Monday, April 30, 2007

Spider-Man 3: Stuck in 1962, Nostalgic For An Age Yet To Come


Tobey Maguire is 31 years old. At the time of the first Spider-Man picture – in which the ejaculation of jets of web from his wrists was explained as a by-product of pubescence – he was 26. Fortunately, Maguire is a boyish-man, which makes it half-plausible that he is haunted by the problems of someone ten years younger than himself. In this third outing as Peter Parker, the dweeb-with-spiderpowers’ arrested development takes him to the point where he begins to flirt with girls who aren’t his girlfriend.
As an actor, Maguire gets away with this because he is blessed with a face so open that it almost demands sand be kicked into it. But he is aided also by the peculiar timekeeping of the Spider-Man universe, in which the mores of 1962 apply, though the setting is contemporary. There is something reassuring about this contradiction: Spidey-world is futuristic, in an old-fashioned way. It is in love with skyscrapers, and fearful of science, though the Cold War dread of nuclear technology has given way to unease about particle physics.
At this stage in a film’s franchise, familiarity is everything. The last time we heard from Parker, he was living in the shadow of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), his celebrity girlfriend. This time, the couple’s fortunes have reversed, and Parker’s head is being turned by the growing fame of his alter ego, Spider-Man, while Mary Jane is bombing on Broadway. Happily, he is still a failure at work, unable to wrest a staff job at the Daily Bugle from the irascible editor J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons), a human inferno whose rages have been doused by strong medication and anger management, but whose instincts are, nevertheless, a plausible caricature of the editorial values of a popular newspaper. A second freelance photographer, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), has begun to undermine Parker’s position at the Bugle, so Jamieson sets them both a challenge. He wants a picture of Spidey with his hand in the cookie jar.
Sam Raimi’s stewardship of Spider-Man has shown him to be a director whose fondness for the logic of the comic book is matched by an awareness of the absurdities of the superhero genre. After a bruising encounter with Sandman – a granulated adversary who can change shape at the touch of a fist, and whose only weakness is a tendency to dissolve in water - Spider-Man tips the grit from his boots and hair and asks ruefully: “Where do all these guys come from?”
Conveniently, they all come from the dark corners of Parker’s Life. Sandman, aka Flint Marko (an unrecognisably brawny Thomas Haden Church; the randy goat in Sideways) is the man who murdered his Uncle Ben. It is Marko’s great misfortune to escape from prison and, while fleeing the police, to fall into a particle accelerator at a nuclear physics facility. Parker also faces a challenge from his old friend, Harry (James Franco) who believes that Spider-Man killed his father, the Green Goblin, though in reality, he died as a result of Willem Dafoe’s overacting. In what can only be described as a very bad week, Spider-Man also becomes infected by a creepy black goo which emerges from a meteor and attaches itself to his moped, before transforming his personality. Before long, Spider-Man has ditched his traditional red livery for clingy black latex. Parker, meanwhile, is combing his hair like an emo and attracting admiring glances from passing supermodels, having traded his humility for the kind of self-love that makes a man stop in the street to dance the funky chicken. This is funny to observe, but the moral universe of Marvel Comics is oddly old-fashioned, and there is never any doubt that Parker’s experiment with male sexual display is destined to end badly. Yet this black goo is strong stuff, and it duly infects Parker’s rival, Eddie, who gets to utter the line which sums up the temptations of the dark side: “I like being bad. It makes me happy.”
The trick in any cinematic adaptation of a comic is to render the special effects in a way that matches the visual drama of the reader’s imagination. While the fights have their moments, the most remarkable effects involve the dissolves of the Sandman, and – just at the moment that Dunst most resembles Fay Wray – his re-emergence as a kind of evil King Kong. It’s right, of course, that Spider-Man should make hay with the iconic imagery of New York. What’s more surprising is the way the way Raimi chooses to make direct visual references to 9/11. The rain of stationery when a runaway crane knocks out the side of a skyscraper, and the sandstorm which billows along the avenues, are jarring reminders of the world which viewers of Spider-Man are so keen to escape.