen Stacy on her. If they wanted to do Venom, gradually build up to it. Introduce the shady photographer Eddie Brock, set up his rivalry with Peter, even include the symbiote suit and Peter's troubles with it, but save Brock's transformation into Venom for part 4. If the build-up was there, I'm sure his fans would've excitedly waited to see him in the next movie. It didn't have to all be done here, where the Brock/Venom story gets rushed through. I said things get shaky with two villains, here we get four or five: Sandman, Green Goblin 2, the black suit symbiote influencing Peter, and Brock/Venom. There are so many character plots going on in the film that in the end it feels like everyone gets somewhat shortchanged.

Fittingly, since he has had the proper amount of build-up, the villain who gets the most attention is James Franco's Harry as the New Goblin. But he's on an odd trajectory. He's bad, he's good, he's bad again, he's good again, with some convenient soap opera amnesia tossed into the middle there. The back and forth is a bit much, though the return to good for a while does provide some effective moments of cruel manipulation when he returns to bad again.

Like Doctor Octopus before him, Sandman was written in a way that gives him more humanity, makes him more sympathetic. He's given a reason for his crime spree, the medical bills of his dangerously ill young daughter, who was meant to play more of a role but got lost over the course of the on-the-set rewrites. The presentation of Sandman's powers does allow for some visually impressive moments like I had hoped for, the scene of him first learning how to form himself is fantastic. With his ability to form his arms into weapons and the possibilities of what could be done with shots him moving around Spidey during fights and dodging hits, I was disappointed that he just turned himself into a sand kaiju for the final battle.

The strangeness in the Sandman area is that he's written into a retcon of the most important event in Spider-Man's origin: he is the man who killed Peter's Uncle Ben. It wasn't an act willfully committed by the thief who was believed to be Uncle Ben's killer, that guy was Sandman's partner in crime and the shooting was an accident. Sandman saw his partner running away from the theft that Peter let him escape from, the gun in his hand went off. Peter's failure to take action is still sort of the catalyst, but changing the situation is entirely unnecessary, done to play into the film's theme of forgiveness. I must admit that I do find the ultimate moments of forgiveness to be touching, but the retcon is not something I ever would've advocated. It was all done so perfectly in the first film, don't mess with it.

The twist on Uncle Ben's death and the Peter/Mary Jane relationship issues, enhanced and manipulated by Harry, does put Peter in the right angry, tormented headspace for the alien symbiote to enhance his aggression to sometimes out of control levels and turn him to the dark side, at least as dark as Peter gets. Which is pretty dark in a couple moments, though most viewers focus on the scenes where it's Peter's nerdy idea of cool that's getting enhanced. People complain about the dance scene, but I dig it, being a big proponent of dance scenes in all kinds of movies.

And how can anyone hate the dance scene when that's when Scott Spiegel (Intruder, Hostel III, Robot Ninja) gets his cameo? Bruce Campbell, of course, also gets another entertaining cameo. And I like that Dylan Baker's one-armed Doctor Curt Connors is brought in to figure out what the black meteor goo is, his presence continuing to build toward a Lizard movie that wasn't to be.

Eddie Brock is barely a presence, getting through the movie on the bare minimum amount of scenes required to set him up for his Venomization, though he is given a small, awkward connection to Gwen Stacy, some of which seems to have gotten lost on the way to the final cut, that shows this guy clearly has some mental problems.

Though things aren't exactly ideal, a lot of Spider-Man 3 works well enough for me. It ranks below the previous two movies, but it's not bad. A lot of the overall ideas are questionable, but most of its individual moments are fine.

The movie doesn't lose me until the last 30 minutes. Full-on Venom enters the picture, immediately teams up with Sandman and captures Mary Jane to make her the damsel in distress for the climactic battle, just like she was in 1 and 2. Spidey-Peter seeks help from Goblin-Harry, last seen with a pumpkin bomb exploding in his face. Twenty minutes of movie has passed since then, but apparently the montage in between covered a lot of time, because what appears to have been a serious injury has healed into a disfiguring scar.

"Don't tell Harry" was a repeated line in the first film. Nobody ever told Harry anything that was going on, and 3 shows where that has led him. It ain't pretty. Finally, near the end of 3 someone tells Harry some plain truth. And bless the late John Paxton, the man who has to deliver this exposition dump as Harry's longtime butler Bernard, but what he's been given to say is awful. Bernard says he cleaned the wounds that killed Norman Osborn, Green Goblin number 1. He knew his employer was the Goblin, it was clear to him that the wounds were caused by his own glider, so obviously Spider-Man couldn't have killed him like Harry believes. This is information that Bernard has kept to himself for two years as he's watched Harry slowly lose his mind and become a villain himself. "Don't tell Harry" indeed, no matter what the cost apparently. And this evidence convinces Harry to turn good again and join Spider-Man's side in the final battle... which ends with Venom killing Harry by stabbing him with the blades on his own glider, proving that Bernard's words meant nothing. The Harry-Bernard scene was added at the last minute to try to make sense of things, but it makes no sense.

I don't get much out of the final battle. "Mary Jane in danger" has been done, Sandman is slacking as a giant monster, there are cheeseball lines being tossed around, and Topher Grace's Venom is a total dweeb. It's a lengthy fight that should be the awesome payoff, but instead I'm left grimacing for most of it.

But I do like the movie until "Bernard tells Harry", and I like the emotional wrap-up, especially the low-key resolution to the plotline that works the best, the Peter/MJ stuff. The end of the trilogy wasn't all I had hoped it would be, but it's not a total write-off for me.

I was still on board to see more from Raimi and his actors. It was going to happen. Spider-Man 4 was in active development and locked into a May 2011 release. Raimi was coming back as director, negotiations worked out with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, they were both set to return. People behind the scenes were still reluctant to put The Lizard into a movie, but Raimi was going to get The Vulture as the villain this time. Ben Kingsley wasn't brought back on, The Vulture was going to be played by John Malkovich, who had been up for the role of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin during the casting of part 1.

Future Catwoman Anne Hathaway was also cast to play a suited character, but there were conflicting reports on what her alter ego's name would be. Some said she was going to play Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat in the comics, Black Cat being a character that Raimi had long been interested in working into the films. But she wasn't going to be the Cat in this movie, leading to other reports that her name was Valeria Toomes. Which would make more sense, since Adrian Toomes was the name of The Vulture and she was going to play his daughter, who would suit up as The Vulturess. Word of The Vulturess led to fan outcry, but there is precedent for such a character set in the comics - while Toomes' daughter Valeria became a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Brenda Drago, the daughter of the second iteration of The Vulture (Blackie Drago), did suit up as a winged character called Raptor. So why not call her Raptor instead of making up The Vulturess? And if they were going to have Felicia Hardy as The Vulturess, daughter of Toomes, then... what the hell? (Update: Raimi has since confirmed that Hathaway's character was Felicia Hardy.)

That was just one of many questionable elements about 4 in its pre-production. The script went through multiple drafts by multiple writers, but the story, which would find Adrian Toomes ousting J. Jonah Jameson as the head of The Daily Bugle paper and Peter and Mary Jane married with a two year old redheaded son who didn't exist in the comics (they did have a daughter in one reality), couldn't be cracked. As on 3, there was too much behind the scenes interference going on, and it was going even worse this time. Raimi wasn't happy. He hated the script. Some major changes had to be made, and he wasn't comfortable with the impending start of production. There was no way he could make a version of 4 that he would be comfortable with and still make the summer '11 shooting date. In January 2010, when it became clear that the situation was hopeless, Raimi walked. The project was scrapped and the studio immediately announced that the next Spider-Man movie would be released in 2012 and would be a reboot.

I love the first two Spider-Man movies, I'm very happy with what Raimi did with them. It's too bad that things started to fall apart. With how problematic 4 was becoming, it's probably for the best that it didn't happen. But it's still disappointing to me that a great part 4 didn't get made in the Raimi continuity. At one point during the early days, it was said that we were going to get six Spider-Man movies out of the series, and I was up for it. I wanted to see Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man fight The Lizard. The Vulture. Electro. I wanted to see Bruce Campbell's cameo in part 4, where it was going to be revealed that he was the man under the fishbowl helmet worn by the villain Mysterio. But none of it was to be.

I like the third Spider-Man movie, with issues. This has been a rather unusual Appreciation article, since I've gone on about the problems with the movie quite a bit and these tend to be full of glowing positivity toward films that we absolutely love, but when it comes down to it, despite how troubled it is, I am glad to have Spider-Man 3.

The morning after my Spider-Man 3 rewatch, Zeppelin went into surgery. The procedure went well, and within an hour and a half of arriving at the animal hospital we were on our way back home. The tumor was removed from his lip, the vet's notes say that it came out cleanly and should never return, and in the doctor's opinion it didn't look like it was anything to worry about. Zeppelin is doing well and acting like his normal self. His story continues.


  1. I haven't seen Spider-Man 3 yet - like a lot of films it's in my video vault - just haven't watched it yet - so I skipped 90% of this post. But I am very happy that Zeppelin came through. My best to both of you.