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A swing and a prayer 

Against the odds, superhero franchise manages the three-peat

Comic book aficionados can be forgiven for wishing that Hollywood filmmakers had a bit more vision and a lot more patience.

When it was first decided that Spider-Man would be brought to the screen in an expensive summer blockbuster, even the key grip on the set could predict that one or two (or more) sequels would soon be in the pipeline, since astronomical grosses were all but assured. So imagine how the series might have progressed -- and deepened -- had Peter Parker's original true love in the Marvel comic book, the demure Gwen Stacy, been his girlfriend in the first couple of Spider-Man flicks, with Mary Jane Parker just the friend flitting around the perimeters. And since the death of Gwen Stacy back in the 1970s sent shockwaves through the comic industry, imagine how stunned movie audiences (at least those not familiar with S-M history) would be to see her killed off in an unexpected manner in Spider-Man 3. Instead, Columbia Pictures skipped the Peter-Gwen coupling and went straight to the Peter-Mary Jane bond, only now dragging in poor Gwen as an insignificant character played by a woefully miscast Bryce Dallas Howard (Lady in the Water). It's enough to drive the Marvel faithful bonkers.

But fortunately for Columbia, the appeal of Spider-Man has always reached far beyond the comic crowd: Over the decades, he's become an icon of enormous proportions, a larger-than-life figure who, in the superhero genre, is matched perhaps only by Superman and Batman. With this in mind, director Sam Raimi and his various scripters have fashioned three Spider-Man flicks that all manage to remain true to the spirit -- if not always the letter -- of the series created in print by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. What's even more notable is that the three pictures they've created have been remarkably even-keeled in quality and ambition: None have reached the giddy heights of, say, 1978's Superman or 2005's Batman Begins, but they have all achieved what they set out to do: provide solid entertainment for the summer movie crowd.

With a script by Raimi, his brother Ivan, and Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), this third installment is packed to the rafters with activity and excitement. On the domestic front, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) finally decides that he'll pop the question to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but his timing in marital matters apparently isn't as sharply honed as his "Spidey Sense," since Mary Jane is struggling to come to terms with the fact that her future as a stage actress may be over before it really began (she's fired from a Broadway production after one night and a slew of negative reviews). Add to this the fact that her boyfriend's never-say-die cluelessness has started to irk her (along with his alter ego's massive popularity), and it's no wonder that she starts to drift toward former boyfriend Harry Osborn (James Franco).

For his part, Harry has suffered a short-term memory loss that has allowed him to forget the fact that he's the son of the Green Goblin and that he blames Spider-Man for his father's death. Not that Spidey needs Harry around to provide the requisite villainy: An escaped convict named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who sports a critical link to Peter's past, finds himself trapped in the middle of a scientific experiment and emerges as the Sandman. Spider-Man also finds an enemy lurking within, after a malevolent outer space entity takes over his personality and turns him into a black-clad -- and often black-souled -- superbeing. And waiting in the wings for the third-act showdown is amoral photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who eventually transforms into the vicious Venom.

With so many spandex hijinks going on, it's a wonder that the movie isn't wall to wall with pounding action. But with a generous running time of 140 minutes, Raimi is able to slow down the pace and allow more introspective moments to take center stage. The first two movies' mantra of "With great power comes great responsibility" likewise applies here, although equal lip service is provided to the notion that vengeance only sours the human soul -- this is reflected in the Parker-Marko plotline, as well as in the Green Goblin saga that weaves its way through the film. Maguire and Dunst remain appealing as their characters struggle to mend their relationship, and even the often stiff Franco finds some chances to show a softer side. And while Grace's Eddie Brock/Venom gets to represent pure evil in this outing, Flint Marko is presented as a conflicted villain, thereby allowing Church an opportunity to display some of his range.

The visual effects work employed in the Spider-Man trilogy has surpassed that in most other CGI-driven endeavors; that's especially evidenced here in the webslinger's battles with the Sandman. And while there are admittedly some shots where Spidey looks more like a video game blip than a silver screen protagonist, the illusion is still miles ahead of, say, Hulk, during which I actually felt like I had to keep feeding quarters into the seat's cupholder if I wanted to continue watching the film.

Bruce Campbell, a Raimi regular since The Evil Dead, appears in an amusing interlude as a maitre d', yet it's the cameo appearance by Marvel guru Stan Lee that will delight the fans. Lee often turns up in these Marvel adaptations, yet here he's actually given an important line to utter. "It's amazing how much difference one man can make," he tells Peter as they watch a large-screen video image of Spider-Man. As the visionary who opened the eyes and imaginations of the young (and young at heart) for generations, he would know.

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