Dunkirk

1940. The Nazi occupation of France has forced the Allies into a full-scale retreat, and now 400,000 British troops find themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, trapped between the advancing enemy and the English Channel. With the Royal Navy and those stranded under equally relentless attack by the Luftwaffe, it falls to everyday sailors and fishermen to mount a desperate rescue mission, with their only defence being a small squadron of RAF Spitfires.

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They’re calling this Nolan’s masterpiece. They say this is the film he’s been working towards all this time, the feature at the end of a road that’s wound its way from LA to Gotham, from dream worlds to wormholes. To be sure, there is this certain aura of ‘sum total’ to Dunkirk, a sense of Nolan having cherry-picked the tried-and-tested gems of his filmography to date and conflating them into this 1hr, 45min experience that is the visual definition of relentlessness. Masterpiece is an unreliable word to throw about without the benefit of hindsight, but masterful? That’s a word that sticks in an instant. Dunkirk is the epitome of every lesson Nolan has learned about himself as a director, from his almost-signature playfulness with time and linearity to Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score, to the bounteous potential and dividends of shooting in IMAX, to even his casting choices. The result: Dunkirk is nothing less than a window through time, transporting the audience to the unbridled, palpable terror and unimaginable tenacity endured by those who lived – and died – during those pivotal days of the war.

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Gone is practically any contrivance of narrative to thread the film from start to finish. There’s no ‘story’ to be recounted here with romanticism or superfluous and fabricated drama. The evacuation of Dunkirk simply is one of those moments where world history itself outdoes the imagination of romantics and the dramatists. Dunkirk is purely an experience. What characters the film does follow, flipping deftly between British airmen embroiled in dogfights, privates and officers on the beaches, and the journey of but one civilian vessel across the Channel’s hazardous stretches, we learn little-to-nothing about. There’s no time for backstories, motivations or character arcs, only actions, a fact constantly reminded of by Zimmer’s unyielding, paralysing, shrieking soundtrack. Every decision at Dunkirk is life-or-death, and Nolan hits home these stakes over and over. Even his toying with time, well-practiced with films like Memento and Inception, feels executed with an added flourish and seamlessness that simultaneously foreshadows as it delivers jolts to the heart with every bullet fired. Even without a drop of blood spilt anywhere in the film (ironically making this perhaps one of the cleanest war films ever made), Dunkirk gets the heart pumping the stuff through the veins like Spitfire fuel.

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Veteran actors and fresh recruits to the silver screen alike serve as energy conductors to the vivid and visceral sensations with which the film imbues the audience. Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot Farrier (yet another role spent largely muzzled by a face-mask) may provide the film’s most single-handed feat of heroism, Dunkirk shrewdly keeps the focus on the real champions of the moment; everyday Brits with a boat to spare. Mark Rylance delivers a likewise modest show as one example of such folk, allowing the spotlight to fall much more on the talents of his younger co-stars, although Cillian Murphy’s ‘Shivering Soldier’ almost threatens to absorb all the screen presence in his scenes anyway. Ultimately, though, it’s the fresh faces that best channel the film’s electrifying atmosphere, and the tremendous talents of both Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles (both making their big screen debut, the latter his first time acting altogether) are clear to see.

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With minimal dialogue shifting everything onto physicality, emotionality and pure spectacle, Dunkirk is a deeply sincere, powerful yet meticulously orchestrated tribute to the psychological purgatory of war. A David and Goliath moment in history, here bereft of poetry in its retelling for the sake of an honest commitment to the truth of the memories and feelings which the moment engendered.

Quality: 5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 5/5

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War for the Planet of the Apes

What began with the rise of a new breed of hyper-intelligent primates, and the dawn of an ape society, now concludes in open war with humanity for both dominion over the Earth, and survival itself. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who started it all, now leads the defence of his people against mankind’s military might, until the chance comes for a fresh start for all apes in a faraway haven. But as his people embark on their exodus, Caesar himself starts down a darker, vengeful path in search of the ruthless leader of the human forces, and the man whose atrocities have pushed him to breaking point: The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

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What could have been a standard reboot of a classic property with Rise was instead an electrifying and heartfelt coming-of-age drama mixed into a budding revolution story. When Dawn could have easily gone in the direction of just being Rambo with fur, what we got was practically the stuff of a Simian Shakespeare. War takes everything that has made this franchise so exceptional, everything that has held it to a standard far higher than the usual summertime cinema fare, and delivers a truly special big-screen experience. It may not quite seize the crown from its immediate predecessor (increasingly considered to be The Empire Strikes Back of modernity), but that doesn’t remotely displace the fact that War is an astonishing powerhouse of tension, emotion, turmoil and profundity.

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To even reflect on the sheer range of genres War manages to fit into its run-time, and that it pulls such a blend off with such effortless fluidity, is somewhat stupefying. A western with blood in the vein of Unforgiven and True Grit. A prisoner-of-war drama a la The Bridge on the River Kwai, not to mention the more overt echoes of Apocalypse Now which Harrelson’s Colonel brings to the proceedings. And though somewhat on-the-nose it might be, the film even manages to work into its fabric a few distinct fibres of the Biblical epic. All this, in addition to its first and foremost function as a work of science-fiction. True science-fiction. Science-fiction that explores themes, questions, ideas and issues where other genres cannot venture, and War resolutely confronts many such questions over the course of its story.

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Andy Serkis has pioneered the potential of motion capture performance technology for over fifteen years now, but his craft has never yielded a creation more perfectly rendered, and relentlessly breath-taking to behold than the now-jaded, wearied Caesar we meet at War’s opening. The petitions continue to do the rounds to grant him consideration and recognition by the Oscars for his work, as they have done for years now. This time, however, might be his greatest chance. This time, Serkis’ performance is the ultimate movie magic. Forget seeking the line between where Serkis ends and Caesar begins. There simply isn’t one. It’s as if the man himself has physically shape-shifted into primate form. Caesar is become a living, breathing being, and the film around him is all the more transcendent because of it.

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Indeed, ape and human characters alike are elevated by Serkis’ accomplishment, though both sides nevertheless yield performances worthy in their own right: Karin Konoval as Caesar’s orangutan confidante Maurice. Steve Zahn’s welcome light relief as ‘Bad Ape’, even if the film’s humour can be at times hit-or-miss. Harrelson’s Colonel, who could have easily gone down as simply a knowing wink to Marlon Brando’s iconic Kurtz, is to all extents and purposes the anti-Caesar, a worshipped leader of his species bent on self-preservation, and fuelled by a mania just as much the product of personal loss as survival instinct. War could not have given Caesar a worthier enemy.

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T.S. Eliot said it best. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”. Oftentimes, it’s the quietest of moments that can pack the most rage, and the fiercest of conflicts play out in utter silence. Few films can be said to show an understanding of this quite so effectively as this threequel, this apparent conclusion to a trilogy that has surpassed any and all expectations from the beginning. If indeed War is to be the end of the line for this franchise, then it finishes with a firm grip on the bar it has raised so unexpectedly high above its contemporaries. War for the Planet of the Apes is, and always had to be, the story of a struggle between souls and the battle for hearts and minds, not the bullets and brawn of man versus ape action. Fifty, sixty, a hundred years from now, we can only hope that audiences will look back at these films as the timeless classics they deserve to become.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 4.5/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

“What’s it like to be the most famous person in school and have no one realize it’s you?” Nothing sums up Spider-Man better than the immortal mantra of “with great power, comes great responsibility”, but has anything ever captured so succinctly and completely the essence of being Peter Parker like this very question? This, combined with the fact that the person asking is Peter’s best friend Ned (the only non-Avenger-affiliated individual to know the boy behind the mask) should spell out one clear and simple message: Spider-Man: Homecoming is the webslinger’s truest big-screen treatment to date, a welcome party/ backyard adventure groomed and refined by all the lessons that Marvel Studios has learned over the past nine years. Not bad for a kid from Queens who’s now on his second rebooted franchise.

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Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw Spider-Man drafted in by Iron Man to capture half of the Avengers, high school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland) restlessly waits for another call up to the big leagues. Every hour not spent in class (or with his decathlon team) he devotes to suiting up and fighting crime in Queens, New York, desperate to prove himself in the eyes of Tony Stark himself (Robert Downey Jr.). But as his activities put him on a collision course with Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his vicious gang of alien tech traffickers, Peter realizes the hard way how much it takes to be a superhero, and how out of his depth he’s been all along.

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Far from the soaring city heights of Maguire’s era, and Garfield’s grungy, shadowy city-university stomping ground, Holland’s jurisdiction brings it all back to his Spider-Man’s ‘friendly, neighbourhood’ reputation. This is a Spidey who gives directions to old ladies, chases bicycle thieves, and keeps all his costumed activities to after-school hours. It’s bright, colourful, warm, instantly endearing local-brew, and all a constant reminder that the most important thing about Spider-Man has always been that he’s a kid. It’s by just allowing Peter Parker to be a kid that Homecoming can be considered a triumph of an adaptation.

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Holland proved an exquisite Spider-Man in just fifteen minutes of screen time last year. Now, with more than two hours front and centre of the proceedings, he outdoes himself as Peter. Capturing the dilemmas that split Peter’s life in two has always been a must-have motif, but what makes Holland and Homecoming both stand out is the variety of these dilemmas. It’s not all life-or-death situations! Sometimes, it’s as small as Peter having to choose between helping his best friend look cool at a party and chasing down some baddies. The size of the options isn’t what matters. It’s the size of the decisions, and Holland imbues each one with its due weight. His job is certainly made easier however by the standout talents of his supporting high school castmates, Jacob Batalon (Ned), Laura Harrier (love interest Liz), Tony Revolori (a welcome update to Flash Thompson, Peter’s classic tormentor) and Zendaya (a somewhat overly-marketed Michelle).

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As for the old guard, as ever it’s impossible to tell where Downey Jr. ends and Stark begins, and so it’s hard to pinpoint the source of the character’s ‘Dad mode’ even as it allows the veteran Avenger to explore a different dynamic. With Michael Keaton, however, Holland could have hardly hoped for a greater first foe, single-handedly breaking both Marvel Studios’ curse of villain one-dimensionality and Sony’s addiction to the ‘lab experiment gone wrong’ cliché. Toomes is just an everyday working man out for his family’s welfare, and circumstances take him to a dark place. He’s not a god, a genocidal robot or corrupt elite. He’s just a crook looking to make a big score, and with that he becomes one of the most legitimately threatening presences yet produced by the MCU.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun, frenetic, faithful start to the wallcrawler’s adventures in a much bigger universe of superheroes. It has its shortcomings: Spider-Man’s suit is oftentimes a little too ‘Go-Go Gadget’, despite a narrative context that somewhat justifies its extremes. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) certainly deserved a more prolonged presence to establish this franchise’s interpretation of her staple in Peter’s world. It would have been nice to indulge in an entire song at the titular Homecoming dance (to make up for the film’s overall unimaginative soundtrack from Michael Giacchino). Most of all, as fun as it all may be, it doesn’t quite pack the emotional punches of previous big screen incarnations, and so falls short of the sense of awe and wonderment that perhaps a more established webslinger could entreat. As it is, the film is a joyride of a neighbourhood adventure nestled comfortably into its own corner of the Marvel franchise. Back to the Future, except with superheroes.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

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PatchMan Revisits: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Well…this is kind of awkward. Technically, I have in fact already reviewed this one during this blog’s much younger days. But this is a re-visitation, so regardless of prior coverage I’m not really breaking the pattern. What makes this awkward though is not the ‘repetition’ of my subject matter. What makes this awkward is at the time I first reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man 2…I kind of gave it four stars. Out of five. For…reasons? I must’ve had some! Can’t think what they were now, but I must have had some! So, in some ways, rounding off this ‘Road to Homecoming’ series comes with something of a sense of dutiful atonement. Don’t get me wrong, I never feel remotely obligated to toe the line of opinion consensus about any given film (to which my La La Land review should attest). I stand by the fact that I enjoyed this film at the time, and still do (albeit in a different fashion). This is just me, looking in a three-year-old mirror and thinking…”what on earth were you talking about?”

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Spider-Man’s days as a wanted vigilante are done, as New York warmly embraces its crime-fighting champion. As Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), although now graduating from high school, life is more consistent. Deeply conflicted between his love for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and the promise he made to keep himself out of her life for her own safety, Peter faces an uncertain future. But as the return of his childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) precipitates the emergence of new threats, including the maniacal and godlike ‘Electro’ (Jamie Foxx), Peter comes to realize a deeper web that binds both his enemies and his own past: Oscorp.

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It’s impressive really that even though this franchise was rebooted a mere five years after the Sam Raimi trilogy, it not only ends up making most of the exact same mistakes, but somehow makes them to an even greater extent, and in addition to a whole heap of missteps of its own. Packed to the gunnels with bad guys, disjointed storytelling, playing fast-and-loose with plotlines, outright laughable creative decisions and ultimately torpedoing an entire studio-planned franchise in one fell swoop. Oh. And so. Much. Product placement. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, effectively, a two-hour commercial. Whether its flaunting Sony products and properties like its QVC, or drawing a map to establish budding sequels, spinoffs and crossovers in the franchise’s pipeline, the film is perhaps the earliest modern example of a studio getting entirely too ahead of itself and sacrificing the best interests of the film that audiences came to see. Granted, Marvel Studios has recently ventured more into this territory of catering to ‘the bigger picture’ and receives comparatively sparse criticism for it, but that’s been earned through a lot of origin story legwork and sequel-baiting that never really takes the audience for granted. Also, they rarely hit you over the head with it quite as hard as is done here. The result: like Spider-Man 3, there’s enough material to justify at least two separate films crammed into one, and it’s a messy fit.

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This isn’t to say the film is unwatchable. A number of its elements are actually a step up from its predecessor, both in substance and spectacle. Peter and Gwen’s troubled love affair reaps the benefits of its then-actual couple co-stars, by far the most believable of any romantic pairing in superhero cinema. The experience director Marc Webb gained from the first film shows especially in the film’s action, easy to follow but much more visually dynamic, and boasts a couple of standout sequences such as Spidey saving civilians from a blast of Electro’s energy and a Goblin battle climax which comic book purists have good reason to hail. The film even takes the step of providing a genuinely interesting twist concerning how Peter got his powers, the final piece in the Oscorp puzzle. The rest of the conspiracy premise may be half-baked and predictable, and makes for much of the film’s misplaced prioritization of sequel seeding, but it nevertheless offers a nugget of fresh interpretation of the Spider-Man mythos. Lastly, he may be utterly shoehorned in and provides no real contribution to the film whatsoever, but Paul Giamatti is just so wonderfully hammy in his cameo as Russian brute ‘The Rhino’. Like Stanley Tucci, he is never (or at least, very rarely) unenjoyable.

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For its sporadic saving graces, however, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is all in a tangle. Foxx is completely underserved by his material as the film’s zap-happy central antagonist, often laughably so, and despite a gradual slide into madness that outshines anything we got from James Franco, there’s little satisfying payoff to DeHaan’s Harry. The opposite couldn’t be more true of Garfield and Stone in their roles, the former nailing Spidey’s everyman charisma and a (somewhat) more mature Peter whilst the later continues to be a love interest who actually accomplishes things outside of her relationship. Less a cohesive story than a conveyor belt of scenes littered with signs pointing in all different directions towards then-upcoming additions to the then-Spideyverse, it’s small wonder that the film performed considerably below expectations and ironically undid single-handedly all the plans it took the time to lay down. It’s not often that its deemed necessary and appropriate to effectively erase a blockbuster from existence, but with Sony’s subsequent licensing deal with Marvel Studios, this was certainly one of those occasions.

Quality: 2/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 2.5/5

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PatchMan Revisits: The Amazing Spider-Man

2012 was a time of beginnings and endings for major film franchises. The Dark Knight Rises rounded out Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, as Breaking Dawn: Part 2 called time on the Twilight Saga. Peter Jackson returned to Middle-Earth with the first of his Hobbit adaptations, and Katniss Everdeen stepped in to fill the hole left by Harry Potter in the young adult/coming of age market with The Hunger Games. Oh, and The Avengers were unleashed, both a beginning and an ending, and one of the single biggest game-changers in film history. The fact that this reboot of everyone’s favourite webslinger is at all memorable amidst such a line-up is something of a feat in and of itself, and coming barely five years after Sam Raimi’s final turn in the director’s chair. This time around, Marc Webb takes the reins, despite his only previous experience directing a feature film being 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. The heartache that has dominated Peter Parker’s story for decades made Webb a natural fit for the man behind the mask, but for the material of the mask itself he remained entirely untested. Banking on genre newbies may have become a special ingredient in Marvel Studios’ formula, but can every studio play that game?

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As a boy, Peter Parker is left to the care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Fields) by parents who mysteriously disappear. Years later, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is a high-school science prodigy and infatuated with classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Discovering a suitcase of his father’s possessions, Peter investigates Oscorp Industries, but his company visit results in a bite from a genetically-engineered spider which causes the onset of spider-like abilities. With his new power, however, come new responsibilities, a lesson he learns the hard way twice over through personal tragedy, and inadvertently enabling the transformation of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) – a one-time colleague of his father – into the monstrous Lizard.

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In many ways, everything there is to be said about this one stems from the context of its time. Part-grounded, coming of age drama with an angst of entirely its own nature, part cynical ploy for the studio to hold onto the Spider-Man licensing rights, Webb delivers an undeniably fresh and distinctive take on the material despite it having to re-tread much of the story beats from Raimi’s original (but in fairness, when it comes to Spidey, a lot of his origin details are sacred). This is a Spider-Man which, for all its seeding storylines about corporate conspiracies and an ultimately citywide threat-level territory, nevertheless feels generally more small-scale and ground-level than previous films. There’s no cage match fighting and money swindling to precipitate Uncle Ben’s inescapably pivotal demise, just an everyday convenience store robbery. Peter’s high school days aren’t remotely skipped over, but take up the whole film, making for a more fleshed out understanding of his more naïve sensibilities and pre-Spidey life (as well as perhaps the film’s greatest highlight: webhead and his reptilian nemesis brawling through school corridors, science labs and a library, featuring the best Stan Lee cameo there has ever yet been). Webb’s comfort zone is clearly in the everyday human relationships and interactions, and it’s a proclivity he certainly brings to Peter and Gwen’s budding romance with consistent authenticity (although probably helped by their natural chemistry together that went on to see them start a relationship for real).

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When it comes to its real crowd-pleasing ingredients though, The Amazing Spider-Man cannot really be said to grant the same euphoric feeling of the better Raimi films, and that’s not because of the memory of previous films. The overall handling of the Lizard, which had real ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ material to draw upon, plays out more like an awkward reincarnation of Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, right down to what feels like an obligatory instance of ‘bad guy with a split personality talking to himself’, a foil beholden to the needs of the plot rather than being given room to consider the devious possibilities of his own character. Indeed, plot demands take up a lot of room here, to the point where even Spider-Man’s motivations seem to change at the drop of a hat! The film’s brand of angst seems to be based entirely off Garfield’s Peter trying to be as distinguishable as possible from Maguire, which often translates to behaviour and choices that don’t reflect the character at all (petulance, cockiness, and above all an almost cheery renunciation of a promise he made to a dying man). If Maguire had Peter nailed down, but not so much Spidey, then the opposite is true of Garfield. The film feels often hamstrung by a certain indecisiveness, caught between not wanting to copy what’s already been done and lacking due confidence to commit fully to something new, and nothing reflects this better than Uncle Ben’s rhetorically bending over backwards to impart the iconic ‘responsibility’ mantra…without actually saying the iconic responsibility mantra. Webb is an obviously competent director, but a bit more experience at the helm could have pre-empted a great many of these issues.

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The Amazing Spider-Man may have been just a self-serving manoeuvre inspired by studio licensing agreements more than a desire to tell a decent Spidey story, but in the end it produced a decent Spidey story anyway. Garfield excels in the role and makes the best of what he’s given, especially once in costume, and Stone proves herself a star performer in any and every genre she appears, providing an altogether more modern love interest, though Ifans is passable at best (through no fault of his own). It’s when the film capitulates to an appetite from on high for sequel-baiting and franchise-building that its momentum falters. Amiable, appreciable, but not quite amazing.

Quality: 3/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 3.5/5

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PatchMan Revisits: Spider-Man 3

…Ok. So, where to begin with this one? This one comes with some personal baggage. I first saw Raimi’s original Spider-Man at the cinema when I was eleven years old, and although it wasn’t my introduction to superheroes onscreen (that claim goes to Batman: The Animated Series, and yes that counts), it catapulted me instantly into fanboyhood. The music, the web-swinging, the ‘great responsibility’ philosophising, every moment of Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons (to this day I will defend the Green Goblin as being among the greater supervillains of cinema). Sure, it could get a little cartoony, but it was just so much fun and radiated such love for its own mythos. Two years later, Spider-Man 2 took it all to the next level and left us fans with the ultimate webhead cinematic experience (even if at the time, I still preferred Goblin as a villain), and the promise of a thrilling trilogy-closer with Harry Osborn’s inheriting his father’s secret arsenal to aid his Spidey death wish. Three long years later in 2007, Spider-Man 3 finally arrives. And this lover of cinema and superheroes experienced his first great betrayal by the silver screen.

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For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), life has never been better. Spider-Man has become a beloved hero of New York City, and Peter is on the verge of proposing to girlfriend – and woman of his dreams – Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But this calm belies an approaching storm for the web-slinger. Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) has taken up his father’s Goblin mantle. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), a petty criminal with an unexpected connection to Peter’s past, is accidentally transformed into ‘The Sandman’ and unleashes havoc in the city. Spider-Man is seemingly outmatched, until a mysterious symbiote latches onto his costume, turning it black and enhancing his abilities. But as Peter also discovers, the symbiote brings out his darker impulses, and the price for even getting rid of it may prove higher than he could imagine.

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By far the most frustrating thing about Spider-Man 3 to this day is that there is real, distinguishable, tangible potential for this film to have been a triumph, even in the shadow of its immediate predecessor. The film is like a puzzle where you can see the intended picture on the lid, but all the pieces themselves are either misshapen or stuck in completely the wrong places. The ingredients are there: the long-awaited Spidey versus Goblin Jr, a standout origin sequence –  and indeed a solid arc – for Sandman, and perhaps above all the big-screen interpretation of the iconic ‘black suit’ storyline and fan-favourite supervillain Venom. Any one of these would have made for a Spidey threequel certainly on-par with the first film, each offering a unique and fresh dynamic to the series. Instead, we got all of them at once, and the result was an unsurprisingly tangled web of inconsistent tone, stop-start momentum, baffling creative decisions and an overwhelmingly lacklustre aftertaste.

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After two films of establishing Peter’s innate insecurities, humility and general weight-of-the-world character, suddenly our hero is a man with swagger and smooth moves (and that’s before he gets the new suit and the film cues his infamous dance montage). The chemistry is still there with Dunst’s MJ, but their relationship is forced so clumsily into choppy waters by the dictations of the plot (looking at you, whoever decided to shoehorn Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen Stacey into this), and brought on by such out-of-character moments by both parties. Harry’s vendetta, a key leftover from Spider-Man 2, is practically flushed down the toilet in favour of a love-triangle storyline that’s simply an overlong rendition of the first film’s hospital bedside corniness. What course-correction the film does eventually take with him is just too little, too late, and frankly even on an aesthetic level this ‘New Goblin’ disappoints. Whoever thought that a ‘ninja on a sky-surfboard’ design could surpass Dafoe’s actual goblin-esque super soldier look I hope has since thought about their life choices.

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Ironically, Church’s Sandman makes for easily the film’s most nuanced and substantial character arc, as well as one of the most breath-taking origin sequences in superhero cinema history (a telling sign of where Raimi’s personal interest with his villains laid), even though his relevance to the overall story is tenuous at best, and ham-fisted at worst. For a film series that up until this point prided itself on characterization, Spider-Man 3 just seems to lose all sense of what makes an emotionally-cohesive character. Motivations come and go as if guided by a magic-eight ball. And after all the above, we get Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a flimsy foil for Peter Parker who literally exists just so the film can capitalize on Venom’s appeal to the comic book fan-base, which itself amounts to little more than five minutes of actual screen time. What with this, and Suicide Squad’s Joker last year, there really should be a term for this kind of thing: Topher’ed? Leto’d? Playing the base? In any case, at least here we still had J.K. Simmons, the real hero of Spider-Man 3. Seriously, J.K.’s Jameson needs a Netflix series. I’m thinking a cross between The Office and Spotlight. Make it happen, Marvel.

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Spider-Man 3 isn’t a terrible film. It’s well-acted across the board, even through clunky dialogue (and cementing Maguire’s legacy as ‘crying Spidey’). Its special effects surpass anything else in the entire series, and despite taking on far too much storytelling it’s still able to hit a solid number of beats throughout. It’s watchable, colourful (despite its whole ‘going dark’ schtick), but ultimately stands fittingly as a disservice to the fans and an unsatisfying experience for a more general audience. Overcrowding has since gone on to become a recurring problem in superhero cinema (including the next attempt at a Spider-Man franchise), but as examples of such go Spider-Man 3 is maybe the least egregious. A regrettable trilogy-closer, but not irredeemable.

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Quality: 2.5/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 3/5

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PatchMan Revisits: Spider-Man 2

Superhero films have been around for a long time now, and there’s little sign of them going away anytime soon (for better or worse). But when their time is up and the genre goes the way of the spaghetti western or the Hollywood musical, an elite few may very well be spared the brush of audience fatigue for the fundamental reason that they transcend the genre. The Dark Knight (2008). Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Wonder Woman (2017). The mere mention of any one of these titles is a hallowed reference in film-goer circles, and Spider-Man 2 (2004) has had a seat at this illustrious table from day one.

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With two jobs, his university studies, rent, and taking on all of New York’s criminals as the masked vigilante Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has never had a fuller plate. To add to his worries, his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is in financial difficulty, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) wants revenge for the death of his father, and the love of his life – Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) – has found another man. Stretched to his limit, Peter may have to decide whether being Spider-Man can be a part of his life at all, a decision complicated with the emergence of New York’s greatest menace yet: Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)

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It’s all-too rare for a sequel to better its predecessor, and Spider-Man 2 also adds this exclusive club card to its hands. Director Sam Raimi takes literally everything that was great about the character’s 2002 debut, ups the ante, gives us more, and continuously plays with our expectations. The balancing act the film pulls off in showcasing each and every one of Peter’s struggles is nothing short of remarkable, even just in terms of storytelling clarity. Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee has always emphasised how the central idea was a superhero with actual, relatable problems, and Raimi demonstrates his understanding of this from the very first scene. Peter loses his pizza delivery job for lateness, even after delivering the pizza via webswinging (a minor, but no less glorious sequence). J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons in a now-iconic performance), editor of The Daily Bugle, pays Peter peanuts for Spider-Man photos which Jameson uses for his wallcrawler witch-hunt front pages. Even his birthday money from Aunt May is quickly snatched away by his grubby landlord.

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The film meticulously lays out everything Peter grapples with throughout the film, gradually building up the mountain of grievances for which Peter has his alter-ego to thank, until it’s big decision time. Can Peter Parker and Spider-Man truly coexist? Like the film’s predecessor and its contemporaries, Spider-Man 2 could have easily been overly angst-ridden, but even the ‘angst’ here isn’t so much angst as legitimately adult problems, and the execution of these dilemmas is done with just as much humour as gravitas. Raimi knows precisely where to sprinkle the jokes at Peter’s expense, and likewise at Spider-Man’s. How the film deals with Peter and MJ’s scenes together especially highlights a more mature take on the proceedings than the first film, with the script shedding much of its former corniness in favour of dialogue that actually sounds like two adults talking.

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Spider-Man 2 crafts for itself a superb antagonist in the form of Molina’s brilliant, tragedy-struck Dr. Otto Octavius. It’s surprising that truly great villains in superhero cinema are few and far between, when the solution seems so often to be simply allowing them some substantial non-evildoing screen time.  Our main villain here spends over half an hour of the film as a normal man, a brilliant and virtuous scientist who Peter sees as a mentor, and whose downfall and manipulation by artificial intelligence ‘tentacles’ of his own creation packs an extra emotional punch into Spider-Man’s already-spectacular battles with him. The Green Goblin’s brand of evil may have been deliciously wicked, but Doctor Octopus’ twisted morality and obsession is ultimately more nourishing, and Molina carries the role with hypnotic flair and true gravitas.

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Perhaps Spider-Man 2’s greatest feat is the fact that whilst it’s Peter’s story first, every one of its main characters is given a journey, and the film follows their journeys from beginning to end in effortless fashion. Whether its Aunt May’s money worries, or MJ pursuit of love and success, worlds collide, circle each other, break apart, and it all makes complete and cohesive emotional sense. Harry’s slide into his obsession with vengeance makes for a dark reflection of the film’s central theme of choices and consequences, and by the film’s cliff-hanger end to his arc our appetite is thoroughly whetted for his personal resolution.

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Brimming with unmistakeable adoration for the source material, Raimi delivered a sequel that’s just as much emotional drama as superhero, defying all expectations and continuing to stand the test of time as an intelligent, insightful, masterful blockbuster.

Quality: 5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 5/5

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