Goin’ to the Dark Side
The thing about Sam Raimi is this: He set the bar so high on himself with the absolute perfection of Spider-Man 2 that there was no way he was going to be able to equal himself, never mind best himself, with the next installment. Oh, sure, we were all hoping in our geeky little hearts that our man Sam would somehow achieve this miracle, but c’mon: you knew it was impossible.
I want to say, “Did no one learn the lesson of Batman and Robin: that three villains are simply two too many?” But I don’t want to imply that Spider-Man 3 is anything like that crime against humanity. It isn’t. As comic book movies go, it’s, you know, very comic booky. It’s crammed with too much stuff — too many bad guys, too much plot, way too many plot-convenient coincidences, too much wham! splat!, too many meteors from outer space carrying aggressive symbiotic lifeforms that want to suck your brain (there’s only one, but that’s too many). But that’s how comic books are. It’s not a bad time at the movies, and I will absolutely be seeing again with my geek posse.
But you know what? I’m not that upset that I won’t be able to do that till next weekend. I can wait to see it again. I don’t feel an urgent need to, ohmigod, rush right out and see the film Again. Right. Now.
This makes me very sad. I want to be geeked, and I’m not.
I want to snark about Peter Parker going on all Dark Side on us — the alien goo from the meteor turns him evil; don’t ask me how, it’s comic book science. I want to snark about the “Danger: Particle Physics Testing Facility” sign — which is actually warning trespassers against an actually dangerous actual particle physics testing facility in the heart of New York City, which turns escaped con Flint Marko into supernatural superbaddie Sandman; more comic book science. I want to snark about Harry Osborn’s secret urban bad-guy lair — now that he’s Green Goblin Jr. and hatin’ on Spider-Man — and does he have a skull-island tropical lair when he wants to get out of the city for a couple of days?
But I can’t be bothered. It’s no fun. Spider-Man 2 was fun. Even when it was being so sincere and so profound about things that are usually dismissed as nerdy and cartoonish (like the angst of the superhero) that it took your breath away, the film was alive with humor and humanity and spirit and soul. All of that is missing here, for the most part: it all feels perfunctory. Calculated. Oh god, I can’t believe I’m gonna say this about a Sam Raimi flick, but it feels — oh god — corporate. Like it’s been focused-grouped into flat irrelevance, into a hodgepodge of a little bit of everything: action, romance, more action, stuff blowing up, more action, a bit of comedy, more action. Overbake for two hours and twenty minutes and roll credits.
I want, too, to overintellectualize it, like I probably did with Spidey 2. I want to point out the shades of 9/11 in the duststorm that is Sandman billowing around streetcorners in the canyons of Lower Manhattan — another disaster inflicted upon a city that’s seen too much already. I want to analyze the film’s earnest themes about the thin line between the good guys and the bad, how it’s all a matter of choice, and how we can all learn a thing or two from guys in tights. But then along comes Aunt May — and I got nothing against Aunt May, she was simply given a terrible line to deliver — admonishing Peter with this: “Revenge is like a poison; it can take us over.” Way to whack us in the noggin, Raimi (and fellow screenwriters Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent). We were getting it, and now you’re treating us like we’re dumb or something. Like he was making a movie for everyone instead of just for us.
And here’s the ironic thing: in making a movie just for us geeks in Spider-Man 2, Raimi made a movie for everyone. I have no problem recommending Spidey 2 even to people who insist they don’t like comic book movies, because that movie had heart, dammit. It was real. But now, in making a movie seemingly designed to appeal to everyone everywhere on the planet, he’s given us a movie that, well, plenty of folks (though not comic book haters) will like just fine, but no one will love. Like when you get off a roller coaster and yell, Man, that was great! and then you’ve forgotten the experience five minutes later.
Look, I’m not saying don’t see it. Well, wait: I’m saying, See it if you’re a comic book fan; if you’re not, rent Spider-Man 2 instead. There’s stuff to like here: Tobey Maguire (Seabiscuit) just keeps getting more charming. James Franco (Flyboys) is amazing: with one little cocked eyebrow, he goes from good guy to bad. Both actors ooze screen chemistry with Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette), and with each other — the casting continues to be genius. As beautifully as they all work together, Topher Grace (In Good Company) almost steals the movie from them as the weaselly new photographer trying to poach Peter’s freelance work at the Daily Bugle.
But gosh, this has got to be the most negative positive review I’ve ever written — consider that a measure of my disappointment. I know my fellow geeks will understand where I’m coming from. Cuz there are moments when that old Raimi magic — real palpable movie magic — busts out. The absolutely necessary cameos by Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi. The jazz-club sequence about an hour and a half into the film — you’ll know it when it hits — that manages to be both funny and disturbing at the same time. And that’s when you get that weird ache in your gut, when you suddenly realize why you’ve been squirming a bit in your seat, that you have not been sitting up at attention with a big goofy grin on your face up till then. When you suddenly find yourself worrying that Sam Raimi — Sam Raimi! — has gone Hollywood on us after holding out all this time.
It’s a choice, Sam. Like Peter had to make a choice. Remember that. We’ll sic Aunt May on you if we have to.