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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PatchMan Revisits: Spider-Man

It started as a whisper. A growing chorus of violins with bows scuttling across strings, met swiftly by a rising percussive patter. A sound more evocative of a spider on its web composer Danny Elfman could have hardly produced, and Sam Raimi’s Spidey trilogy owes much of its swinging and soaring personality to his musical accompaniment. Before 2002, Raimi was a director renowned by audiences of horror and thriller cinema, but entirely untested in summer blockbusters. For superhero cinema, it was a time where ‘angst’ was studio gospel, with everything from The Shadow (1994) and Steel (1997) to Spawn (1997) and Blade (1998) trying (and failing) to usurp the throne of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Needless to say, things needed a shake-up, and suddenly Raimi’s childhood-borne passion for Marvel Comics’ figurehead web-slinger almost single-handedly propelled him into the driver’s seat of one of the most anticipated superhero cinematic debuts in history. $140m budget. $822m at the box office. a trilogy quickly set in stone. People talk about how much of a gamble Iron Man (2008) was with its then-notorious star, a similarly untested director and a second-tier superhero. They forget that trailblazing has been Spider-Man’s territory for far longer.

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High school outcast Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) knows only three things: science, Flash Thompson’s bullying, and his unrequited love for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). When he is bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter finds himself imbued with phenomenal abilities, but his initial efforts to profit off them results in tragic loss, and the hard-learned lesson that with great power comes great responsibility. Becoming the superhero ‘Spider-Man’, Peter vows to protect the people of New York from harm, a crusade which the ruthless and powerful Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) quickly puts to the test.

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It’s easy to forget amidst all the memorable cartoonish-ness of the Raimi films – awestruck citizens, every second of J.K. Simmons, a climax featuring New Yorkers helping ol’ webhead by throwing things at Goblin – that in many ways Spider-Man qualifies as fundamentally angst-ridden. Heartache, tragedy, impossible decisions, the weight of the world suddenly bearing down on Peter’s shoulders, it would have been very easy for this film to have slipped into a maelstrom of moping and mourning. What sets the film apart from its contemporaries is how although it honours a due amount of introspection, it never forgets Spidey’s all-important sense of fun. Peter Parker may be a troubled teen, but once the mask is on he’s a high-flying, wall-crawling wonder.

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Like all truly great origin stories, the film excels in capturing not only his transition from one to the other, but in how he finds himself having to actively balance both identities. Take his first webswing: his Uncle Ben freshly murdered by a common criminal, Peter is emboldened through donning his mask to give chase to the killer, but jumping off a rooftop web-in-hand is still a moment where the film allows a pause for Peter to fully realize his literal leap of faith. When Spider-Man saves Mary Jane from a gang of thugs – prompting the now-iconic upside-down kiss – his face isn’t just half-covered for practical reasons. He is truly equal-parts Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and it’s by sticking to this fine balance that the film demonstrates its deep understanding for the material. It’s also the exact reason for how Spider-Man breaks the ‘angst-y’ obsession of its day, fostering a union between euphoria and intensity.

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Spider-Man’s neighbourhood in the Marvel Universe has always been especially rich material thanks to its pantheon of characters, and this film pays a fitting tribute to this quality through its cast. Dunst, though in action largely just a damsel, is nonetheless a distinctive presence, as is James Franco’s beleaguered best friend to Peter; Harry Osborn. Rosemary Harris makes for a relentlessly endearing Aunt May, even if she is saddled with much of the film’s philosophical exposition, and what time Peter has with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) nevertheless boasts a strong chemistry amounting to a tangible sense of loss.

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But like all great superhero features, ultimately the film is a tug-of-war between Maguire and Dafoe. Dafoe’s Goblin may be as over the top as his glider-riding wardrobe, but every second of him is a treat, and Raimi’s horror background shines through especially in the film’s antagonist-centric moments. And whilst Maguire may have since gone down in comic-book movie history as ‘the crying Spidey’, he’s simply conveying the earnestness of Raimi’s interpretation of this mythos. There’s no mistaking his inner turmoil, nor the extent to which his physical mask provides an emotional one. Peter Parker is just a good kid thrust into an unpredictable life, and Maguire brings it all home.

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By today’s standards, Spider-Man may not be an especially innovative entry into the genre beyond its special effects, but there’s more than enough packed into its runtime to make for a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience fifteen years later. ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’, and the film makes sure its audience understands this to the letter.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

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Hidden Figures

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The Help. Crash. Remember The Titans. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Blazing Saddles. Putting race relations and civil rights in America under cinema’s microscope is a cultural exercise almost as old as Morgan Freeman. It’s a subject that transcends both eras and genres alike, as relevant to today as it’s ever been, but it faces a fundamental problem; the longer the issue itself endures, the more at risk stories about it are of growing stale. How many ways of saying ‘racism is bad’ must there be before the point is rendered obsolete? Standing out from the crowd is an ever-growing pressure for African American stories and storytellers in this industry, but what sets Hidden Figures apart is a surprisingly simple reworking of the ‘African Americans struggling in a white man’s world’ formula – emphasis not on the ‘white’, but on the ‘man’.

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In 1961, as the US and the USSR are locked in the intensity of the Space Race, mathematical prodigies Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as human ‘computers’ for NASA. As pressure mounts within the US government in the face of Soviet success, Katherine finds herself seconded to the Space Task Force, whilst Mary’s assistance with the space capsule convinces her to pursue an engineering degree, and Dorothy fights for her job against the introduction of electronic computers. But in a time when red is the enemy, can NASA look beyond black and white?

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The issue of race relations may seem a little tacked on there, but it illustrates what is easily Hidden Figures’ unique selling point. It’s odd to say this of a film that so highlights 1950s/60s US segregation, with characters citing Brown v. Board of Education and newscasts namedropping the Freedom Riders. But as much as Hidden Figures acknowledges this day-to-day reality for its protagonists, ultimately it’s all just context and backdrops. It’s not the colour of their skin that defines them most, but their sex. It’s a shift in emphasis that’s nothing short of inspired, elevating the story from yet another two-hour case study of racial injustice, and conflating it with today’s concerns over sexism and gender equality. What’s more difficult than being black and ambitious in early 60s America? Being black, and ambitious, and a woman in early 60s America.

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In communities and groups both black and white, our leading ladies are continuously disparaged and undervalued, even by the men in their lives. Jim Parsons’ snooty head engineer Paul Stafford is something we’ve seen a dozen times, and so his slights towards Katherine come as no surprise. Katherine’s love interest Jim (Mahershala Ali), on the other hand, his early condescension towards her work and ambitions makes an indelible mark. In so doing, the film captures a distinctly more holistic picture of the issue at hand than many a major Hollywood feature of its kind, a reminder that true progress towards social equality cannot be achieved in the workplace without its equal recognition in the home, and vice versa.

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Despite Katherine being the central focus of the story, the trials and tenacity of Mary and Dorothy are fleshed out and explored so fully that to call either of them supporting characters feels like a disservice. Henson, Monáe and Spencer bring their A-game to their every second of impressively balanced screen-time, with Monáe’s courtroom speech an especial standout both as a scene and as a performance. Outside of the film’s core on-message moments, however, things can at times feel a little run of the mill. Kevin Costner’s turn as the weighted down Space Task Force director Harrison leaves little impression, but when your ‘big moment’ is centred on the line “we all pee the same colour”, you know this isn’t exactly a Spencer Tracy-type role. Likewise with Kirsten Dunst’s half-baked southern accent as supervisor Vivian, the job is done fine but to generally blunt and toned-down effect.

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Nevertheless, Hidden Figures is a cinematic triumph for feminism of a different colour, and a reminder of the importance of intersectionality in the fight for gender equality today. It makes no attempt to downplay its ethos of ‘pursuing the improbable’, frequently conflating the struggles of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy with mankind’s greater destiny amongst the stars, but it befits the spirit of the times both then and now. Basking in the ample charisma of its leading ladies, as well as a thoroughly foot-tapping soundtrack, Hidden Figures is a timely film that knows it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously for its point to be made.

Quality: 4/5

Experience: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

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