Sunday 13 May 2007

Where's Runnicles goes to the Movies

Aside from classical music and other 'high' culture, I also enjoy my share at the other end of the spectrum. I read, and very much enjoy comic books. Indeed, I think in a lot of ways, they're the literary equivalent of opera. The plots are often silly (very) but they blend two forms (words and pictures) much as opera does (music and theatre). Like opera, this isn't always even. Take, for example, Figaro, where it doesn't really matter what they're singing about. Britten's Paul Bunyan, on the other hand, has wonderful music with an Auden libretto: who could ask for more? Similarly, sometimes you get comic books with great words and lousy pictures, or vice versa. But enough of the time the two come together to give something very special. And like all forms of fantasy, at their best, as well as having entertaining action, they can comment on world in quite a clever way.

It will come as little surprise, therefore, that I also like comic book movies. Not all of them, there have been some real turkeys. But in recent years Hollywood seems to have got it down to a fine art. It started with Spider-Man 2. There are so many things I love about the film. There is a wonderful magical realism - the way that after he's been forced to break up with Mary-Jane (as his nocturnal activities mean he can't give her the time she deserves), he walks down the street and every poster is of her. In a film set in the real world this would seem silly, but this is a comic book and it beautifully underscores how he can't get away from her. Then there's the moment towards the end when, beaten, he struggles to stop a runaway train. And it's difficult, really difficult. It's the first time I'd seen a super-hero really struggle in a movie. Then we had Batman Begins and Superman Returns, which accomplished the near impossible task of making me feel sorry for the Man of Steel. Here again was magical realism: Lois Lane is to win a Pulitzer for her story Why the World doesn't need Superman. The man she loved has vanished, and in this comic-book world she can write a prize winning article saying, basically, "ha, I didn't need you anyway".

All of which only makes it the film we just saw more disappointing. There's no good way to say this: Spider-Man 3 is one of the very worst films I have ever seen.

So bad, I don't really know where to being. I suppose the start would be as well. On a positive note there were some promising trailers (especially for the third, silly, Pirates of the Caribbean) and a particularly amusing Orange advert. But it was downhill from there. In the second film, the opening credits were very clever indeed. As the names of the actors flashed up we got a series of comic illustrations neatly recapping the story so far. This time we got much less effective, and much more overdone, film clips. It was long (about two and half hours), though in all honesty shortening it would only have improved it in the sense of not having to endure quite so much. The dialogue was awful. It wasn't even the good kind of corny dialogue, it was just plain bad and often cringe-inducing. It read like something that could have been written by a seven year old for his English homework. The script was horribly predictable. It had clearly cost a fortune and yet and the big, long, computer generated action sequences were both confusing and totally devoid of any excitement. Of course, this wasn't helped by a score that didn't exactly set the pulse racing.

And the villains! We got the Sandman and Venom (and sort-of the Green Goblin). Perhaps this excess, one would ordinarily have been enough, was a problem. We began with Peter Parker fighting his friend Harry (who took over from his father as the Green Goblin at the end of the last film, believing Parker had killed him). This caused Harry to lose his memory, and we were tediously back to square one. Well, square one and a half as we waited for the Sandman to gain his powers and then do nothing more exciting with them than rob a few banks. Venom was, if anything, duller. Spider-Man became infected and briefly evil, though director Sam Rami's representation of evil, which seemed primarily to consist of Parker strutting to 70s disco music, was a little off the beaten track. Predictably he threw this off, only for it to infect his rival photographer who seemed to have been put there expressly for the purpose. The culmination, rather than the world in danger, was for the Sandman and Venom to team up and suspend Mary-Jane from a large building. Harry rallies to Parker's aid, his butler, in best Paul Burrell style, having suddenly remembered that he knew all along that Parker didn't kill his father and after much computer generated faffing around, disposes of the Sandman with rather disappointing ease (who, it turns out, actually murdered Parker's uncle Ben - in what I am sure is a departure from the comics, and so we were back with the 'revenge' subplot from the first movie, without the drama).

But there was more, this was a movie when everyone was on holiday. Whether it was the composer's lacklustre efforts or ever Ms Dunst's hairdresser who seemed unable to ensure even the vaguest continuity in the look and colour of her hair. There is the comedy (I couldn't tell if it was intended or not) French accent of the maitre d' - one is transported back to inspector Clouseau and his impenetrable enquires about Sir Charles Lytton's swimming pool.

There was only one redeeming feature. The Daily Bugle editor J Jonah Jameson of J K Simmons was a breath of fresh air in his every scene (especially when, during the climactic battle, a little girl extorted money from him for her camera). But in a film this long it was not enough, not nearly enough. The only way we were able to survive was by whispering snide comments to each other (for which there was a gift of an opportunity every couple of seconds). Normally I would scorn such behaviour but everyone else was doing it too. Indeed, towards the end someone called out "Oh for god's sake". We felt his pain. People walked out.

Finn and I have our benchmarks for bad super-hero movies. And there have been plenty (Batman and Robin, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four). But bad as they were, they were not this long and at least the action was exciting. Even in the Fantastic Four (especially disappointing for me as I love the comic so much) there was the odd moment approaching suspense or where you half gave a damn. Not so here. Here there was nothing. It might be half fun to watch on a DVD with a lot to drink and shout at the TV for two and a half hours, but otherwise..... There should be consequences for people who produce a movie like this, they should not be given any proper money to play with until they've gone away and made a successful art house film.

To those who tune in for higher-brow news, I apologise, I needed to get that off my chest. Normal service will resume with the next post. In the meantime don't, whatever you do, feel tempted to see Spider-Man 3.

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