Saturday, May 05, 2007

Will the REAL Spider-man please stand up?

There’s a moment in Spider-Man 3 when Kirsten Dunst asks Toby Maguire, “Who are you?” As I sat beside my younger brother at a Midnight showing of the film, I realized this has been the primary question of the entire Spider-man series. The opening line in the first film is “Who am I?” and the last line answers it (“I’m Spider-man.”). The same question and answer are then repeated in the opening narration of the sequel (“Who am I? I’m Spider-man given a job to do.”). In some form or another this question has surfaced in each Spider-man movie, the search for identity being the key "journey" that the protagonist Peter parker/Spider-man has had to wrestle with repeatedly and answer almost constantly. In Spider-man 3, however, the question is asked not by Peter himself but by Mary Jane (which actually echoes a moment in the first film where she, having just been saved by Spider-man, asks “Who are you?” to which he replies “You know who I am.”) after a particularly uncharacteristic display of selfishness from Peter. His lack of self-examination, his complete resignation to his own darker instincts (exacerbated, of course, by a symbiotic alien life form that has latched onto him), his indulgence in his baser desires, has more or less created a "monster," it has turned him into an egomaniac and he has ended up alienating the people around him who care about him.

I mention all of this because one could almost say that the Spider-man series, like the Spider-man character, has fallen victim to this very phenomenon. It's almost as if life has imitated art and the movies have become the very thing that they are dramatising. It was only two short years ago that Spider-man 2 was being hailed as the “greatest comic book movie ever,” making some critics’ top ten lists and receiving almost universal praise across the board. Both it (and its predecessor) ended up with about a 90% on rottentomatoes. The latest one, however (despite being one of the most highly anticipated films of the year) seems to have left more people dissatisfied than not. Currently it's "tomato-meter" reading is around 60% and opinions seem to range from lukewarm to negative, from mildly pleased to outright hostile. To a certain degree, of course, all this won't really matter as the film is sure to rake in tons of money at the box office (reports say it has already had the largest opening day ever) but what will word of mouth be like? Are people loving the film? Not really.

So, what happened? What could have transpired to make the Spider-man series, recently so "on top of the world," fall so low in so many people's eyes? Have the filmmakers lost themselves somewhere along the way? Have Raimi and his actors fallen prey to the same kind of arrogance that Peter has in the film? Have they let all the financial success of the first two films (not to mention the attention and adulation that was heaped on them for the sequel) go to their heads and consequently affect their work? Well, it’s certainly possible. In 2004, long-time friend and collaborator of Sam Raimi, composer Danny Elfman, shocked filmmusic fans by saying that scoring Spider-man 2 was a “miserable experience” and that he would never work with Sam Raimi again. Elfman has been quoted as saying: "My connection to Sam got completely severed. As far as I'm concerned, he went to sleep and somebody put a pod next to him and when he awoke, he wasn’t the same person I've known for a decade." This is probably just a coincidence but it’s interesting that the language Elfman uses to describe Raimi’s “change in personality” almost exactly parallels what occurs to Peter's possession by the alien force in this film.

There is another possibility to consider though, one that is a bit less comforting to us but no less plausible. Perhaps the fault lies not in the filmmakers but in us: the audience. It could be that the level of expectation brought to the film has resulted in an almost self-inflicted sense of disappointment. Were our hopes too high? Were we not approaching the film with the right attitude or mindset? Well, one certainly has to acknowledge the possibility. I am not necessarily suggesting that the film is perfect because I don't think it is. I am not trying to suggest that it has no flaws because I believe it does, but maybe the flaws appear bigger in our eyes than they actually are because of our inflated level of gratification. Some people, for example, have said they positively cringed during a montage in which Peter is seen indulging in his “bad” side: wearing black, pulling his hair in front of his eyes, strutting down the street a la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and just generally making a fool of himself. Whether these folks are cringing because they are embarrassed for Peter or they are embarrassed for the filmmakers is unclear, but either way that particular sequence seems to really upset some people. “Corny," "campy" and "lame" are terms being used to describe the sequence (as well as “doesn’t belong in a Spider-man movie”). Yet, a virtually identical (and I would argue equally as “corny”) montage in the second film depicting Peter getting his life back on track (doing well in school, walking down the street happy; all to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head") didn’t seem to arouse nearly the level of venom (no pun intended) being directed at this one. What exactly is the difference? Is there even one and if so, where does it lie? Is it in the movies or is it in us?

Another criticism that has been aimed at Spider-man 3 is that it “tries to tackle too much” (I believe one critic has cleverly observed that “Crash didn’t have this many sub-plots”) including no less than three villains. I think this is a fair criticism and could be, as I said before, an indicator of the filmmakers thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. And yet nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that another highly praised and very successful recent comic book movie, Batman Begins, also took on quite a bit in its story (and, incidentally, also had three villains in it). Not to sound haughty myself here or anything, but I recall that I was one of the few people out ther saying that maybe Nolan and his crew should have been a teensy bit less ambitious with Batman Begins (though I still loved the movie). Again, where exactly does the difference lie? Is there really such a huge difference between these films or are we just approaching them differently?

What makes this question of particular interest to me is that I see hardly any difference at all between the three Spider-man films. It is rather puzzling to me that so many people see such a vast disparity in quality between the first and the second movies as well as between the second and the third movies. I remember having a similar opinion of people’s response to the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Those who raved about the first one seemed to really despise the second whereas I found them to be more or less the same film. I went into Pirates 2 with pretty much the same expectation that I took to the original and I wasn’t really that disappointed (I plan to do the same for the third). Am I suggesting that we should lower our expectations going into a movie so we’ll be happier with the finished product? Of course not, but I do wonder how “open” a lot of us are for the “kind” of movie that is being produced for us; how much resistance we put up for where the filmmakers want to take us.

This is a bit tangential here, but there’s another scene in Spider-man 3 when Peter starts to cry because something emotionally devastating happens to him. At that moment a rather obnoxious fellow in the theatre started laughing hysterically. I was a little annoyed (even angry) at this outburst because I found it to be a very genuinely moving moment (and a fine piece of acting by Maguire) and his mocking seemed like a deliberate attempt to let everybody know he was too “cool” to be caught up in the drama of what was happening on screen as well as an attempt to sabotage anyone else's being caught up either. Did he not know that there was going to be an element of this in Spider-man 3? Did he not see the first two films (which spent just as much time on their characters' relationships as they did on the action and special effects)? Later I realized that I probably should have anticipated something like that occurring because before the movie started I glanced around and observed that, in a sold-out audience of hundreds of people, I was the oldest one there (I am 30) and it has not escaped my notice that young movie-goers today are becoming increasingly more impatient with their art/entertainment and cynical in their attitudes toward it. During the action scenes everybody was more than happy, but seemed to be a bit restless during scenes that dealt with the Peter and Mary Jane's relationship or the heartfelt conversations between Peter and Aunt May. For me, on the other hand, it was almost the opposite. A lot of the time I was more engaged by the dialogue scenes than I was by the action scenes, particularly the first one (a fight between Peter and Harry) where I admit I actually had some difficulty distinguishing what was going on sometimes. At any rate, I suspect these are probably the same individuals who cheered during the battle sequences in Lord of the Rings but gagged when Frodo and Sam actually showed some affection for each other (I also remember the audience loving the action sequences in Jackson's King Kong but overheard someone whispering "This is sooo gay" during the scene on the frozen lake). To quote Jonathan Schmock in Ferris Beuler's Day Off: "I weep for the future."

I waited 48 hours before writing anything about Spider-man 3, because I thought I should let it “digest” a little bit. It's not that I don't know what to think of Spider-man 3. I know what I think of it. I just don't know what to think of what I think of it (I also don't know yet what to think of what other people think of it). I am not a big fan of “knee-jerk” critiques. So I wanted to get away briefly from the experience before formulating an opinion ("committing" to a particular "take" on it if you will) and sharing it with the world. I also wanted to wait and see how other people responded to it and whether or not their experiences matched my own. For the most part, I seem to be somewhat in the minority. I confess that I got very caught up in the film, but whether that was due to the quality of the movie itself or to the opening night atmosphere I’m still not sure. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Spider-man 3 and found it to be of essentially the same "ilk" as the first two. Granted, it’s probably the least of the three (with the first one still being the best IMO) but it is in no way a bad movie. It is certainly not, as some have claimed, “crap.” I could get more into the specifics of what I thought worked in the film (almost any scene with James Franco) and what could've been done better (at times it almost felt like Spider-man: the musical) but this post is already too long. Those particulars I shall have to save for another time, perhaps after I've seen it again (as I think back on it right now I realize that I saw the first two movies twice in the theatre, so I probably shouldn't give the third any less regard). As my friend Tucker, or Cineboy, likes to say: “You’ve never really seen a film until you’ve seen it three times.” I tend to agree. It's really on subsequent viewings that a film’s organic unity and artistic value (or lack thereof) come more into focus. Subtleties that were missed the first time get seen, things that were first perceived as flaws possibly become strengths and other (perhaps more glaring) flaws that went unnoticed initially become more apparent. Perhaps Spider-man 3 will go up in my estimation. Perhaps not. I don’t know. At this point I will just say that should this prove to be the last Spider-man film, I don't think it is that bad of a note to go out on. I do not share the opinion, articulated by some, that this series has run dry of inspiration, that there is nothing left to do with these characters or with this world. I think there are still some interesting places to go and directions to take these characters (there's certainly a lot more stories left untold from the film's source material: the comic books) and I'm not ready just yet to give up on Raimi and his gang. There might still be some spin left in this spider after all.


Dan E. said...

Before I even begin this, I must admit I have not seen the film, and probably won't for a while.

From what I've read of the plot, it seems extremely convoluted, though in a way it all seems necessary from a thematic perspective. By creating Sandman who may have killed Uncle Ben, the filmmakers create a parallel between Peter and Harry in that they're both looking for revenge. This also comes from Peter's dark side, hence the dark costume. And of course, you cannot have the dark costume without Venom, so Peter needs a rival. And of course, you can't give Peter a rival without giving Mary-Jane a rival, and I'm pretty sure that we stopped being necessary for thematic purposes a couple of sentences back.

I would say, though, that Batman Begins is able to more effectively intertwine its stories. I would argue that there are only two real villains (Ra's Al-Ghul and Carmine Falcone) as Scarecrow only serves as a henchman, albeit a high-leveled one, to Ra's Al-Ghul. Everything in that film revolved around fear, except when Bruce Wayne started acting like an eccentric billionaire in the middle of the film. Both Ra's and Falcone used fear as their main weapons, Falcone in the form of organized crime and Ra's in the form of that powder. All of this coincided with Bruce Wayne overcoming his own fears to become Batman.

All of it served a thematic purpose, and I can only hope The Dark Knight can do something similar. I don't know how well Spiderman 3 can do this, but from what I've read, it doesn't do it that well.

I think the audience brings in two main problems. First, I think their desire for bigger things helped to contribute to the need for something approaching the complexity of Spiderman 3. Second, of course, is the outsized expectations. I don't know what happened with Pirates 2, but I know I've been consistent. I didn't really like the first that much, and I didn't really like the second either.

Expectations are what shape everything we see. If we expect something to be bad, but it turns out good, we see it as great because it surprised us. And of course, may God have mercy on your soul if you go in with high expectations. You can never be satisfied, because it is not how you saw it in your head.

As for derisive laughter, I'm not sure where I stand on that. On Friday, while everyone was seeing Spiderman, I caught a double feature of Children of Men and The Fountain. I was kinda surprised by the people a couple of rows back who wouldn't stop laughing at The Fountain. What could you have been expecting that it comes off as funny. Sure, it treats itself very seriously, but if you buy in, you don't want people laughing at that. And here comes the hypocrisy. I went to see 300 with some friends. I couldn't stop laughing. It just seemed so utterly ridiculous. All of a sudden there's a bottomless pit in the middle of town? And the slow motion kick? I couldn't contain myself, much to the contempt of my friends. So it really is whether you buy into it. I bought into The Fountain and felt moved. I didn't buy into 300 and felt moved to laughter.

So don't get mad at that guy. I don't think he was trying to be too hip. I think he thought it was done poorly. Maybe it struck him as cheesy, much as I thought Ephialtes' Sorcerer's Apprentice hat for becoming a traitor to Xerxes was ridiculous. It's all in how we view the films. We can't always feel awe at what we see. Though if I was in the audience with me, I probably would have wanted me dead too.

Damian said...

Well, whether it's "too much" or it's "convoluted" I'm not so sure about, but there certainly is a lot going on in this film. It's interesting that you mention parallels between Harry and Peter, and Mary Jane and her rival, because now that I think of it there is a scene where Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is taking a photo of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) after which we immediately cut to Peter taking a picture of Mary Jane. The theme of duality has, along with the theme of identity, always been a major part of the series as well.

I think you're right in that expectations shape a lot of what we see and what opinnions we have of what we see. That's what I was talking about our need to be as "open" as possible to what the films are; to engage a movie, as much as we can, on its own terms rather than expecting it to engage us on ours. I don't know how good we are as a movie-going culture at that discipline.

And yes, I realize we can't always be in awe of what we are watching but, if we don't like it, I don't know that we need to announce to everyone else how we feel. I think that might rob those around us of some of their enjoyment of it. I mean, did it never occur to this fellow that others might not share his reaction to those scenes? If so, did he even care? A little bit of courtesy and self-control is all I'm asking for.

Piper said...


I'm with you on a lot of this.

I too found myself more taken with the touching scenes then the scenes of action. For me, it really needs to be an amazing action scene for me to get caught up in it. I am still amazed by the chase scene in Casino Royale. Maybe the CG is what bugs me.

I don't think there's any way that you can dismiss this movie as crap and I think that Raimi handled all the material very well.

I just don't think the franchise has anything more to offer and should be done. I doubt it will and if there's a Spiderman 4 I can't say that I will be too willing to enter the theater again for it unless my son drags me.

Damian said...


As I said in my post on the 70's Spider-man TV show, I do miss the "reality" of a lot of Spidey's antics. So I think it's possible that all of the CG is starting to wear on me a little too (Oh, and you're right BTW in that the Casino Royale was indeed awesome).

As to whether or not the franchise has anything left to offer, I am not prepared to say that it doesn't. I think that it could, but the filmmakers definitely need to be do some "new" and "bold" things with the characters/stories in order for it to sustain itself. Typically I have always preferred the movie trilogy format to the "open-ended" movie series, mostly because I just love the classic Aristotelian three-act structure and I have noticed that a lot of movie franchises were all but ruined by an unnecessary fourth movie (*cough* Lethal Weapon *cough*). Very few have gone past three movies successfully in my book, but that doesn't mean that theoretically it's not possible. I'd be okay if Spider-man stopped now... but I don't demand that they do (it's rather a moot point, anyway, Sony's already announced they're going to keep making sequels).


i appreciate the "waiting" and agree with the fear of the knee jerk response but i wrote about it right away because i had to purge it.

yes, expectations affect things.
but I had very very high hopes for the second film (I felt the first was very strong and wanted the series to really be THE comic book series... and it more than surpassed my expectation. So I have to blame this film and not my reaction.

I just feel like they were trying to do way too much and in not a very spider-man way. dan's comments on batman begins are perceptive. it is all about fear so it doesn't feel like it has too many villains because they're all operating on the same plane. spider-man 3 is just so messy. all those quick edits inbetween scenes so we remember all three of them because it's a movie that thinks it's a miniseries

or something

i agree that there's a lot more than could be captured with spider-man. a lot more stories to tell. HOWEVER... since there are why did they feel the need to tell this one again? (the mj/parker thing is more than played out... NEW drama. I think this is why people are scoffing. It was so moving before and now it's just retread albeit with marriage rather than dating)

Damian said...

Fair enough, Nate. As I said, I thought Spider-man 3 was a good flick, though probably the weakest of the three. Perhaps I should wait a while and see it again before completely making up my mind, but I doubt I'm gonna suddenly discover it's "crap." That's partly why I wrote this post. I think it's being somewhat unfairly bashed by critics and audiences.

Ted Pigeon said...

Nice post, Damian. I think you raise a good point in regards to expectation. It affects every element of the movie experience, which is why sequels are so hard. The spectators expects the impossible: familiarity and originality. The sequel is supposed to be enough like the original so its not a totally different movie, but it must be original in its own right. Tonally, I think all three Spiderman films are very similar. But there is great separation between them when analyzing their specific elements.

As I said in my recent post concerning Spiderman 3, I don't think the problem with the film is in its overstuffed plot, incoherent structure, etc. I'm not hearing any of those criticisms for two reasons: 1) they tend to focus on plot, narrative, and thematic continuity. As Dargis noted in her recent blockbusters article - this is a distinctly literary approach to cinema. 2) this perspective assumes that there is a "right way" to make a movie, and that the filmmakers did not follow that pre-determined path. So if a movie does x, y, and z, it's good? The interesting thing is that individual moviegoers' perceptions of what x, y, and z are comprised of are really stylistic and structural conventions with which their familiar so that they may comfortably enjoy something which is, quite honestly, no different than the "model" films that lay out such paths. But what are these model strcutures, and what makes them better than other structural or stylistic choices.

Someone already pointed out Batman Begins as an example of a film with many villains. Therefore, to cite a single "problem" like that is a fundamentally weak criticism and really depends on the reviewer's own desires for how the narrative should be based on her experiences with other similiar narratives. Also, it's a very convenient mode of criticism. If someone doesn't like a particular choice in the case of one film, they can blast the film on those grounds. But if something similar works in another movie, then all of the sudden that criticism doesn't hold up.

Hmm... the more I'm writing about this, the more I realize it to be the potential beginnings for a larger argument about criticism.

Damian said...

Thanks, Ted. You make some good points too. What strikes me now when I re-read this post is that I was writing more about people's responses to Spider-man 3 than I was writing about the movie itself. What that means I do not know, but it's interesting to me.

BTW I never got the chance to respond to your "Critic and the Blockbuster" post, but I thought it was great. I particularly liked the movie image that you used. Good choice! :)

Ted Pigeon said...

That's actually what I liked about your piece. It was less about your reaction to the film than critics' and viewers' response. Naturally, the following discussion provoked the opinions I commented on in my response (I also mentioned it in my Spiderman 3 review).

Damian said...

Yeah, I read your piece on Spider-man 3 and I quite liked it. I did, incidentally, notice a few similarities between your post and mine. That seems to happen to me a lot lately, as a matter of fact, that I read something by you and think to myself, "Hey, that's kind of like what I think... only said much better than I would ever say it." :)

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