The highest-grossing and most prestigious of the recent spate of comic-book-hero movie franchises, the Spider-Man series can be criticized for swamping a talented director (Sam Raimi, whose terrific 1998 neo-noir A Simple Plan portended a more adult alternate path so far left unexplored) in a decade of corporate marketing monoliths masquerading as popcorn movies. But, truth is, Raimi has done right by Marvel Comics' most iconic creation.
Perfectly cast at the core (with the boyish, nebbishy, yet believably athletic Tobey Maguire as photographer-turned-superhero Peter Parker), the first Spider-Man was deeply satisfying in its origin story (especially its not-so-subtle masturbation and premature-ejaculation jokes), but the largely computer-generated action sequences were too artificial and mundane. Watching Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan — skyscraper to skyscraper — should have been a visual treat, but instead, you never got the sense you were watching anything other than a blip of digital color being moved across a screen.
Raimi's second take was (and still is) the superior action flick, with a memorable, sharply directed sequence involving a runaway elevated train the most effective crash-and-smash moment in the series. Perhaps enjoying the freedom that comes from tremendous success, Raimi also injected more of his own directorial personality into the film, most notably in a crazed Dr. Octopus origin scene that reflected the same fiendishly chaotic quality that Raimi brought to his beloved low-budget Evil Dead series.
Having established the series and indulged his personal aesthetic in the first two films, Raimi seems to want to make the biggest, best superhero movie ever with Spider-Man 3. He gets mixed results. Spider-Man 3 is overlong at 140 minutes and overstuffed with characters (there are three foils for Spidey here, plus himself and two love interests) and plotlines.
James Franco returns as Peter's friend Harry Osborn, here so bent on avenging the death of his father (Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, from the first film) that he succeeds him as the "New Goblin." Thomas Haden Church joins the film as escaped con Flint Marko (explained in the movie as the character who really killed Peter's beloved uncle Ben in the first film), who happens upon a particle-physics experiment and emerges as the Sandman. And, most promisingly, Topher Grace plays oily rival photographer Eddie Brock who, through plot contortions not worth going into, is transformed into the evil Spider-Man doppelganger Venom. The role allows Grace to exploit the Eddie Haskell qualities he's displayed so well in smaller roles in Traffic and Ocean's Eleven (as himself!).
Despite expanding to the two-hour-and-20-minute length to make room for all these additional characters, Spider-Man 3 is marred by unexplained plot leaps (such as Grace's Eddie suddenly knowing everything about everyone in the movie despite being a tangential character for much of the film) and ridiculous-even-by-comic-book-standards coincidences: A symbiotic alien goo that transforms Peter into a sinister, black-costumed Spider-Man just happens to arrive by asteroid yards from where Peter — presumably the only person in the film's universe at this point with superhuman abilities — and girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) are watching the stars.
After the advances of Spider-Man 2, the action sequences in this film are a return to an expensive shoddiness all too common in Hollywood blockbusters since the dawn of CGI. A nighttime, airborne pas de deux between Spider-Man and the "New Goblin," which serves as the film's first action set piece, is blurry and indistinct, though it gains some interest as the foes rocket through the narrow gaps between buildings. An overactive subway series between Spider-Man and Sandman pales next to the elevated-train sequence in the previous installment.
All of these costumed battles are necessary, I suppose, but feel rote. In Spider-Man 3, Peter Parker's most interesting foe is himself.
As in so many of these superhero movies (and, I gather, the TV series Heroes, though I haven't seen it) — especially the best-of-the-bunch X-Men series — what's most interesting is how once-normal humans incorporate newfound superpowers into their daily lives or cope with the complications that come with such "gifts." The small, spare moment where Peter and Mary Jane lie under a vast night sky, between a pair of trees, in a webbed hammock of Peter's own design, is more memorable than the film's noisy, messy tag-team-battle finale.
What's best about Spider-Man 3 is watching the once-reluctant Peter finally get cocky about being Spider-Man, though it's a bit of a bummer to have this transformation partially explained by the deus ex machina of that "symbiotic alien goo." The tar-like substance doesn't outright cause Peter's turn toward the dark side but exacerbates it. (A scientist character in the movie says the symbiote "amplifies the characteristics of its host," which reminded me of that great observation from Bill Cosby: "They say cocaine enhances your personality. Yes, but what if you're an asshole?")
The character arc that's trying to poke through here — Peter as a bit of a jerk, full of himself and oblivious to the people in his life — should have dominated the movie but instead has to run parallel to the by-the-numbers action sequences and familiar introductions of new baddies. As it is, this plotline provides most of the movie's juice. After saving the police chief's daughter, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), from a runaway crane that smashes into a skyscraper (the film's best action scene), Peter makes a dramatic entrance to a key-to-the-city ceremony in Spider-Man's honor, dropping down headfirst, like a spider in a doorway, and coaxing Gwen into an inverted kiss that rhymes with the one from the first film. "Lay it on me," Peter chirps. Girlfriend Mary Jane is not amused: "That was our kiss," she scolds.
Once the symbiote takes hold, Peter's already unusually healthy self-esteem takes a turn for the comic worse. Peter emerges as a strutting, black-clad cad for an enjoyable diversion that deserved to be more.
This premise is perfect for Raimi, whose great talent has been injecting action genres (horror or superhero) with loopy comedy. And it's also why maybe I shouldn't complain about Spider-Man 3 being too long, because much of what is most enjoyable here is also what could be considered most extraneous. Which means not just Peter Parker's descent into smug-nerd monsterdom but such bits of utterly unnecessary comic business as the never-long-enough trips to the Daily Bugle offices, where a perfectly cast J.K. Simmons devours everything in sight as stentorian publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and a satisfyingly silly and lovingly clichéd restaurant scene, where Raimi favorite Bruce "The Jaw" Campbell gets to play a French maître d'.
Opens Friday, May 4th