Monday, January 13, 2014

In Defense of Spider-Man III

The mask hides my face,
not my shame.
Get excubriated!
With the new Andrew Garfield Spider-Man coming out (for which I would need to invent words to express my level of excitement), it's time to come to some closure on the original Spider-Man trilogy.

And that means having a good hard chat about that other movie.

Yes, Spider-Man 3.

Now, you can probably gather from the title of this blog the direction this is going to go.  And if you are reading this now and feeling a deep utter gut twinge, followed by an unrelenting conviction that no, Spidey 3 was utter gobshite, urinating on your soul with a level of atrocity akin to the genocide of puppies... well, I would ask that you humor me.  Hey, there's nothing you can say to change my mind about X-Men 3, so if this is that for you, I respect that.  But even so, humor me.  Let's take this journey together.  We might end up somewhere... interesting.

"You want me to wear a mask?
What, this isn't creepy enough
for you?"
While Bryan Singer's X-Men revitalized the notion of adapting comic book stories for the screen, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man did something far more fascinating: it proved that comic books characters could be translated to film.  Whereas X-Men streamlined the comic's concept and invented an entirely new visual vocabulary for the characters, Spider-Man brought the character directly off the page.  And while fanboys may quibble over the design of the Goblin suit, they cannot argue that the breathtaking aerial combat was anything short of authentic to a Spidey comic.

But the greatest strength of Spider-Man was not its visuals, but its story.  And here we see the deft hands of Sam Raimi guiding David Koepp to write with a comic book sensibility: accepting the world of the comic and taking it seriously.  There are many things to love in the first Spider-Man film, but they can all be traced back to a single source: every element of production existed to help tell a well crafted story.

"Yeah, no, this is definitely a job for Superman.
And that's why this is about to be one of the best
scenes in comic movie history."
And then Spider-Man II came along, and if you can't recognize what an impeccable production that was, you might as well stop reading now, because I lack the Rosetta Stone to communicate with you.

Which brings us, at length, to the subject of this musing:  Spider-Man III.  I didn't get to a theater until the third week of the film's release, and by that time the negative buzz from both friends and critics sent me in with a slight sense of dread.  But within moments, this dread turned into confusion:  because I was watching a good movie.  And what's more, I was watching Raimi (as he had with the first sequel) presenting something new.

Now, that is not to say the film is without flaw.  But only, I would argue, one.  And, sure, it's a doozie of a flaw, but it's important to note that it exists as a singularity.  It's also important to note that this flaw can be traced back to the studio, not Raimi.  The central flaw of Spider-Man III is that it suffers from a weak third act climax.

"Dude, I know. Paul Giamatti is TOTALLY a
better actor than me. But he's going to have to
wait a decade after Sideways to be in one of
these, because I'm pretty."
Why is the third act climax weak?  Because it sidesteps the primary conflict that the film had been building: Peter Parker's battle with hubris.  This inner conflict manifests itself in three external conflicts throughout the story: first, in Peter's relationship with Mary Jane, where hubris becomes selfishness.  Second, in Peter's relationship with Harry, where hubris becomes carelessness.  Finally, in Peter's relationship with the Sandman, where hubris becomes deadly.  It is this third external manifestation that had the most possibility for dramatization in the third act climax, because it dealt with the foundation of Spider-Man: power and responsibility.  The fact that midway through the film Peter is willing to kill to avenge his uncle is not insignificant; it is the epitome of power without responsibility.

The Sandman's story follows a simple linear arc: he is hitting up increasingly bigger targets to steal money to pay for his daughter's healthcare (first an armored car, later a bank).  Why does he have to keep doing this?  Well, because each time Spider-Man thwarts him.  The story is cleverly developing a dynamic of dual intentions: on the surface, you have Sandman playing the thief, and Spider-Man playing the "sheriff." But below that, you have a far more personal conflict building: for the Sandman, Spider-Man's interference could mean the death of his daughter.  For Peter Parker, killing the Sandman means avenging his uncle.  This is the sort of sophisticated conflict that worked so well in the third act climax of the original X-Men film, and it's a terrible shame that this conflict -- which was built so deftly throughout the first two acts -- was kept from blossoming in the third.  Instead, the Sandman was relegated to the role of a giant-sand-monster-thing, acting with an apparent lack of intention -- and if one can divine one, it is inconsistent with the motives established in the first two acts.

"Is this it, Sam? Is this the face you made
after your meeting with the executives?"
It is unfortunate that production mandates caused Venom to hijack the third act, because his existence in the story was entirely ancillary to Peter Parker's journey.  Please don't misunderstand my meaning: Eddie Brock was a fantastic addition to the film, and Topher Grace's interpretation of the character was nothing short of inspired.  But the arc from Eddie's first appearance at the crane to being consumed by the black suit is a full story arc; if that were the last time we saw him in the film, it would have been a complete and satisfying subplot.

It's clear that the struggle the production faced was that a release date was set before a script was complete, so Raimi had to begin shooting before a complete picture of the film had been crystalized.  As a result, the story had to be written to take structure around the action sequences, rather than vice versa.  But it is a testament to Raimi's skills as a storyteller and Alvin Sargent's skills as a screenwriter that, despite this, the first two acts of the film are so precise and cogent.  But storytelling is like sex -- while the experience is not about the climax, without it one walks away feeling incomplete -- regardless of the quality of what came before.

That said, what came before was tremendous.  This is simply a case where the sum of the movie's parts are greater than the whole.

But if you've gotten to the end of this and you're still complaining about Mary Jane singing and Peter Parker dancing... well, then you didn't go into a theater to enjoy a movie, you went to hear and see a validation of preconceived ideas.  Of course fans are going to bring a host of expectations to a work of art that seeks to capture something they love.  But only two of these expectations should be brought past the door:
"Wait... so I'm not in the reboot?"

1)  That, in their heart and artistic vision, the filmmaker has respected the source material

2)  That they've told a good story.

It's impossible to fault Sam Raimi on the first of these points.  And on the second point, he has very nearly succeeded.

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