As I was trying to break down why "Spider-Man 3" left me so unsatisfied, I suddenly had a sense of deja vu. So I looked back, and discovered that I'd said all this stuff before. When I saw "X-Men 3".
It's rather discouraging to see that the same idiot mistakes were made all over again. To wit:
1. Under the mistaken assumption that "more is better", the film's primary characteristic is going over the top with pretty much everything - too many subplots, too many villains, too many battle sequences placed too closely together, too many faux-dramatic or melodramatic moments stacked so that there's no opportunity to really process what's going on - and the end result is uncomfortably reminiscient of the way Anna Nicole Smith used to try and squeeze herself into those tiny dresses, with all the wrong body parts spilling out at inopportune times.
1a. With multiple villains running around, the spotlight goes to the one who's least deserving of it. Don't get me wrong, I love Ian McKellen, I really do, but we'd already seen Magneto dominate two previous X-Men films. The Dark Phoenix completely overshadows him in "The Last Stand", but she's kept in the background for most of the film. Likewise, "Spider-Man 3" is divided between Harry Osborn's transformation into a Days of Our Lives character and Thomas Haden Church's moping Sandman, a glorified CGI effect. The bad guy who should have been given the floor is Topher Grace's Venom; the casting was perfect, not just because Grace puts a dark twist on his usual comedic tone but because he's so physically similar to Tobey Maguire (bright blue eyes, pale, soft-spoken, very much rocking the geek chic) that the theme of mirror images becomes that much stronger. If properly paced, Peter's conflict with himself and subsequently with Eddie would have been enough for the whole film, just as the X-Men's struggle against one of their own would have done the job nicely without pointless distractions (the Cure, the Brotherhood, the insipid Rogue/Bobby/Kitty triangle).
2. Because more thought is put into the spectacle than the story, you'll usually get massive quantities of contrivance to roll the movie along. With "Spider-Man 3", Alfred comes out of the Batcave to tell Harry "the truth" about Norman (you know, Alfie, you just might have gotten a raise out of the boss if you'd mentioned that before he got half his face blown off!). With "X-Men 3"... wow, take your pick, but I'll go with Wolverine being the only one who can survive the Phoenix's power despite the fact that, as a telekinetic, there's really no reason why she doesn't just pick him up and throw him into the ocean.
3. Any genuinely emotional moments are undermined by the fact that we, as the audience, are not allowed to dwell on them. Ten minutes after Xavier's death and nobody's feeling the loss (Cyclops who?). Peter comes to the realization that he murdered a man for absolutely no reason and oh look he's been possessed by John Travolta's Body-Thetan and it's making him relive Saturday Night Fever!
4. These films are at least partly perceived as conclusions to their respective trilogies, but they both end on rather sour notes. "Spider-Man 3" has this whole poignant moment where Peter and MJ try to rebuild their relationship, which might have worked if the script gave us any reason to care about the relationship beyond the "our wuv is like a wuving wiver of wuv!" bits. "The Last Stand" has Halle Berry taking over the X-Men (and boy, if that isn't metatext...), with a lot of interesting characters left dead, marginalized or just plain ignored.
I've also lost interest in Maguire's depiction of Peter Parker; bearing in mind I haven't seen the first movie in quite some time, I don't remember Maguire being so... well... femme. He spent a lot of time in this film alternating between falsetto whispering and shrieking like Rosie O'Donnell when the latter is denied her fifty-sixth twinkie. Now, I'd probably be quite tickled if this were a conscious choice, because that'd certainly put a unique twist on the whole Eddie/Gwen/Peter/MJ/Harry situation (not to mention, I think it'd be quite good to have a hero and a paragon who isn't and doesn't have to be the Alpha Stud of Ultimate Manliness), but I kind of doubt Sam Raimi told Maguire to channel his inner Gothic Bimbo. I mean, hell, they actually did a shower scene - if he'd buckled down crying under the water stream, it would've provoked laughter instead of "Huh?"
All in all, it's a film that suffers from a colossal lack of subtlety: musical cues for various characters are insanely overwrought just so you know who's good and who's bad, the dialogue is corny and cliched beyond belief, characterization exists more in terms of what could be than what is... it's just terrible, the result of carelessness more than any real inadequacy. I mean, we can always blame "The Last Stand" on Ratner's idiocy; what possible defense could Sam Raimi have?
Tuesday, July 24, 2007