Thus far, I’ve really enjoyed the Spider-Man movies. Tobey Maguire has been great as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I objected to Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson at first because, well, the comics portray her as a knockout redhead. She even has a career as a model and actress. Dunst redeemed the role as the girl-next-door object of Parker’s dreams, despite problems with her ever-changing hair dye. [Spider-Man 2 was more natural.] And J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson deserves an Oscar! Inspired, and funny!
What has made the Spider-Man franchise so captivating, thus far, has been its balance between comic-style, over-the-top Marvel action and the attention and time the movies have given to character development. Peter Parker is and always has been the Everyman’s superhero. He didn’t come from another planet. He lives on planet Earth. He doesn’t live in some fictional Gotham City or Metropolis. He works, lives and struggles in real-world New York City. He can’t hide away in some Fortress of Solitude when things get tough. He has to face his problems and the consequences of his choices. He begins his story as the geek by which all other geeks are measured, an underdog’s underdog. The radioactive spider bite changes his potential and his destiny, but he’s still flesh-and-blood Peter Parker, who struggles to make ends meet, has homework and has to juggle his alter ego relationships with the added complexity of secretly being a superhero. The series creators’ willingness to flesh out the characters of Spider-Man’s world has made it one of the most appealing superhero series to date.
Of course, a hero is only as good as his villains. Willem Dafoe was dead-on as Norman Osbourne aka the Green Goblin. And Alfred Molina actually surprised me with his rendition of Dr. Otto Octavius [Doc Ock]. These two villains are, of course, Spider-Man’s most well-known villains, but Spider-Man has tussled with a lot of colorful criminals over time so there were and are a lot to choose from. Of course, Spider-Man 2 ended with a cliffhanger that let fans know that a New Goblin [James Franco as Harry Osbourne] was about to erupt onto the screen. A lot of folks were looking to see Kurt Connors make the transformation to the Lizard in this one but we’re still being strung along, for now. Old school villains like the Vulture, Kingpin, the Scorpion, Kraven the Hunter, Black Cat, Rhino, Shocker, Elektro and fishbowl-headed Mysterio have all taken a back seat to low-level thug, Sandman, and relative newcomer, Venom in this installment.
I don’t like Venom. I probably never have. It’s not just that he’s too scary for my young child. He’s just far too different from Spidey’s other foes. He doesn’t fit. First of all, he’s an alien symbiote. In the comic, Spider-Man actually went into outer space on some ill-conceived Marvel adventure and brought the suit back to Earth. Spidey [and his rogue's gallery] belongs squarely on Terra Firma. Venom and Carnage, in my opinion, are both intruders in the world of this superhero. As for this movie, Venom was almost like a cheap afterthought. He’s only in the last 20 minutes of the film. Besides which, Topher Grace portrays hard-nosed Eddie Brock like a snot-nosed weasel, so his transformation into monstrously tough Venom seems like a stretch. Sorry, bad casting.
Sandman was a much better villain. Thomas Haden Church plays a convincing Flint Marko/Sandman. Marko has always been a powerful, but low-level thug for more sinister and brilliant supervillains like Doc Ock and the Green Goblin. Church portrays him in a light that is partly sympathetic and partly grunt menace. His powers are awesome, even if he lacks the finesse of some other villains. Some of the scenes involving Sandman, most notably his disintegration in the molecular test site and his demise in the subway may be disturbing to small kids, but his effects are mostly the gee-wow variety.
My favorite villain in this one is the long-awaited New Goblin. I was disappointed that the producers didn’t stick with naming this Goblin after one of the comic’s traditional successors, like Hobgoblin or Demigoblin, but despite the generic name, he was awesome. His action scenes are some of the most intense in the film.
The film, like those before it, is about choices. This one deals with the choice to forgive or get revenge. Each character makes their choice (though Flint Marko claims that he’s only had bad luck; choosing a life of crime, whatever the motive, usually leads to bad luck of some sort!). The overall message is good. The players were mostly good [sorry, didn't like Topher]. The character development was a little rushed, but still better than, say, any of the X-Men films. They tried to cram in too many individual villains. [That said, I'm still hoping they pit Spidey against the Sinister Six. A team of villains isn't the same thing as dealing with several individual foes and trying to introduce them all at the same time.] This movie could have done without Venom. To be fair, they probably should have given him a hook for the next film, but not included him in this one. Sandman’s relationship with his ailing daughter Penny could’ve been fleshed out, too.
All in all, it is a really good movie. I saw it twice. But it could have been better. I worry that Spider-Man will go the way of the original Batman series or the X-Men by trying to take on too much at once in a bizarre effort to cram in as many foes as possible before the franchise goes bust! As for me, I’ll be a fan so long as they remember that the story and character development are what make the special effects worth watching.