September 6, 2014

The 40 Year-Old-Critic: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

The 40 Year-Old-Critic: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

11005771In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.

See a list of all reviews
Earlier this week, when I discussed Star Wars Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith, I described how I tend to channel my excitement into creative venues. I’ve been doing it my whole life, whether that meant writing fan fiction, building model kits, customizing action figures — the point is, I like to build upon my imagination. In 2005 that drive led to the creation of the Star Wars Action News podcast.

Two years later, a near-equal level of excitement gave birth to an even larger idea that became Now Playing Podcast. The excitement was for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3; the first film Now Playing ever reviewed.

I had been a longtime Spider-Man fan, from the 1970s Spidey Super Stories on The Electric Company to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and even Stan Lee’s daily The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strips, but even I didn’t anticipate my own hype for this sequel. I barely caught the first Spider-Man film in theaters (its release in 2002, directly against Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and my wedding, was much of the reason). I was more excited for 2004’s Spider-Man 2, but I wouldn’t say I was “hyped.”

But the bug bit me in 2007 — Venom had gotten into my system.

I started reading comics in 1990. I never got into them as a child; I simply wasn’t exposed to comics through friends or media. My Star Trek fandom drew me into the comics culture, because I wanted to read the “official” stories taking place after the events of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The first time I stepped into a comics shop the clerk tried to sell me Spider-Man No. 1, from the highly-acclaimed Todd McFarlane series.

This tease ignited the fanboy in me.

This tease ignited the fanboy in me.

I passed. I always thought the comics were just color reprints of the daily newspaper strip, until my longtime friend and Now Playing co-host Stuart started telling me stories about how Spider-Man changed his costume to one that was black-and-white. Incredulous, I didn’t believe him, especially when he told me the suit turned out to be an evil alien. In response, and to prove his point, he pointed me to a comic book store. I went back to read many of McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man back issues. Of specific interest were the stories that involved Venom, a muscle-bound baddie named Eddie Brock with whom the alien suit had bonded. Venom had all of Spider-Man’s powers, but none of his responsibility.

For years I read every Spider-Man comic, but I anticipated none as much as those that starred Venom. When Brock went from villain to anti-hero in his own series, Venom: Lethal Protector, I was even happier; I could now read about him every month!

I honestly wonder if I liked Venom even more than Spider-Man himself.

As a fan I read rumors about a big-screen adaptation of Spider-Man, but it languished in development hell for more than a decade. I remember reading a Wizard Magazine in 1992 that teased a James Cameron directed Spider-Man film starring Charlie Sheen as Peter Parker and using Terminator 2 special effects for the villain — Venom! I couldn’t have been more excited but, alas, that film never materialized. When Spider-Man did hit theaters in 2002 Sheen, Cameron, and Venom weren’t even under consideration.

Finally, after enjoying two Spider-Man films in theaters (as you can hear in the Now Playing Podcast Spider-Man Retrospective Series), word came that Raimi was finally getting to my favorite Spidey nemesis.

Venom was first teased at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con. I wasn’t in the Sony panel, but friends excitedly described the scene of alien ooze landing on Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). That the scene took place in a church really upped my expectations — Raimi had been pretty loyal to the Spider-Man mythos thus far, and despite casting the wiry Grace as the muscle-bound Brock, it seemed he was continuing that trend with Venom.

I'd seen the black outfit take Peter Parker to dark places in the comic...but never as dark as Maguire's uncomfortable dance scene.

I’d seen the black outfit take Peter Parker to dark places in the comic…but never as dark as Maguire’s uncomfortable dance scene.

Venom, Raimi, and Spider-Man created a perfect storm of hype.

I am a collector by nature, and often I express my fandom through displays of movie memorabilia. It all started with my Star Wars toys in 1977, but from Superman to Gremlins to Ghostbusters to Star Trek, I’d always buy the trading cards, toys, and books for films I loved. Of course, Star Wars remained my primary focus — I bought every figure, vehicle, book, and game released.

By the year 2000 my townhouse was a crowded toy box, full of Star Wars toys, but also X-Men movie figures, Spider-Man toys, McFarlane Toys’ Movie Maniacs series’ Leatherface, Freddy, and many more. But in 2001 I quit my job and became a full-time student, and with that drastic reduction in income came a drastic reduction in collecting. I actually sold most of my toys and narrowed my focus down to my first love — Star Wars. Even as my career started to take off, my income increasing, I was never tempted to return to collecting anything but Star Wars until Spider-Man 3.

By 2007, Star Wars Action News was heard by tens of thousands of listeners every month, and hundreds congregated on our forums to discuss the toys. Surprisingly, many of those fans were also swept up in the excitement to see Raimi’s next Spider-Man film. When I mentioned on the podcast that I was drawn to — but couldn’t allow myself to buy — a particularly cool Venom figure sold by Sideshow Collectibles, these listeners came to the forums en masse to encourage my spending! Some even tried to take up a collection to buy the $80 figure for me; an act of generosity I could not possibly accept.

The flames of my Spider-Man 3 excitement were fanned by Star Wars Action News listeners, and that combination caused me to move on an idea I’d had for some time: a movie review podcast. The first movie we’d review would be Spider-Man 3, obviously.

It wouldn’t be a stretch, my wife (and co-host) Marjorie and I had already reviewed one movie together, Snakes on a Plane, the year before.

Coincidentally, another Marvel character first planted the seeds in my head that I should launch this show. Coming out of 2007’s Ghost Rider Marjorie had me almost doubled over with laughter as she lambasted the Nicolas Cage film. Not only were her observations on point, they were quite amusing. I knew many of our listeners loved Marjorie’s color commentary, and I thought that if I’d had a microphone on us walking out of Ghost Rider we’d break download records.

Despite the film's numerous flaws, the CGI work on Sandman was impressive, and moving.

Despite the film’s numerous flaws, the CGI work on Sandman was impressive, and moving.

But I was daunted. Movie review podcasts were a dime a dozen. Anyone with a microphone seemed to be reviewing movies. With Star Wars Action News we’d made a big splash in the Star Wars community — a big fish in a tiny pond. Yet, even with that success I knew that we’d be out of our comfortable pond and thrust into an ocean of movie podcasts. I wasn’t sure how to make us stand out, and so I never acted on it.

More, SWAN had gone from a one-day-per-week hobby to a very time-consuming new career. Two hours of recording became 10 hours of editing, and then toy photography and travel — suddenly I was spending more time on podcasting than I was on teaching my college courses. Plus, teaching was my second job; I also had a full-time day job. With all of these commitments the thought of doing another podcast regularly was overwhelming.

Still, the seed had been planted, and my excitement for Spider-Man 3 turned it into action. Marjorie came up with the name, taken directly from the screen of her iPod that always said at the top, Now Playing.

It’s laughable now as I spend 30 or more hours per week on the show, but I originally thought Now Playing Podcast wouldn’t take much time. I figured we’d stick to my first idea and take the portable recorder (the one I’d purchased for the Samuel L. Jackson interview) to the theater and when the movie was over I’d have a microphone to capture our initial reaction. Marjorie and I went to the movies nearly every week, so we could have a spoiler-free review with just a few minutes of recording. I’d release it unedited, just add music, and be done.

As for the way to differentiate ourselves from the thousands of other podcasts? That would take me a couple more years to really figure out. In the meantime we had Marjorie and a built in audience for Star Wars Action News.

Deciding to launch Now Playing on the same day as Spider-Man 3’s release had two profound effects. First, my excitement for the next Spidey film had an outlet that didn’t involve buying collectibles. I was preparing our own launch of a podcast, so my time and money was spent getting domain names and setting up web pages (Though I was visiting Burger King more than usual to get their Spider-Man 3 kid’s meal toys — the Venom still eluded me).

Second, the anticipation for May 4, 2007 increased 50-fold — that was the day I’d get to watch Spider-Man and we’d launch our newest podcast!

My excitement level was so high we actually took that afternoon off work. There were no midnight shows, but we were there for the first matinee of the day. It was time to see Venom fight Spider-Man, and classic Spider-Man bad guy Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church) would be in there somewhere as well.

In my mind I felt I knew how the movie would be paced. The trailers had shown Spider-Man fighting Sandman while wearing his black suit. I thought for certain it would follow the structure of the original film, with the first half largely about the origin story, only this time it would be the origin of the black suit (again with Sandman in there somewhere). Then, I assumed the second half of the picture would be about our hero battling his arch-nemesis, only this time instead of Green Goblin it would be Venom.

The more I heard about Sandman being the main baddie in this film, though, I started to form a back-up theory. The trailers never showed Venom outside of the church, so I thought this entire film could be a setup for Venom, who would return as the main bad guy in Spider-Man 4. 

No matter what, in Raimi I trusted. From Evil Dead to Army of Darkness, Darkman, and more, he had proven time and again to be a director with style and vision (that late 90s period including For the Love of the Game notwithstanding).

We got to theater early, after an obligatory trip to Burger King to try and get that damn Venom toy. No luck.

I can still remember being so excited I was practically vibrating in my seat. The film started, the score played over an opening credits montage reminding us of the first two films. Little did I know this would be the high point of the movie for me — thinking of the earlier, better films.

The introduction of the alien symbiote that became Spider-Man’s black suit was the opening scene, and completely convenient. It just happened to land near Peter Parker and take him over. No reason why, it just happened.

Faith was restored with the introduction of Sandman, Church having bulked up for the role and really looking like the comic book character come to life. The CGI effects during his transformation marked a new standard for humanity conveyed by computer animation.

But that was quickly lost by the contrived retcon tying Sandman to the death of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, and a subplot involving Peter Parker’s love life.

I won’t rehash the entire review again. You can hear our full, detailed, scene by scene review in the Now Playing Podcast archives. The disappointment you’ll hear in my voice mirrors my thoughts sitting in that theater. During that theatrical experience I realized not only was I watching a movie that was not very good, but that Now Playing’s first review would not be very positive. I had hoped for the show to be a celebration of Raimi’s film — the orgasmic climax after five years of build-up. Instead, we would have to be honest and discuss how everything —  from the plot to the acting to the score — was not only far below my expectations, but also not very good at all.

No matter the quality of the movie, Now Playing Podcast had arrived. Star Wars Action News listeners and forum members were anxiously awaiting the review. So we went to the car and, raw from the experience, recorded our thoughts. We sat in the car, Spider-Man toys from BK in the back seat, and gave our initial reactions. I tried to temper my disappointment, but when I listen to that show I can hear the sound of a heart breaking.

In the years since I’ve come to focus on some of the better parts of the movie. The effects are mostly top notch, Topher Grace adds needed energy to the cast, and some of the jokes are winners. With the dour nature of The Amazing Spider-Man reboots, I even sometimes finding myself actually wishing for some of the spirit Raimi put in all of his films… even Spider-Man 3.

The tangled web that is Peter Parker's love life would never straighten out; after Spider-Man 3 Sony decided to reboot without Raimi at the helm.

The tangled web that is Peter Parker’s love life would never straighten out; after Spider-Man 3 Sony decided to reboot without Raimi at the helm.

Yet from that bad movie experience something good did come — Now Playing. It would take years for me to realize that. Despite my best intentions, the show went from being recorded on the run to being done in the studio; it went from unedited to lightly edited to full edits. The time commitment was growing, and the listenership wasn’t. We were now one very tiny fish in an ocean so overpopulated that most shows suffered from listener famine. Without listener involvement the show became neglected, and the fewer shows we did the fewer listeners we had when we would put out new reviews. For a while we even gave up hosting altogether.

It wasn’t until 2009 when another movie, another hype machine, got me going: the Platinum Dunes remake of Friday the 13th. Then I had the idea of the Retrospective Series and a three-person rotating cast of hosts. The hype for that movie also ended in disappointment, but we had finally found the format that made our show stand out.

Today Now Playing is a regular show in iTunes’ Top 10. I’ve met hundreds of listeners in person and talked to thousands through social media. Each person with whom I interact is an experience I cherish, and it’s stunning to think none of this would have happened if it weren’t for Spider-Man 3.

And as for my resistance to collecting Marvel, Spider-Man 3 helped me stave that off… for a couple more years at least. As anyone who’s heard my Marvel collecting podcast, Marvelicious Toys, knows, I have now fully embraced it and enjoy it as a smaller side-collection to my primary Star Wars collecting.

Tomorrow — 2008!

Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec    

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