‘Spider-Man’ franchise is tangled up in its own web


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This week we’re taking a look at four major trilogies from this decade that are looking to add a fourth film despite substantial challenges -- not least among those challenges the skepticism of moviegoers who may wonder if some of these Hollywood vehicles are running on empty. You can find the other three installments of the series right here.



The story so far: Not that long ago, the standard assumption in Hollywood was that there were only two superheroes with enough general-audience appeal to carry a film franchise -- Superman and Batman. That changed in May 2002 when ‘Spider-Man’ swung into theaters and grabbed $115 million domestically in its opening weekend, setting a new record at the time. Unlike the wholesome and invulnerable Man of Steel of Metropolis or the handsome billionaire prowling Gotham City alleys, this spindly masked man was a high-school nerd bitten by a bug. Not only did he fight villains, he had to contend with homework, money problems, public derision and a losing streak with girls. The franchise, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, has continued to soar commercially -- ‘Spider-Man 3’ in May 2007 again set the mark for the biggest U.S. opening weekend with $151 million (although last year’s ‘The Dark Knight’ edged it with $158 million). Worldwide, the ‘Spider-Man’ films have brought in close to $3.5 billion at theaters and keyed billions and billions more in the sales of toys, video games, DVDs, clothing, etc.

The challenge: If you are Sony Pictures and you look at the ledger, a fourth ‘Spider-Man’ film is a no-brainer -- the web-slinger movies rank as the three highest-grossing films in the studio’s history (further down that list are considerable hits such as ‘Men in Black,’ ‘Terminator 2’ and ‘Ghostbusters'). But while the first two films were widely praised for their verve and heart, the third edition of Peter Parker’s saga struck many viewers as noisy, hollow and disjointed. The Rotten Tomatos rating for ‘Spider-Man 3,’ for instance, was 62%, well below the glowing 90% and 94% for the first two films, respectively. One fan of the first two films, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, wrote that the success of the first two films sapped the heart out of the third: ‘This is a film that commerce mandated, a marketing puzzle that insisted on a solution ... it’s as if its plot elements were the product of competing contractors who never saw the need to cooperate on a coherent final product.’ The fourth movie has other challenges: How many other ways can the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson be bent without totally losing its shape? What villain left on the list can connect with a wide audience?

The status: In May, Raimi told the Hero Complex that filming will start next February. In that same interview, with our Gina McIntyre, he said he has regrets not just about the third film, but all of them. ‘What would I have done differently? I would have done everything differently, every single shot. I think in every picture that I’ve ever made. Everything that I’ve done torments me.’ He also said of the character Peter Parker: ‘I’d like to really make a great picture with him and bring the character to life at a level of detail that I’ve never realized before. It’s almost like I have a desire to do something I’ve been trying to do right and haven’t yet been able to. Not exactly.’ Raimi is on board for the fourth film, but will he stay past its May 2011 release? Sony is certainly interested in taking Spidey well into the next decade; screenwriter James Vanderbilt (‘Zodiac') is already at work on the story for the fifth and sixth films, which is reportedly a single story arc spread over two movies.

The prediction: No one was more disappointed with ‘Spider-Man 3’ than me -- well, perhaps Raimi was, although I doubt he would ever admit that publicly. The first two films were nimble, smart and fun, the perfect summer films; Raimi made so many good decisions that it was easy to forgive his one glaring clunker (the casting of the wan Dunst as Mary Jane). My defining memory of Raimi: I interviewed him on the set of the first ‘Spider-Man’ movie and he told me that as a child his birthday gift one year was a Spider-Man mural his mom painted above his bed. He fell asleep at night staring up at the hero. Raimi’s deep affection for the vintage 1960s and 1970s comics of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita infused the first two movies. The third one, though, was driven by its set pieces and visual effects, not by story or character -- it was all badly stacked brick and no mortar. It’s telling that the most heartfelt presence in the movie was the 1960s character Sandman, while the 1980s creation Venom (whom Raimi initially resisted) added to the clutter. Listening to Raimi now, my guess is we get an old-school villain like the Rhino, Vulture, the Lizard, Mysterio or perhaps Morbius (or some combination from that group) and Raimi’s return to form. I suspect it will also be his last Spidey film before a new director and cast come in or the subsequent two-parter.

-- Geoff Boucher

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PHOTO: Spider-Man photo from Sony Pictures. Sam Raimi photographed by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times. John Romita’s Spider-Man artwork: Marvel Comics.