Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Problem with Threes

First off, damn Lileks! I listened to the latest Diner this morning, and he played four, count 'em, four versions of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and now the damn song is stuck in my head.

I ended up working four hours on Saturday night and then turning around to do a morning shift on Sunday, so the weekend was basically shot. My boss then encouraged me to go home early yesterday, so I finally got to see "Spider-man 3."

A little disappointed, frankly. I had hoped that if anybody could avoid the "Curse of Three," it was Raimi. But alas, it was not to be.

We know that sequels are hard, especially if they're unplanned. A good sequel has to be the same, but different. It needs to flip all the same switches in the viewer's brain, but it can't be too similar, and most importantly, it can't be smaller.

But the third film is a different beast. Often, a good sequel has not only satisfied the "same but bigger" itch, but it has also resolved lingering questions from the first film to give both films greater resonance. A third film often has to "keep going, but start over" (which is why I think so many tend to echo the first film even more than the second did). And it's beastly hard to get right. I'm hard-pressed to think of one, actually. I think "Die Hard With a Vengeance" came as close as any. Maybe "Rocky III."

The good things: Raimi's still pushing the emotional core of the character. The special effects kick ass, mostly.

The bad things: Peter's a jerk in this one. We can blame it on the black goo, but frankly, he's pretty jerky even when he's goo-free. Mary Jane's even worse. Kirsten Dunst never made a good romantic lead; her "I love you" speech at the end of the first film was awful, and you never felt the chemistry between her and Tobey Maguire. You could sort-of understand why he had a crush on her, but not why they'd end up together. In this one, Peter has a competing romantic interest in Gwen Stacy (the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard), and she's everything MJ is not: beautiful and fun and interested in the same things Peter is. But Peter uses her badly, so she takes off and Peter ends up in a joyless dance with MJ, two unhappy people who are stuck with each other.

Too many villains: "Spider-man 2" managed to avoid the Batman "double-the-villains, double-the-fun" syndrome, but it was just a tease. In this one, they hit us with three! And it makes everything feel sort of overstuffed, not to mention the number of mind-boggling coincidences the screenwriters devise to make everything happen. Flint Marko just happens to fall into a hole on a nuclear testing facility just as there just happens to be a nighttime test, and Peter and MJ just happen to have a romantic interlude near where a meteor bearing sentient black goo just happens to crash, and the gorgeous model Spider-man saves just happens to be his beautiful classmate, Gwen Stacy, and the black goo just happens to infect Peter right after he learns that Flint Marko is the guy who killed Uncle Ben (in one of the most unnecessary retcons of all time), and Peter just happens to try to get rid of the black goo in a church's bell tower, where the vibrations of the bell just happen to be the creature's one weakness, and Eddie Brock, who just happens to be both Peter's rival at the Bugle and a suitor of Gwen's, just happens to be standing underneath Peter when the goo comes off, and oh my God, can stuff please STOP JUST HAPPENING?

Don't even get me started on the interpretive dance number in the middle. Raimi has always been a giddily indulgent filmmaker with a weakness for goofy slapstick (see "Crimewave" for the worst example). But in this one, he indulges his worst instincts. The depiction of Peter's descent to the dark side is virtually unwatchable; the characters have no emotional continuity at all, just whipsawing this way and that for the needs of each particular scene. And Raimi's love of cameos, so much fun in the first two pictures, really brings this one down. The requisite Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell cameos just don't work, and the cameos of his kids... I understand parents indulging their children, but the kids get too much dialogue.

I really, really wanted to like this one more than I did, but it's just not there on the screen.

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