REVIEWS by SULLYDOG
A Film by Sam Raimi
Click here to listen to the audio version of this review.
I recently became involved in an imbroglio at the online forum of The New Republic over the question of whether Seung-Hui Cho, the man responsible for the recent Virginia tech massacre, should be thought of as mentally ill or merely evil. What got my ire up was that the argument for evil was being put forward by a person who calls himself a psychiatrist. I've had a little training in psychiatry, and I frequently come into contact with the mentally ill on my day job, but after fifteen years of practice I don't recall ever making a diagnosis of "evil." Of course, calling Cho evil is a great way for pyschiatrists--and all the rest of us--to wash our hands of him. No need to think about why he did what he did, or how we as parents and administrators and policymakers and healthcare providers and citizens can help prevent such things from happening again. The guy was just evil. We must fight evil. End of story.
Most of the time, I think calling something evil is just a comforting cop-out that insulates us from taking a hard look at our world and ourselves. We see this ploy used a lot now, in our politics, our cultural dialectic--and our entertainment. And this evil is often portrayed as something external, outside--and inhuman. Of course, this approach is nicely suited to CGI-laden sf entertainments--like Spiderman 3.
You we're probably wondering when I was going to get to the point.
In Spiderman 3, evil arrives in a meteorite. It's a cool, spidery, jet black substance that crawls around looking for somebody to turn into an archvillain. In some ways, I thought it was the most entertaining character in the whole film. Unfortunately, the first person it finds is Peter Parker, who does seem to attract weird phenomena. Once it attaches to Spiderman, it forms a skin of evil, and brings out the worst in the web-slinger--anger, impulses to vengeance, arrogance, and ill-considered attempts to look hip. Let's face it--Toby Maguire will never look hip.
So you see, Spidey's moral crisis isn't really his fault. He's been infected by the skin of evil. And that sucks, because there's so much bad stuff going on in this movie that Gotham needs the web-slinger to be in tip-top shape, morally speaking. Spiderman 3 is cluttered with plot lines, too many for one movie, so that we end up being unable to really invest in any of them. The guy who really murderd Peter's uncle has escaped from prison and has been transformed by some weird particle beam into a morphing sand creature bent on stealing vast wads of cash so he can save his dying daughter. Peter's friend Harry, as the New Goblin, is surfing the skies, still looking for vengeance for his father. An unscrupulous reporter from Peter's own paper is trying to set up Spiderman as a villain. And Peter's main squeeze MJ, as it turns out, can't sing so well, and has lost her Broadway gig. She really needs Spiderman to feel her pain right now.
But you can't fight crime, defend your rep or be empathetic when you're infected by evil. For what it's worth, I can see what the filmakers were trying to do here, and I think their hearts were in the right place--sorta. Take a Superhero, and let him try to battle evil while also fighting against the worst in himself. But the symbolic setup of the movie cripples itself, because Spiderman isn't really struggling with his own flaws. In the end, all that he has to do to win out over pettiness and rage is strip off the evil like a sticky neoprene suit, gong it to death, and then babble something about how we always have a choice, thereby negating the symbolic logic of the entire movie. There's collateral damage and loss of life before it's all over, but upon the resolution, the thoughtful viewer will confront the realization that the person who pays the smallest price for Peter Parker's possession by evil is&ldots;Peter Parker.
As a metaphor for the struggle with human weakness and victory over oneself, that just doesn't cut it for me.
There's some terrific eye-candy in Spiderman 3. I was particularly taken with Marko's rebirth as the Sandman, although his climactic battle with Spiderman had uncomfortable resonances with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the end of Ghostbusters. And some of the action is just crazy-kinetic and eye-popping, if not particularly thrilling. No, Spiderman 3 is not not a boring movie, and not really a bad one. But it isn't a good one, either. In fact, it's a mess, and a pretentious mess at that. It wants to be an epic, and I have no idea why. It wants to be entertaining, and it is, but just barely, because it's working so hard to be an epic that it packs in too much plot, because it turns on too many indegistible coincidences, and because it leans too heavily on special effects to keep our attention. And it also wants to be profound, but fails, because, like so many of us, the filmakers have retreated from examining the true source of human evil. Human evil doesn't come from outer space, or drugs, or alternative lifestyles, or even from Iran. Human evil comes from humans. Show me somebody who can deal with that -- in movies or in real life-- and I'll show you a superhero.
Spiderman meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Sullydog Does Not Approve.