'Spider-Man 3': Tangled Web, By Kurt Loder

Is Hollywood's most lucrative comic-book franchise coming unstuck?

Superheroes aren't supposed to burst into tears, are they? Or go all huggy at the drop of a mask? And their girlfriends — I don't recall any of them ever breaking into song, do you?

Well, director Sam Raimi's third installment of the Spider-Man saga gives us all of this and (fortunately for fans) more. The series has always had a strong emotional component — the teenage isolation felt by nerdy protagonist Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire); his love for his dear old Aunt May (Rosemary Harris); his longing for the seemingly unattainable girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Here, though, these sweet idiosyncrasies dribble over the line into pure syrup. At the screening I attended — which was packed with real people, not just movie reviewers — I thought I detected an actual slump of puzzlement at the end, as the movie's final scene sank slowly into a bog of unexpected mush. I'll say no more.

There's too much story, is the problem. (The movie is a good 15 minutes longer than the preceding films, and it feels longer still.) And as cool as they may be individually, there are also too many villains. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who mutates into the shape-shifting Sandman after stumbling into the middle of a molecular-physics experiment, is an interestingly conflicted bad guy — a guilt-ridden ex-con who was only trying to save his dying daughter when he robbed and accidentally killed Peter's beloved Uncle Ben years earlier. And the black-suited Venom (Topher Grace) is a fine razor-toothed horror — an evil anti-Spider-Man. But then Peter's erstwhile friend Harry (James Franco) is still on the scene, too — he's taken over his late father's Green Goblin franchise and, wrongly convinced that Peter killed the old man, is sailing around Manhattan on his New Goblin surfboard in search of payback. (In a flourish worthy of a script that's willing to wheel in dying daughters, Harry's menace is conveniently neutralized, for a bit, by a bout of short-term amnesia.) And as if all of this weren't jeopardy enough, Harry's dad (Willem Dafoe) is actually still around as well, stirring up trouble from beyond the grave. ("Make him suffer!")

Exacerbating this overload of villainy is a small black ball of tar-like outer-space gloop called a symbiote, which falls to earth in a mini-meteor one night, not far from a tree where the now-an-item Peter and Mary Jane are snuggled in a big Spidey web, mooning up at the stars. Soon this malevolent goo has taken over Peter's body, forcing him to sexy-up his hairstyle and turning him into an obnoxious disco stud who vamps around town with a demented leer for every passing babe. (Watching the straight-arrow Peter go to the dark side is funny at first; but the caricature gets pretty broad, and the routine goes on too long.) The symbiote naturally has a malign affect on Peter's Spider-Man persona, too. He finally manages to shed the thing, but then inadvertently drops it onto a smarmy rival, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace with blond highlights), turning him into the aforementioned Venom (minus the highlights, but with the razory teeth).

In a way, it may be good that there are so many bad guys. Otherwise, we'd have to endure even more of the gas-passing colloquies that litter the script (written by director Raimi and his brother Ivan, along with "Spider-Man 2" screenwriter Alvin Sargent). The scenes with Aunt May are particularly bromidic this time around ("Learn to forgive yourself," she sagely advises); and even Peter ("People really like me now") has become problematic, his bashful sweetness shading over into arrested development. Most tiresome, though, is Mary Jane, who is given little more to do than whine and shriek throughout the movie. M.J. is now an actress, and as the film opens, she's won the lead role in a Broadway musical — a part from which she's fired after opening night. (We're supposed to sympathize with her, and we do; but we also sympathize with the show's director, who, like us, has heard her sing — Dunst isn't a bad vocalist, exactly, but she's not Broadway.) From this point on, Mary Jane becomes very needy, and there's little relief from her po-faced pouting until Venom gets his hands on her, at which point the shrieking kicks in.

"Spider-Man 3" reportedly cost more than $250 million to make — possibly twice as much as the first film — and a lot of the money obviously went to the battalion of effects technicians who brought their computers to bear on the labor-intensive Sandman (who can morph from a raging tornado into a Kong-size golem) and on the movie's many action sequences. There's a spectacular, sky-high battle between Spider-Man and New Goblin early in the picture that's both intricately artful and seamlessly kinetic — vintage Raimi — and a witty bit in a subway where Spider-Man pushes Sandman's granular head up against a train that's barreling by and shears off half his face. But a lot of the digital tumult becomes numbing after a while, and the inevitable shots of Spidey leaping around the concrete canyons of New York remain as hopelessly cartoony as ever.

The actors once again elevate the material. Thomas Haden Church, in particular, brings real feeling to his portrayal of a man with no place left to run (or swirl). Bryce Dallas Howard makes a dewy-fresh debut as beautiful Spidey admirer Gwen Stacy, and James Franco and Topher Grace are too smart and skillful ever to be mistaken for mere hunks. It's also always good to see "Evil Dead" star Bruce Campbell popping up in another Raimi film — even if his cameo here, as a sniffy maître d' in a French restaurant, seems shoe-horned into a scene that goes on way too long.

But it's hard to imagine where else Maguire and Dunst can go with their characters — there doesn't seem to be much else we'd need to know about them. And Raimi, too, may have reached the end of his creative investment in the series. All three are being very vague at the moment about returning for "Spider-Man 4" — something I think we can take to be semaphored salary negotiations. Since the conclusion of this picture makes another sequel a certainty, it's probably safe to assume that Sony will marshal boatloads of cash and contract perks in order to secure the services of this core trio one more time. How they'll deal with the conceptual bloat that's now set in may be a more pressing question, and no matter how much money this picture mints, it'll have to be answered. As Mary Jane observes at one point, "Everybody needs help sometimes. Even Spider-Man."

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