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.