MICHAEL H. PRICE: Spider-Man 3’s spectacular overkill
It helps to remember, now that a third Spider-Man epic has arrived to herald the school’s-out season at the box office, that the title character had started out as the comic-book industry’s least likely recruit to the ranks of super-heroism.
The idea of a human being with the proportionate strength of a spider had been kicking around since the 1950s. Comic-book pioneers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby seem to have arrived there first, with an undeveloped concept known as the Silver Spider. The inspiration ran afoul of a publishers’ bias against spiders and other such crawly creatures, the bankable success of Batman notwithstanding. But Simon and Kirby steered the basic notion into print in 1959 with a change-of-species Archie Comics series called The Fly – capitalizing upon an unrelated but like-titled hit movie of 1958.
By the early 1960s, Kirby was slumming at a low-rent publishing company that was soon to become the influential Marvel Comics. Kirby and writer Stan Lee had recently found competitive leverage with a band-of-heroes comic called The Fantastic Four – grimmer and edgier than the fare offered by big-time DC Comics. DC’s Superman and Batman franchises anchored a line of costumed heroes who got along well enough to have formed a super-heroes’ club.
Lee and Kirby’s retort to DC Comics’ Justice League magazine had been a Fantastic Four whose members quarreled and exchanged threats and insults. After Kirby had raised the Silver Spider as a prospect, Lee and Steve Ditko envisioned Spider-Man as a teen-age nebbish, afflicted with superhuman abilities by a bite from a radioactive spider. Artists Kirby and Ditko combined qualities of strength and neurosis in the character design: Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, wore eyeglasses and feigned social withdrawal as a disguise; Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, wore eyeglasses because he was a nearsighted dweeb.
The embryonic Marvel Comics, having little to lose and plenty to prove, launched Spider-Man in a failing magazine and hoped that somebody might notice. Sales figures spiked against expectations. Lee’s unsophisticated attempts at philosophical depth struck comic-book readers of the day as comparatively profound. Spider-Man’s début in his own title involved a violent misunderstanding with the members of the Fantastic Four.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies date from times more recent (2002-and-counting), but they recapture well that early stage of 45 years ago in which Peter B. Parker, alias Spider-Man, marks time between altercations by wondering whether he deserves to be saddled with such responsibility. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004) is generally regarded as one of the more mature-minded comic-book films, reconciling sensationalism with provocative ideas.
Editor’s Note: SPOILERS after the jump…
The newly opened Spider-Man 3 finds Parker (Tobey Maguire) developing a swaggering presence, consistent with later issues of the Stan Lee–Steve Ditko books. Parker no longer feels compelled to guard his dual identity from romantic interest Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and as Spider-Man he is experiencing an unaccustomed surge of favorable crime-buster publicity. Chalk it all up to the pride that goes before a fall, for soon enough Parker will encounter a cosmic force that can only unleash in him a grimmer personality, complete with re-designed Spider-Man costume.
As though the split-personality problem were insufficient, director Raimi’s collaborative screenplay raises the ante considerably with a recurrent menace known as the Green Goblin (James Franco) – Green Goblin Jr. is more like it – and a new arrival called the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). Neither villain comes near the finer dramatic resonance that Alfred Molina achieved as the rampaging Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, but the Sandman’s strange abilities to alter his shape account for some jaw-dropping visual effects. The script seems inclined to balance things out with an entirely human professional rival for photojournalist Peter Parker, until aggressive photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) finds himself changed into a super-villain known as Venom. Enough, already.
The larger idea of having Parker explore his darker nature proves an ill-developed plotting device, lost in the shuffle of too many bad guys and a fitfully interesting sub-plot of jealousy involving Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen Stacy, an endangered innocent in need of a rescue by Spider-Man.
Amidst the noise, Thomas Haden Church stands out with his portrayal of the Sandman as a figure of sorrow as well as menace. Topher Grace, who might as well be auditioning for the title role in some eventual Spider-Man 4, lends a current of ferocity that is lacking in the script. Although the present film does a fair job of tying things into a coherent trilogy, it also drops hints of yet another installment.
Dunst is uncharacteristically lethargic and petulant this time out, and her scenes with Tobey Maguire’s Parker lack the vitality of their earlier pairings. Maguire fares better at conveying Parker’s impatience with his own boyish naïveté, attempting to counter his mild-mannered nature with clumsy attempts at appearing confident and even arrogant.
None of which will matter to the fans who come to witness the more spectacular outbursts. In gee-whiz technical terms, the picture is right up there with the earlier efforts. (PG-13)
Writer of The Prowler and the forthcoming Fishhead, Michael H. Price claims a movies-and-comics pedigree via such second- and/or third- cousin kinships as Vincent Price (1911–93) and Mad magazine’s Roger Price (1918–90). MHP’s movie commentaries can be found at The Fort Worth Business Press and at SciFi And Horror.com.