In Owen Gleiberman’s superbly well-written review of Steven Spielberg’s 1991 disappointment Hook, Gleiberman noted, right before trashing the film (sort of), that “Spielberg’s twin gift has always been the ability to make the real seem fantastic (i.e. Jaws), and the fantastic seem real (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). (Gleiberman concluded the review by noting, a bit prematurely, “Like Michael Jackson, Spielberg has spent too many years self-cloistered with his dreams, his gadgets and gizmos, his blockbuster empire. The loss is everyone’s (B-).” Hook held promise to Mr. Gleiberman because it seemed to promise a return to Spielberg’s “fantasy” pictures, which Spielberg had put on hold in the mid to late ’80’s, in favor of what Gleiberman called “misguided forays into the Real World (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always
). (By the way, I just watched what are regarded as Spielberg’s worst two films – 1941 and Always. 1941 lives up to its reputation as Spielberg’s worst film. Always was better than I expected it to be but is still near the bottom of the Spielberg canon).
One line in the review lingers in the memory like the occasional bubbling up of a wellspring of pleasure from that font: “Too many years self-cloistered…” For Gleiberman, the period of self-cloisterization lasted roughly a decade (between E.T. and Hook).
I have a feeling, though, which was generated after I saw Spiderman 3 last night, that self-cloisterization, and its negative side effects, can occur in a much shorter period of time; in the case of the Spiderman trilogy, a mere three years.
Another line in the Gleiberman review is instructive, in evaluating Spider-Man 3, as I shall note later on: “It’s not that Spielberg has lost his gift for fantasy; he no longer seems interested in anything else.”
Now that I am armed with Mr. Gleiberman’s insights of 16 years ago, I can say that their application to the Spider-Man series may account for a great many things, chiefly among them the fact (and the why of this fact) that Spider-Man 3 is the worst of the series; a movie that, while still good, is simultaneously skittery and overstuffed, overplotted and under story-told, “crowd-pleasing” without being crowd-involving.
We all base our remembrance of films on the northern star that constitutes where we were in our lives. Thus, when “Spider-Man” came out in 2002, I could relate vaguely to the premise,that of a doofus who,by sheer accident, became possessed of super-human powers (an exercise that would represent the ultimate in wish-fulfillment on my part); in particular I could relate to the relationship between Peter Parker and his friend Harry Osborn, the latter of whom was a filthy rich kid who nonetheless had a lifelong friendship with Peter – a seemingly impossible friendship.I had just gone throughsuch a “frienship” that past academic year. When the film hit theaters in early May, my “destiny” lied along a different path (i.e. I was more excited about seeing Star Wars Episode II), but nonetheless I saw the film during a particularly brutal month of law school and came away satisfied, if not enthralled. The film’s special effects were CGI-fakery but the integration of the absurdity of the action with the artfully written mundaneness that was the characters’ lives created a solid, if unexceptional,motion picture experience. I looked forward to, if not exactly with breath bated, a sequel, which the film all but promised.
Of course, a sequel was made, “Spider-Man 2,” which premiered on June 30,2004. A lot in my life had happened in the intervening two years (mostly in that nothing happened); I had graduated law school,passed the bar, and, on the night of the premiere, I had driven to the movie theater from – yes – my first day’s work at a job for which I would toil in for two years. Thus, as I settled down to watch the film, an air of weary maturity (I’ve finally made it!) combined with a feeling of skittishness about my future (I’ve finally made it?!?!?) prevailed. Peter Parker, I noticed, seemed to feel something similar – by this point in time in the series, he was, at least as of the opening reel, comfortable with the dualityof his identity,but apprehensive as to, you know, precisely what kind of responsibility – and the perils that exercise of this responsibility mightentail – would present himself. Peter in this film thus took his first authoritative steps into the larger world of good v. evil, of moral ambiguity, of relationships both loving and turned sour (as in the case of his friendship with Harry Osborn, whose avowal to avenge himself upon Spider-Man leads him to discover that Spider-Man “killed” the Green Goblin, Osborn’s father. The quotations behind the word “killed,” which provided me with the opportunity to submerge myself in a Warner Wolf moment (no,I don’thave a toupee!), shall be explained later). I myself fancied myself as having just begun to take these steps, given that my first “adult,” living away-from-home, post-passing of the bar,job began, and with it began, or so I thought, the laying of the blocks of the obstacle course of life as an adult that I would soon have to traverse.
I found this film to be a sheer exhilaration, as did most critics; it was a near-perfect movie of its kind,a seamless blend of the personal and the pyrotechnic. In particular, I was struck by the presentation and development of the villain – Otto Octavius (Doc Ock) – who, as made available for our consumption – was a kind and decent man whose pursuit of scientific knowledge turned him into a demented metallic, multi-tentacled mangle of a monster (had not such a similar pursuit earlier in my life demeted me?) I still got a charge from the Osborn-Parker relationship (which does not turn sour until the film’s end, as I was somewhat fresh off another similar relationship with a much richer person whose motives for friendship remain a source of bedevilment. Mostly, though, what impressed me about the film was its FUN – its sneaky sense of play; the film reminded me that lugubriousness and heavy-ha ndedness were not required to achieve “masterpiece” status; the right mix of ingredients was all that was required. I had hoped to find a similar right “mix” in my life as I pondered how on Earth I was to go about that corporate newspeak task known as “multitasking.”
If I may return to the Spielberg/Gleiberman remarks that opened this entry, I can note that, after the tremendous success – critical and financial – of Spiderman-2, the bar was raised quite high for the sequel, whch had already literally began production as Spider-Man 2, with its lovingly fantastical portrayal of New York – the New York of my dreams – graced the screens.
I suspect that both Sam Raimi, the director of the trilogy, and his patron, Columbia Pictures, believed, at this point, in many things, the first of which was that they now had a “blockbuster empire” on their hands, and that, for film #3 to succeed and to satisfy the studio bosses, something better (read: biggeer) was required – never mind the fact that the intimacy of Spider-Man 2 in its character exchanges was a large part of what made it work.
So, as these creative minds became lost in the belief in their own myth (that the greatness of the character bestowed upon them a greatness, the maintenance of which required more money, more villains, more everything), they set about to make Spider-Man 3, which, alas, seems, as Hook did,unable to care about,or understand,anything other than fantasy and its attendant contrivances,tired tropes, and insults to audience intelligence.
As the creative minds behind the franchise sat, “knowing” what made the previous two films worked,surrounded by their new gadgets and gizmos of CGI splendor, a story for Spider-Man 3 was hatched out. The story contains multiple plot-lines that as presented bump into each other like pigs for the slaughter, reflecting perhaps the filmmakers’ seemingly contradictory beliefs that while audiences neededmore,more, more to satisfy them kinesthetically, such satisfaction could onlybe obtained of the “more,more,more” was ultimately more of the same. This dual belief is something in which I share -I require the more,more,more to get a high sufficient to elevate me from the valleys of depression – even as I realize that the more,more,more is more of the same.
And so, in the latest chapter, we have not one, but three villains; escaped convict Flint Marko (who, as the victim of retrocontinuity, is established as the killer of Uncle Ben); Harry Osborn as Green Goblin Jr., and,as a late introduction,Eddie Brock Jr. cum Venom. Brock is transformed intoVenomafter coming into contact with a mysterious black symbiote substance from above the sky that renders its host a vessel through which to serve his darkest impulses. Peter, wouldn’t you know, has also come into contact with this goo,which is to blame for twenty minutes or so of his becoming a black-costumed Spiderman who tries to act BAAAAAADDDDD.
The action set pieces of this film are not integrated with the character arcs as neatly as was true with the past film; indeed, the pieces simply feel like pieces, thrown in to give the audience a temporary rush. As far as those “arcs,” the characterrs (meaning the screenwriters) appear to have regressed to a parody of their earlier selves, spouting platitudinous dialogue about love, duty, friendship and trust with a banality that can stop the film dead in its tracks.
So,Spider-Man 3, while it certainly possesses a fair modicum of wit,grace and flair, definitely allows its seams to show – the reason being that its creators have decided that they alone know what makes a Spider-Man film work – a “safer” (meaing drawing a wider-audience) series of sequences that eschews the messy interpersonal entanglements of the prior film that is simultaneously more “risk-taking” (meaning throwing as much stuff against the wall in the hopes that it will stick). The approach yields dividends – cirlicues of inspiration and humor – but also diminishing returns; such an approach is a recipe for creative fatigue by definition, and this fatigue permeated the film early on and never let go such that paradoxically, when the film seemed most “alive,” it was in fact at its deadest stop.
The film is still a good one, although the weakest of the trilogy – but its tone, pacing, and would-be moral teachings are a reflection of the filmmaners’ sense of obligation and fear of how to satisfy that obligation – rather than the result of genuine creative spark. As I now start another new job (which should have started yesterday – talk about history repeating itself!), I cannot help but feel the same way, as I feel lost in my profession – convinced that I know what I need to but totally in the dark as to how to do it, swayed mostly by a belief that volume over quality is the key to success, and by the belief that insulating work from life, as this film has done, is the key to success.
So, Spielberg, success, and stagnation (the latter of which are characteristics pertinent to the discussion of Spider-Man and myself) seem to have intersected to produce this film. The loss – and there is one, as the final product shows – is everybody’s, in a sense, but as the talk for plans for a 4th picture have begun, there is a sense that it can be done right again – if the creators-that-be just sit down, as I must – and figure out how to get it not “right” so as to appeal to a particular constituency, but how to make it work. Such twin gains will be the “wins” of everybody