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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Excessively Long Analysis of Spider-Man 3 (Part 2 of 4)

So where do the problems with Spider-Man 3 start? Let's begin.

The most outrageous error is near the beginning of the movie. We find that out Flint Marko, the man who will become Sandman, was really the man who killed Uncle Ben. This retcon doesn't work for one major reason: Ben's murder was pivotal to Spider-Man's development. It is, in essence, why Peter Parker is Peter Parker. Changing that little fact not only turns the plot of Spider-Man 3 on a dime but actually negates the pathos of the previous two movies.


Let's revisit the first movie for a moment. Peter Parker lets a criminal run past him because he feels slighted by the victim. Shortly thereafter, that same criminal kills his surrogate father. Because of that, Peter realizes that he has not only the power but the responsibility to protect others.

In the second movie, Peter explains to Aunt May (who was perfectly cast, by the way) what happened the night of Ben's murder in Spider-Man 2's most powerful and best-directed scene. It's the emotional crux of the whole movie, with everything building to that point.

Let's also not forget about Peter's imagined conversation with Ben in the car, where Ben reiterates, "With great power comes great responsibility." That's the theme of both movies, and it couldn't have happened without Peter's selfishness leading directly to his uncle's death.

You may argue, "But the criminal still got away and caused Uncle Ben's death indirectly either way! What does it matter how it happened?"

That may be true to some degree, but there's a great difference in between "This man killed my uncle after I let him go selfishly, holy crap I made a mistake" to "This man accidentally bumped the arm of the man who accidentally killed my uncle because he wanted to take care of his sick daughter." They're worlds apart, as a matter of fact. It takes the defining moment in Spider-Man's development and completely ruins it.

How badly did they ruin this moment? This badly: The first two movies, which were pitch-perfect, are being thrown out and rebooted for The Amazing Spider-Man, which already looks like a trainwreck on wheels. You could say that it's because Sam Raimi left the series, but that's not really fair. Plenty of series have changed directors and kept going. Spider-Man can't. When you ruin the character that much, how can you keep going?

This is where Raimi really shot himself in the foot from the very beginning. Yes, Sandman looked really cool. The scene of him congealing in the sandpit was pretty neat. His special effects looked awesome. But did Sandman work? Even if you eliminated Venom and gave the whole movie to Sandman, he still wouldn't work. Sometimes, what you personally like and the right decision aren't the same thing.

That's to say nothing of the other characters in the film. Harry Osborn is ruined too. Lest we forget, he gets amnesia at the very beginning of the film. The whole "Peter Vs. Harry" plot line we were expecting evaporated in a pile of lazy writers cliches. I mean, seriously, amnesia? If we're going whole-hog with lazy writer cliches, why don't we just put Harry in a snowed-in cabin while we're at it?

That's not the only problem, though. His character arc goes way off the rails in the third film after it was building logically throughout the first two. Let's follow his character arc throughout the first two movies:

Spider-Man 1: Harry competes with Peter Parker, and has everything that Peter wishes he had. Meanwhile, Harry doesn't receive the love and respect that he craves from his father and envies Peter for the family he has. Harry is in love with Mary Jane, and is distressed when Peter ends up with her. Harry thinks Spider-Man killed his father and vows revenge on Spider-Man.

Here's what we're setting up: Harry is constantly in competition with Peter, and once he realizes that Peter is Spider-Man, fecal matter is going to hit the rotating bladed device.

Spider-Man 2: Harry takes over Oscorp and is mad at Peter for "defending" Spider-Man. He makes a deal with Doc Ock so Harry can unmask and kill Spider-Man and finds that Peter is Spider-Man. While contemplating this, he starts hallucinating and finds that his father was really the Green Goblin.

Harry now has the tools to defeat Spider-Man and knows who he is, yet he also knows that his father wasn't a good guy. He still thinks Peter killed his father, true, but now he finds that he had a reason of sorts.

All of these character arcs are logical to some degree. It's logical to assume that Harry would be mad at the person who killed his father, and it's logical to assume that if his father had mental health issues (as it appeared he did), he would have similar issues and start hallucinating.

And now, let's take a wild trip off the rails:

Spider-Man 3: We start off with Harry trying to kill Spider-Man. Harry gets amnesia and starts falling for Mary Jane. His amnesia goes away, and he tries to destroy Peter by forcing Mary Jane to break up with Peter. Peter attacks Harry, disfiguring him. Then Harry, who by this point should be extra mad that Peter disfigured him, forgives Peter after the butler insists that Norman was killed with his own glider. Harry decides to help Spider-Man without reservations and accidentally gets killed.

Where do we begin? We've already touched on the ridiculousness of amnesia, but let's reiterate: Amnesia is a lazy crutch for writers who don't know what to do with a character. It appears that they thought Harry's character arc throughout Spider-Man 3 was going to move too fast and they wanted to slow it down some. That would seem to tell me that the problem is that Harry's arc was moving too fast, wouldn't it? Maybe the whole character arc in Spider-Man 3 was illogical and that's why it needed to be slowed down. I mean, in the end, the amnesia doesn't affect anything. It doesn't factor in to the second half of the movie, so it just appears that it was there as a stopgap.

In fact, the more you examine it, the more it sounds like a screenplay's first draft. The first screenplay I ever wrote had amnesia in it in the first two drafts before I realized that it was stupid. Maybe they just didn't get to the part of the rewrite process where they were able to excise that crutch safely.

Next, Spider-Man is getting a lot of notoriety, and Harry is the head of a major corporation. It certainly wouldn't be difficult to approach a newspaper and say, "Hey, I know who Spider-Man is. I've known the guy since he was a kid." Ta-da! You've just ruined Spider-Man!

Sure, Harry may have wanted to kill Spider-Man instead of just ruining him. However, if Harry wanted to kill Spider-Man, why did he force Peter and Mary Jane to break up? Does that make any sense to anyone? Sure, it hurt Peter, but Harry didn't really have an endgame for that. It seems that his focus shifted from killing Spider-Man to ruining Peter Parker anyway.

Next up, Peter disfigures Harry and the butler tells Harry, "Hey, chill, the guy didn't really kill your father." The proper reaction should have been, "Why didn't you tell me that much sooner?" Instead, Harry immediately starts being super-nice to Peter.

The dude just blew off half your face, Harry. You're telling me that you're going to be buddy-buddy with him all of a sudden? It doesn't matter whether or not he killed your father at this point.

Besides, wouldn't it be apparent from the very beginning that Spider-Man didn't kill Norman Osborn with his bare hands? Spider-Man never used knives or weapons, and it had to have been obvious to everyone that Norman had been stabbed in the chest. If the only evidence that the butler was going on was, "Norman was killed by his own glider," that still doesn't prove anything. Obviously he was stabbed. Spider-Man still could have caused Norman to be stabbed by his own glider, and in fact, he did.

In other words, Harry's reaction is overly simplistic. He veers from balls-out hatred to sneering manipulation to over-compensatingly nice. There's no grey area anywhere in his reactions, and in the first two movies he at least has some modulation.

You could also argue that his extreme mood swings were caused by the serum that his father gave him, but when was Norman Osborn ever especially nice because of the serum? It only ever made him angry, even staring down Aunt May over Thanksgiving dinner. It never made him especially happy.

"You're overanalyzing things," may be your reaction. However, I don't think I am. The previous movies stand up to this type of character study. When you start having to go down the rabbit hole in order to explain a character's motivations and reasoning in order to explain why they did what they did, that's the sign of poor characterization.

While there may be some plot holes based on lousy movie physics in the first two movies, the characters and their reactions are pretty consistent. When characters behave the way they should, you can get away with a lot more in the way of action-movie plot holes. When characters start doing wacky things that make no sense, you simply can't forgive the other missteps in a movie.

Circling back to the beginning of this analysis, that's why the musical sequence in Spider-Man 3 bothers us so much. It's not that it was lame. No one complained that Spider-Man 2 stopped while "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" played. In a worse movie, that could have been the Jar-Jar Moment. However, since Spider-Man 2 was good everywhere else, we had no problem sitting for a bit for some character development married to some 70's pop.

Since the character development in Spider-Man 3 was so very, very awful, we had no desire to sit through a dance sequence and a musical number. Instead of focusing on the nebulous things that didn't sit well with us throughout the movie, we instead focus on the one thing that above all others bothered us, or the Jar-Jar Moment.

Click here for Part 3!