I recognise that I am on exceedingly dangerous ground here. The trend for comic book threequels to tail off in quality is well-known and documented. Having said that, opinions and tastes vary and although I think a number of much-maligned threequels deserve a reassessment, some will violent attack, others vigorously defend the films under consideration, while I try to steer a sensible and legitimately arguable middle ground. We’ll start with three obvious culprits/examples (Spiderman 3, X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman 3) and if I can face it, I’ll have a valiant stab at Blade: Trinity at the end.
Spiderman 3 was an absolute juggernaut at the box office. On its initial weekend of release, some reports said that around 80% of all people who visited the cinema over those three days went to see Spiderman 3. Its first weekend haul of $150m in the US was breath-taking, although set against a budget of $258m, context is everything. Eventually it took around $885m worldwide, which is impressive but does not help us so much when considering whether the blighter is actually any good. What it does establish though, is that it fared just fine in terms of the impact of word of mouth after that initial weekend haul. Had the film been wholly without merit, word would have spread and takings would have quickly trailed off.
But I don’t want to use box office takings as too much of an index of quality. It worked as an argument for Michael Bay, becuase I argued that he gives the public what they want. For Spiderman 3, I want to consider whether it’s any good. The box office receipts might show that for plenty of people it was good enough but was it really?
To be blunt, there are a lot of problems with Spidey’s third outing. Too many villains (Goblin Jr, Sandman, Brock Jr/Venom), incoherent and poorly lit fight scenes (see black-suit Spiderman’s squaring off with Sandman underground), the face-swallowingly awkward Peter Parker as emo-charmer sequence and a bloated running time. It all frankly smacked of studio interference, both frustrating and baffling considering the leanness, quality and success of Sam Raimi’s first two films. Apparently the fans liked and wanted Venom, though Raimi didn’t really fancy it, so he put Venom in anyway, even though he didn’t fit and Raimi didn’t seem to know what to do with the character. But do these clear and manifold flaws demolish the film in its entirety? Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Is there something to be said for the film despite what we do not like?
No, yes and yes. It is absurd to suggest that any number of bad elements destroy the value of the good ones. Of course the more problematic elements the film has, the less we will think of it overall and yes, any film can eventually reach the point of being irredeemably flawed, but Spiderman 3 is just not that film. Consider what can be said more positively in its favour. The crane scene, where Spiderman rescues Gwen Stacy, Sandman’s initial attack on an armoured truck, the first fight between a costume-less Parker and an amped-up Harry, Peter’s eventual forgiveness of Flint Marko, the eventual ambiguous but touching meeting between Parker and M-J before we fade to black.
Raimi did not suddenly become an incompetent director in between films 2 and 3. He knows how to make a good film, he was just hamstrung by certain elements that for one reason or another got the better of him. I don’t like the scene between Harry and M-J in his kitchen at all, I think that the darkening of Parker’s soul by the alien symbiote was generally mis-handled, I think Venom was poorly done in almost every respect, but that does not make it a bad film. It is a film possessing numerous flaws, but benefiting from some really good scenes which when taken as a whole result in a film well worth watching, even if you might spend (as I do) quite a lot of time fast-forwarding when you stick the DVD in from time to time.
Okay, so on now to X-Men: Last Stand. This is undoubtedly a trickier prospect. Spidey has an innate advantage in that I think he’s a terrific character and although I enjoyed the first two X-Men films, that series just doesn’t have the same built-in devotion from me. As with the Spiderman series, X-Men went from strength to strength at the box office with each successive film. The much-maligned threequel improved on the box office haul of the manifestly superior X-Men 2 by some $50m ($452m to $406m) but garnered generally very negative reviews.
Part of the problem was clearly the project changing hands during pre-production. Bryan Singer was supposed to be on board before shifting over to WB and DC for Superman Returns, then Matthew Vaughn (now soon to release the prequel, First Class) came and went, until Brett Ratner finally found himself at the last minute in the driving seat of a $280m budgeted behemoth. The end result was not too pretty. Wimbledon FC footballer turned wooden actor Vinnie Jones was in place as London-accented Juggernaut (clearly a left-over from Matthew Vaughn’s involvement) and his seeming inability to convincing deliver his lines (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch”) cast a shadow over the film for which it would be unfair and unreasonable to blame either him or Ratner. Much like Spiderman 3, there are plenty of impressive set pieces, but a real lack of cohesion or audience engagement. It all looks mightily impressive, but we find ourselves struggling to care very much. So is it a bad film? Is it worth defending? Can it be? I think so.
Ratner can tend to be dismissed as a director, with many saying that he doesn’t care about his films, but just turns up, goes through the motions and delivers something that at least matches expectations. But how can that possibly be fair or accurate? Do any of us know him that well? Is there nothing decent in his back catalogue? Red Dragon may not have scaled the heights of Silence of the Lambs (few have), but it’s a cut above Hannibal and for my money a really excellent thriller and an improvement on Mann’s Manhunter. Similarly, Rush Hour and The Family Man may not have been every-one’s cup of tea, but they are really good films and The Family Man in particular shows a degree of warmth and personal care that flies in the face of the dismissals of Ratner as a hack for hire.
It may in the end be fairest to say that Ratner did the best he could in the circumstances presented to him. Magneto’s attack on the convoy containing Mystique and Juggernaut, the final showdown on Alcatraz island, the moving of the Golden Gate Bridge, the idea of trying to “cure” those who are different, the ruthlessly unsentimental dispatching of three significant stars of the franchise, all of this warrants honest, fair praise. As with Spiderman 3, it’s a case of looking past the glaring flaws (in this case more so than with Spidey) and acknowledge and enjoying what good there is.
So now, to Superman 3. Films 1 and 2 were and are top-drawer comic-book adaptations, clearly amongst the very finest of the genre. It was always going to be difficult to follow them and there is always the danger with well-established and regarded franchises that an otherwise competent and worthwhile film suffers more in comparison to earlier entries than it would if it were able to be assessed on its own merits. Sadly, such seems to have been the case with Superman 3.
Richard Pryor had become something of a star through his stand-up work and his move into film roles such as Stir Crazy. Bringing a different comic foil into play after Ned Beatty’s Otis had been done to death in the first two films seemed a sensible enough move, but when your film is about a criminal mastermind intending to build a computer to kill Superman and take over the world, you have to be careful not to play it too broadly for laughs. The sight of Pryor skiing in a pink table cloth/cape is not an enjoyable one by any stretch. Likewise, it remains difficult throughout the film to really believe him to be the computer whizz he is portrayed as, such is the level of his general buffoonery.
The story remains an issue as well. After the prospect of Lex Luthor dropping the whole of California into the sea and then Zod taking over the world, we have a supercomputer designed to stop Superman. It is all a little compact, trivial and localised, when it should be wider in scope. But as with the other films considered above (and you can probably forsee where I am going now), there is much to be admired and enjoyed in Superman 3 and the mere fact that it is not as good as parts 1 and 2 is no reason to lambaste or dismiss it.
The idea of Superman turning “bad”, before fighting himself in a scrapyard is an inspired one and the initial credit sequence, with a seemingly random and absurd sequence of events setting off the need for a man’s rescue from a car rapidly filling with water is great fun. Robert Vaughn is deliciously oily as the villain, ruthless and determined in equal measure. Christopher Reeve clearly relished taking Supes a little darker, whether by flicking beer nuts, straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, or starting an oil spill and his fight against himself is perhaps the only time that the series of films has properly considered the duality, even the schizophrenia inherent in who Kal-El of Krypton really is.
So once again, not a great film overall, but possessing great parts, fascinating elements and more consideration of Kal-El’s nature than either of the first two films.
Blade: Trinity. The thing is….see, when you think about it….it could be argued. Nope. Stuff it. It’s a turkey.
So what’s the vote this time? Are Spiderman, X-Men and Superman 3’s redeemed? Are they beyond saving? Let me know what you think. Should I have tried harder with Blade: Trinity. Please comment below.