SAN DIEGO — After two years of Hollywood secrecy so effective it could instill jealousy in the CIA, the tangled web of the next "Spider-Man" blockbuster has finally begun to unweave.
The cast of "Spider-Man 3" showed up unannounced Saturday at Comic-Con to reveal crucial plot details to an intensely knowledgeable crowd — and overwhelmingly, thousands of geeks responded by showing that it wasn't just the neighborhood web-slinger who's friendly (see "Comic-Con Recap: 'Spider-Man 3' Surprises; Snoop, Samuel L. Reveal Inner Geeks").
"Man, they make it very clear to you that you shouldn't let the cat out of the bag in terms of what happens," apologized a buffed-up Topher Grace, finally able to purge after keeping a tight lip at the request of his Marvel Comics employers. "There's such a rabid fanbase in terms of figuring out information about these characters ... but I'm excited — we're going to show a clip today and a little bit of information is gonna be revealed. I've been working on this for a year now, and I'm excited to share it with people."
Moments later, hundreds were turned away from a sold-out "Spider-Man 3" panel in Hall H (capacity: 6,500), contributing to the first day in its 37-year history that Comic-Con had to stop selling tickets for fear of overcrowding. "I want to see the movie more than all of you combined!" Grace declared, establishing his geek cred with an audience composed of at least one full-costumed Spidey questioner. And along with Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, director Sam Raimi and fellow "Spider-Man" newcomers Thomas Haden Church and Bryce Dallas Howard, he finally had his gag order lifted.
"Weirdly, in 'Sideways,' I was also made of sand," joked Oscar nominee Church, cast in the new film as Flint Marko, a.k.a. the Sandman. The actor remembered that he got the job because he had read for Raimi's 2000 flick, "The Gift," but said he didn't appreciate the scale of his new assignment until he was surfing the Internet shortly after filming began.
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"[Marvel] were really wanting to hold back that information for a long time, but it got leaked out there in an irrefutable way," Church shrugged. "So yeah, it's kind of common knowledge that Topher and I are the bad guys."
At the panel, Raimi confirmed that Peter Parker would also be battling a third foe in James Franco's Harry Osbourn. Images were shown of Church as the shape-shifting Sandman, Grace being consumed by the otherworldly Venom costume, and Franco dressed from the neck down in an outfit similar to the one that fueled Willem Dafoe's madness in the first flick. Raimi said of Harry: "In the third movie, he is a little upset about his father, and he does want to wreak vengeance on Peter Parker." Pressed for further details, Raimi revealed that Franco's performance is "somewhere between" the comic characters of Green Goblin and Hobgoblin, and it was further revealed that Harry's story line will conclude in the third film.
"Thomas Haden Church will play the Sandman in the third installment, and he's one of the classic Marvel villains for Spider-Man," Raimi revealed moments before the panel. "All throughout the 1960s, he was pretty much — for my money — the best and baddest of foes that Spider-Man could tackle. He has an extraordinary ability to turn himself into sand or rock-hard sandstone."
"Venom, we are revealing today, is also in the picture," Raimi said, admitting later that he wasn't originally a fan of the character but was talked into it with some help from Marvel Studios Chairman and CEO Avi Arad. "He is played by Topher Grace. He's one of the characters the Marvel writers came up with in the 1980s, a little bit later than 1960s Sandman."
Pressed on rumors of a fourth villain who is well-known in Spidey circles, Raimi insisted that some secrets must remain for now. "The Chameleon as well? I can't say," the director offered. "I'm not at liberty to say."
Series star Maguire was more vocal, disputing a recent USA Today article that implied he'd be leaving the series after the film's May 4 release. "I think you're reading a little bit into it, and I think also that that was an interviewer putting a certain headline upfront that maybe made it sound more dramatic than the actual interview," he insisted. "Look, I've had a great time and I think we've woven a lot of the story lines and come to some conclusions in the third movie. ... I'm open to future movies, but only if there are great stories to tell.
"Are there great stories to tell? I'm not sure yet," added the actor, whose contract only binds him to three Spidey flicks. "We'll see, but I'm not making any declarations."
Maguire not only has several villains to keep him occupied in "Spider-Man 3," but he also has multiple girlfriends as well. "I do play a character called Gwen Stacy," said Bryce Dallas Howard, the "Lady in the Water" redhead who dyed her hair blond to play the classic character who vied for Parker's heart in the comics. "In this film she's a member of a love triangle between Mary Jane and Peter Parker, so drama ensues."
Mary Jane, meanwhile, will once again be a redhead played by a blonde. "I liked working with Bryce, so I had one scene with her, where it was just me and Tobey in a restaurant," Kirsten Dunst grinned. "I was actually acting; I don't like the blue screen stuff. I hate it so much."
During the panel, a question about Mary Jane's propensity for getting captured may have revealed a crucial plot point. As Dunst struggled with the identity of her favorite captor, Grace cleared his throat into the microphone — seemingly implying that his villain should be among the nominees. "You just gave something away, by the way," she grinned, looking down the table while chastising him.
Raimi further revealed that former "Evil Dead" leading man Bruce Campbell will once again cameo in the film and, despite rumors of a falling out, the director still hopes to bring series composer Danny Elfman back to the negotiating table.
Hours after the supergroup won over the geeks and fled Hall H, however, one particularly intriguing comment continued to hang in the air like a leftover web string. "Comic books deal with some really great issues," Grace explained while discussing the topics of racism and homosexuality explored by the "X-Men" comics and films. "I remember watching the 'X-Men' movies when they came out and thinking, 'This is a really interesting way to have this dialogue.' "
" 'Spider-Man' deals with some similar things. There are some really good writers behind it," Grace added, shining a quick light on the Venom angle that may have finally interested Raimi in the character. "Especially in this movie, which deals with some really, really serious issues, almost kind of bordering on substance-abuse issues."
"It does it in a way that kind of sugar-coats the pill," Grace finished, implying that Peter Parker's dependency on the soul-sucking Venom suit will take him to a junkie-like level of desperation. "It kinda feeds everything you want as an actor, to be in one of these movies."
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