So there’s this guy, see? He was bitten by a radioactive spider and took on spider abilities. So far, so Marvel. But after two rather good movies, does Spiderman really have anything more to contribute to the increasingly crowded superhero arena?
Sad to say, no he doesn’t. I’m not an avid reader of Spiderman (the comic), but my spider sense alerted me early that this was a hodge podge of ideas drawn from several, unconnected comic plot strands, just as Constantine mangled Hellblazer by nicking the comic’s best set pieces and putting them in a story that made little sense.
So, we have Spidey’s Venom-enhanced black suit that draws on Peter Parker’s inherent darker side, we have the genesis of the new Green Goblin in Norman Osborn’s son Harry, and the birth of Venom as a villain in his own right, once the (X-Files-like) black oil latches onto someone other than Peter. Not to mention the appearance of Flint Marko, the apparent murderer of Peter’s Uncle Ben, who by unwisely stumbling into an area marked “Particle Physics Test Area” (there’s so many of them about) is reincarnated as the near intangible Sandman.
This is a crowded plot by any definition, but the writers feel bound to draw on the movie series’ own mythology by expanding the character conflicts built up in the previous two films. So, we see Peter’s nascent relationship with Mary Jane falling apart as his fascination with his own (Spiderman’s) fame eclipses her modest ambitions to be a Broadway singer, while Harry Osborn’s discovery of his father’s Green Goblin hardware leads to a low key series of confrontations with Peter, who Harry feels to be responsible for his father’s death. The result of this is rather like an episode of a TV soap with occasional superhero battles, which are too few and too far between.
When they come, though, these are stonking, directed with Sam Raimi’s usual flair for kinetic action. An early battle between Spidey and the new Goblin takes place entirely down an impossibly long New York alley, with the two gravity defying enemies smashing the hell out of each other and the nearby buildings. This conveniently wipes Harry’s memory for a while, lengthening an already unnecessarily convoluted plot, but the sequence is amazing. Likewise, some impressive CG is used to realise Flint Marko’s transformation into Sandman, as he falls into a rather contrived death device not dissimilar to Watchmen‘s Intrinsic Field Remover, then reconstructs himself out of sand much as Dr Manhattan did out of whatever was handy. The ensuing sequences of Sandman’s crime wave across New York also make very good use of the CG possibilities inherent in the character.
Sad to say, though, it almost feels like these play second fiddle to a script that takes its own mythology far too seriously. Rewriting the movies’ own continuity to make Marko responsible for Uncle Ben’s death smacks far too much of convenience, of giving Peter an additional motivation to go all “dark” and try to kill him. The concept of Venom allows the screenwriters to further explore Peter’s darker depths as the alien parasite infesting his new black suit brings out nastier sides to his character. Still, while I like Tobey Maguire a great deal, brushing your newly black dyed fringe down in a Hitler hairdo is not the subtlest means of indicating that you’ve gone all “dark”. Similarly, we were supposed to believe that Peter’s new look made him very seductive to women… Well, I quite fancy Tobey Maguire, and I thought he looked like a dick.
Laboured screenplay aside, director and cast did a pretty good job. Tobey Maguire was likeable as always, if unconvincing as the “dark” Spidey, and Kirsten Dunst added increasing (though unnecessary) levels of complexity to Mary Jane. The problem was the rather heavyweight cast of villains somewhat unbalancing the movie. With James Franco getting the lion’s share of the motivation as Harry Osborn, Thomas Haden Church and Topher Grace were left with rather cardboard characters as Sandman and Venom. It was constructed well enough, but each character was given an overly A-B-C motivation, as Marko’s desire to help his sick daughter and Grace’s Eddie Brock’s desire for a photography job were the most obvious of motivators.
I think the main problem with the movie, though, is that it commits the cardinal sin in a comic book movie of being rather dull. All the relationship detail and colourful characters (notably the usual Stan Lee cameo and a hilarious Peter Sellers-like Bruce Campbell) can’t make up for a singular lack of drive and spectacle. This is a great big summer blockbuster, not Ingmar Bergman’s Winter of My Despondency! It needs more joie de vivre, more colour, and ultimately more action. Spiderman is a loud four colour classic from Marvel, but it’s not Batman. I’m the first to champion depth in superhero comics, but not at the expense of excitement and fun, which let’s face it was what made us kids read these things in the first place!
In the end, I think this movie was a victim of the sequels’ syndrome: a perceived need to get bigger and bigger with each movie. The vast number of plot strands here would be difficult to do justice in a three hour arthouse flick, and this certainly isn’t one of those. While it is still fun, you get a sense that director and cast are fed up with the whole thing and merely going through the motions, quite different than the energetic first Spidey movie of 2001. Let’s hope that they call it a day, for now, and let the new Batman movie take the reins of the “dark” superheroes.