***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A-
starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church
screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
directed by Sam Raimi
by Walter Chaw It's hard for me at this point to look at the Spider-Man franchise literally. Literally, after all, it's riddled with inconsistencies, plot holes the size of Buicks, abrupt shifts in tone, important subplots given short shrift, and on and on. But as iconography, as allegory (who can forget the timeliness of the first film's 9/11 parable?), as an essentially self-aware product of our image-ravenous culture, it achieves a kind of spectral, magical grace. Though I prefer the personal evolution of the second picture (and the third Harry Potter film for the same reasons), the trying-on and jettisoning of father figures along the path of boy-into-man, there are moments in Spider-Man 3 so supremely well-crafted as visual poetry, so gloriously tangled and knotty, that they batter defenses raised against another Iraq War tale of unimaginable losses and the cold comfort of vengeance. The whole of the film is a case of rolling with the punches, really, of choosing early whether to hang with director Sam Raimi's sense of broad slapstick melodrama and greeting-card symbolism or reject it as incoherent, populist mugging. If you accept its roundhouse swings and Evil Dead-era zooms at face value, though, it has for you in return a moment where something struggles to be born, but can only finish its naissance with the help of an image of its sick daughter; a breathless action sequence that revolves around the recovery of a sentimental artifact; and, as a bonus, a "Three Stooges" bit where old pal Bruce Campbell plays an unctuous, over-eager maître d'.
Look at the picture as a passion play and find nerd hero Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his Broadway baby girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) coping in different ways with their paths to personal glory and its attendant self-confidence. Their friend Harry (James Franco), the emotional lightning rod for the film's climactic battle, is having a hard time dealing with the death of his father, just as Peter's having a tough time dealing with the loss of his surrogate father/s. The superstar villains this time around are Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church)--who nets a grisly demise and resurrection in a particle accelerator in scenes of surprising pathos that, alone, justify the film's rumoured budget--and alien symbiote Venom (Topher Grace), another fluid, liquid baddie that slimes along where Marko's Sandman alter-ego rustles and flows. Venom enhances Peter's aggression: his need for vengeance, addressed briefly in the first instalment, flowers here as that war between Peter's iconic better nature, flash-frozen against Old Glory, becomes literal in antagonists made of misdirected rage (and looking, as it happens, like a sentient oil slick--Venom and Sandman: oil and sand).
A lot like The Bourne Supremacy, Spider-Man 3 is that extraordinary mainstream action picture that feminizes its man-of-action before allowing all roads to end with forgiveness and regret. Where the second film closed with the promise of Peter's successful matriculation into adulthood in a place of his own, with a girl at his side and wedding bells on the soundtrack, this picture, like the first, concludes at a cemetery in the rain. The church bell in Spider-Man 3, following a terse exchange in which a changed Parker advises a romantic adversary that if he's looking for forgiveness, "find religion," takes centre stage in a belfry as Parker undergoes another of the picture's deaths and rebirths. And it predicts yet another transformation (Harry's) in a long baptismal shower.
Of the three pictures, this is the most emotionally sadistic, ranging from a sick girl who gives the Marko character (and Church is fantastic) the depth that should have attended the Batman franchise's Mr. Freeze to the severe wounding of a good friend. Parker, mutated by rage, even brutalizes Mary Jane in a difficult sequence that has Raimi juggling his natural instinct for pratfalls and embarrassment with the Raimi who addressed in A Simple Plan the decomposition of love and trust. Where Spider-Man 3 is weakest is when it's lightest-hearted (when Parker, for instance, transforms himself with some eye-shadow and bangs and turns heads for the wrong reasons in a jaunty, James Brown-scored stroll down the street) and when it tries too hard to make a lot of sense. What saves the enterprise, admittedly the sloppiest instalment of the trilogy, is its moral centre: there are consequences in this universe; every action has a reaction, and every chain of events has a serious fallout.
I noted more civilian casualties in this episode than in the previous ones--with Spider-Man shown to be far from omnipotent in preventing collateral damage in his battles with the world's industrial freaks--as well as the ultimate message that while the United States is ruined at this moment by ill-spent bile and astonishingly bad choices, these criminal missteps are out of character with our better intentions. Spider-Man 3, and it's not subtle in the slightest, is about making choices, making mistakes, and making amends. Say what you will about its set-pieces (the worst here, aesthetically and technically, of any in the series) and the CGI (still cheesy), this series has more on its mind than its bells and whistles--explanation in part for the extended periods of quiet throughout. It believes that genre pictures have a responsibility to both their fan contingent and to the culture at large--and that this hero remains an effective modern avatar to fight, or embrace, shadows popular and personal. For its popularity and intelligence, its clear-eyed optimism and unabashed sentimentality, the Spider-Man saga could well become the best time capsule of the place and character of our nation.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Spider-Man 3 + HiDef = ecstasy. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say the 2.40:1, 1080p image is vastly preferable to the IMAX presentation I saw earlier this summer, which looked to me like a DV blow-up with the sharpness set too high. On Blu-ray, the film recaptures its celluloid glory, and most impressively, it restores legibility to the night-set action sequences; shadow detail is fine and detail-detail is super-fine: you can literally make out Kirsten Dunst's taste buds during her opening number--something that strikes me as somehow more impressive than the fact that you can also distinguish every grain of Sandman sand, maybe because Kiki's tongue ain't computer-generated. It's perfect, though if I must be honest with myself, John Carpenter's Halloween actually boasts the most impressive Blu-ray transfer I've seen to date, mainly because there's no reason it should look as good as it does whereas there's no reason Spider-Man 3 shouldn't look this good. But make no mistake: this is demo material through and through, as is the 5.1 audio, encoded somewhat redundantly in both PCM and TrueHD. While the LFE channel is off the charts (the scene where Flint Marko falls into the particle accelerator produces the kind of bass that makes you nauseous), no one aspect of the mix gets short-changed. The standout for me--and evidently for Tobey Maguire, who says as much on the commentary--is Spidey's rescue of Gwen from the construction accident, a foley symphony that takes advantage of the discrete soundstage like nothing else. What's more, because this is a BD-Java disc, you can bookmark this and other highlights for future reference.
Extras on the first platter include two feature-length commentaries, a frankly forced-feeling 7-minute blooper reel (in 480i), the music video for Snow Patrol's "Signal Fire" (again, 480i), five substantial "Galleries" ("Director and Cast," "Paintings," "Sculptures," "Special Effects," and "Sketches"), the standard "Coming to Blu-ray" promo, and HD previews for Surf's Up, Casino Royale, Ghost Rider, and Across the Universe. About those yak-tracks: one features director Sam Raimi shooting the breeze with actors Maguire, James Franco, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Thomas Haden Church (with observations from Dunst spliced in occasionally), while the other is a group effort from producers Avi Arad, Grant Curtis, and Laura Ziskin, editor Bob Murawski, and VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk. These yakkers, however engaging, are by and large love-ins for Raimi and the franchise light on information you won't find elsewhere in this set, with the odd exception--such as Church's revelation that he was cast before a screenplay had been written under the assumption he'd be playing Sandman opposite Ben Kingsley's Vulture--only proving the rule. That said, Howard does a commendable job as the makeshift moderator (though I have an easier time believing her claim that father Ron is a fan of Raimi's work than I do Raimi's reciprocal compliment), and her confession that she found out she had performed her stunts pregnant retroactively enhances the perils of Gwen Stacy. I also enjoyed the shock elicited by Ziskin's claim that Raimi knew musical theatre well enough to have personally suggested the song Mary Jane sings for her Broadway debut.
Disc 2's content is almost all in 1080p and looks magnificent. Start with eleven featurettes: "Grains of Sand: Building Sandman" (14 mins.); "Re-Imagining the Goblin" (11 mins.); "Covered in Black: Creating Venom" (16 mins.); "Hang On... Gwen Stacy and the Collapsing Floor" (10 mins.); "Fighting, Flying and Driving: The Stunts" (19 mins.); "Tangled Web: The Love Triangles of Spider-Man 3" (9 mins.); "Wall of Water" (7 mins.); "Inside the Editing Room" (4 mins.); "The Science of Sound" (16 mins.); "On Location: New York - From Rooftops to Backstreets" (13 mins.); and "On Location: Cleveland - The Chase on Euclid Avenue" (7 mins.). The sum of these is better than the individual parts--I question the priorities of any making-of that devotes more time to how they filled up a water tank than to the editing process. Too, the 'love triangle' segment merely shows that the cast has expended all kinds of energy on subtext barely in evidence on screen, thus throwing the essential flimsiness of Spider-Man 3's romantic intrigue into sharp relief. (The goal of any self-respecting DVD supplement should be to fortify the film, not open it up to further criticism.) Fellow A/V nerds will want to head straight for "The Science of Sound", a piece optimized for 5.1 playback that segues from composer Christopher Young discussing his score to interviews with the film's sound designers and engineers, who may as well prepare their Oscar speeches. Rounding out the package is a heaping helping of Spider-Man 3 ephemera, including four trailers (uniformly stunning in HD) and eight "TV Spots from Around the World" (i.e., Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy, Chile, Russia, Brazil, and the UK), none of which are in HD. Worse, none of them are dubbed, so they're not even good for xenophobic kicks. Oh well. Originally published: October 29, 2007.