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DVD Review: Spider-Man 3

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There are times when I enjoy being wrong. Not that failure in any field is energizing, but when one is wrong about a presupposition, based upon an especially large body of evidence that seems to support one's bias, it is a positive, especially when that bias was toward the negative. Having recently watched The Dark Knight, and seen that it is a poor followup to Batman Begins, and having seen how well made and written the first two Spider-Man films were (even if the second was not as good as the first), my expectation was that Spider-Man 3 would continue the line of declension downward toward the Hollywood Lowest Common Denominator followed by even the few promising film franchises out there, like The Chronicles Of Narnia films. This expectation was bolstered by reading the negative reviews given to the film by most critics.

Happily, they were wrong. While the second film in this franchise was certainly not a bad film, Spider-Man 3, is better, and just misses out on being better than the first because it tries to jam too many plot points into its 139 minute long running time. Literally, this film could have been three separate action films: Spidey vs. The Sandman, Spidey vs. Venom, Spidey vs. The Green Goblin 2, and Peter Parker vs. Mary Jane Watson, a domestic drama.

Still, it’s the screenplay’s strengths in dialogue and characterization that lift this, and the Spider-Man franchise, above all other superhero comers. This fact rests squarely on the screenplay put forth by director Sam Raimi, and his two co-writers, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. As the nostrum goes, all good films have good scripts. No, this is not a great film, in the sense that we are talking about art that greatly deals with deep ideas. But it is well above most Hollywood tripe.

The plot is so involved that I will suffice to state that Spidey battles all three of the above named villains, and, naturally triumphs (although, technically, Venom seems to be not totally destroyed). The film also spins upon the Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)-Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) romance, which takes a beating due to the arrival of Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the alien symbiote suit that makes Spider-Man’s suit black, for a time, before leeching onto the body of Peter’s photographic rival, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), and turning him into Venom, the most popular Marvel Comics superhero villain of all time; although, again, technically, the villain is never specifically called that in the film’s diegesis.

The Sandman story is rather weak, as it decides to retcon the killing of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, by making the Sandman — then Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) — the killer, although it then weakens that retconning with further retconning. The last action story is a continuation of the first two films’ feud between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (James Franco) over the death of Harry’s father, Norman (Willem Dafoe), the original Green Goblin. This is the battle that has the most resonance to even first-time viewers of the franchise, because these actors already know each others’ expressions and tics.

But the film also depends on great minor characters and moments. As example, there are a number of hilarious scenes with J.K. Simmons (as Parker’s boss, Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson) — most especially when he is trying to choose between medicines and his secretary keeps buzzing him till he chooses the right one, and a scene where he pays $100 to a con artist little girl for her camera (to cover the film’s climactic battle between Spidey, the Goblin, Sandman, and Venom). After he buys the camera, he finds out it lacks film, and the urchins cackles that film for the camera costs extra. Other interesting performances come in a few scenes from James Cromwell and, especially, Bruce Campbell, a longtime Raimi colleague, in a funny scene at a French restaurant where Campbell plays a maître d’ — the third minor role he’s essayed in the trilogy — who attempts to help Parker when he wants to propose to Mary Jane.

Of the major players, James Franco’s Harry Osborn character is the most interesting, and shows the most growth in this film (and the trilogy). Dunst’s Mary Jane, despite being in imminent danger, is no wallflower, and shows that particularly frustrating female trait of not really knowing herself, nor where she is in life. This, however, allows Maguire’s Peter Parker to display a bit more brooding side, even before he gets caught up in the symbiote. Topher Grace’s Venom is good, but only enters the picture 75% of the way in, and Grace is perhaps the only villain in the trilogy who seems to enjoy his villainy (in a larger than life comic book sense).

Church’s Sandman, by contrast, is rather stiff and unemotive, although that character’s bulk of screen time is devoted to CGI work. His origin sequence, oddly, is more moving than any acting Church does (although, technically, it is Church acting into a computer program). The moment when the Sandman tries to reconstitute himself, falls over, then reaches for a locket with his ill daughter’s photo in it, only to have his fragile sand form dissipate about it, is quite devastating.

As for scenes that work, there’s Maguire’s Peter Parkerian take on John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever strut, his jazz dance scene, and, if the homage to a bad film like Saturday Night Fever is not enough, how about one to a great film like It’s A Wonderful Life? Yes, there is one — just watch the scenes where Parker’s apartment door won’t open, and then, after a few times, his doorknob falls off when he goes to open the door. It’s a direct quotation from the great Capra film, wherein George Bailey has continual problems with his stairway banister knob, to the point where it also comes off in his grip.

It’s moments like this, that are not needed in a film (especially an action film), but which add to the scene and character by being there — something that takes no effort nor expense, yet shows a filmmaker generously rewarding his audience by tying in life’s little mundanities to the life of normal folk in the audience. It’s also scenes, like the above mentioned, that show why Spider-Man 3 is a much better film than The Dark Knight — a film that, with a villain named The Joker, was essentially humorless.

The DVD is a surprisingly good package. The two-disk version has the film on disk one, shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with a music video, some photo galleries, a fifteen or so minute long blooper reel, and two audio film commentaries on it. One commentary is with the technical crew, who explain all the effects and how they came up with ideas, and, while it’s solid, the better commentary is with director Raimi and all the major cast members. The two best speakers, in terms of enjoyability and interest, are the actors who play the two main villains, Church and Grace. Church is consistently deadpan, and often delivers witty one-liners, while Grace shows he’s a true devotee of the comic book form by easily demonstrating a knowledge of the Spider-Man universe far in excess of even Raimi.

Oddly, Tobey Maguire says little throughout the film commentary. Disk two has featurettes on how the villains’ special effects were done, the trailers, and a few more minor features. All in all, a solid DVD package, with a sterling cast commentary; in fact, the more I think of it, it’s one of the best commentaries featuring three or more people I’ve ever listened two, for it is never dull, quite joyous in tone, and usually quite focused and informative on each scene as it plays out. Perhaps the best individual comment comes from Kirsten Dunst, who points to the appeal of the characters’ narrative arcs over the course of this film and trilogy as being the reason these films surpass other comic book franchises. And she is correct.

The Spider-Man films are the zenith of comic book filmdom, and, save for a bit of middle filmitis, and too many villains (but the screenwriters almost reconcile this flaw anyway), this film comes damned close to being the best of the three. Its comic book sensibility (not striving to be ‘too’ real), its writing, acting, and even special effects, add up to an enjoyable experience.

Is it Antonioni, Bergman, Kurosawa? No. But, as a comic book film, it doesn’t have to be (and, likely, it simply constitutionally could not be, for it is based on an art form for juveniles). Still, it’s significantly better than its critics claimed, and this is likely because there is a tendency to subconsciously anticipate failure in such a successful series. The difference between bad critics and great ones is that they don’t just anticipate failure, they long for it. I put my expectations aside, let the film play out, and was rewarded. What a concept!

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