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Spider-Man 3   B

Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent (based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, James Cromwell.

Review by Rob Vaux

I have a litmus test for big-budget blockbusters like the Spider-Man films. Not a make-or-break test, just something to help gauge the filmmakers' sensibilities: is there any recognizable humanity in an otherwise 100% special-effects shot? Does one of those eye-popping bits of CGI contain a twinkle in the eye, a whiff of storytelling, a recognizable pulse beneath all the bells and whistles? If so, it usually means the rest of the movie is on the right track. If not... well, it's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest that spectacle is the primary name of the game.

Spider-Man 3 has a doozy of a moment where the ghost comes alive inside the giant F/X machine. It concerns the origins of one of its three villains -- the Sandman, played by Thomas Haden Church. On the run from the law, escaped con Flint Marko stumbles into a random... um, de-molecularizing thingy, which quickly reduces him to a sifting pile of grit. He retains his sentience, however, and in one of those sequences that puts the Best Visual Effects Oscar in a hammerlock, he pulls himself together out of a billion tiny granules. Director Sam Raimi cited Expressionist horror films like The Golem as his inspiration for the scene, and he fills it with a sense of dark wonder as Marko slowly realizes just what he has become. That attention to character has helped make the Spider-Man franchise one of the most successful in film history, and gives this latest (final?) entry a respectable place within it.

Sadly, the spark rarely repeats itself... at least in the big money shots, which mostly involve frenetic conflicts between Spidey (Tobey Maguire) and various combinations of super-baddie. Besides the Sandman, there's ex-pal Harry Osborn (James Franco), still thirsting for vengeance and ready to put his dad's Green Goblin toys to good use; and Venom (Topher Grace), whose creation is intertwined with Peter Parker's emotional struggles throughout the film. Raimi has always had a flair for staging fights, and the film's respective battles royale are rife with his imaginative (if overly spastic) energy. They generally lack the soul displayed by the Sandman's genesis, however... though the remainder of the film never lets their noise and light subvert the needs of the characters.

And those needs are clearly on the filmmakers' minds from the start, as the dangling plot threads from the first two films blend together with some strong new ones. Early on, things seem to be going well for our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. The city has finally warmed to him, he's established a relatively normal life without shirking his heroic duties, and his gal Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) has a brand-new show on Broadway. But with great complacency comes great egotism, and Pete's head has swelled a bit since last we saw him. It causes considerable friction with MJ, who loves him dearly, but resents the way he has begun treating her like his number one cheerleader. His anger resurfaces too, especially after the police reveal that Marko may have been the actual triggerman who killed his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). And then there's Grace's Eddie Brock, who starts life as a slimy jerk angling for Peter's position at the Daily Bugle before destiny and dirty tricks turn him into something considerably scarier. All those pressures start taking their toll... which is when a convenient bit of alien goo comes crashing into Central Park and hitches a ride on Peter's scooter. One night, while he sleeps, it fashions itself into a new black costume for him -- feeding his rage and adrenaline beneath a rush of increased strength. With the Sandman on the loose and Harry still gunning for his hide, Peter soon embraces its dark power without pausing to consider the consequences.

The ambitious storyline expands even further with the addition of numerous supporting characters, from old standbys like J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, still rocking the house) to newcomers like Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her police captain father (James Cromwell). All that and Bruce Campbell too? It's a very full plate, and the strain of keeping it together buckles the foundation at points. Story elements start and stop abruptly -- some with only perfunctory resolution -- and Raimi often falls back on comic-book shorthand to hurriedly bind things together. Both the Sandman's origins and those of the alien costume are distressingly arbitrary, and while the costume, at least, has a backstory too complicated for any one film to cover (you'd need a lot more superheroes for starters, and I'm pretty sure Jackman is booked), its embodiment here lacks the elegance displayed by earlier entries in the series. Certain characters feel a little lost too, particularly the Stacys (who never quite connect with the remainder of the proceedings), and Rosemary Harris' beloved Aunt May (who serves as more of a sage advisor than an active participant).

And yet Raimi still succeeds at the nearly impossible task of keeping it all in hand. The disparate elements cohere into a reasonably workable package, the pacing stays on track, and three first-rate villains all get their moment in the sun without detracting from the fact that it's still Peter's story. (Take a look at some of the miserable early Batman films to see how hard this can be.) Dunst's Mary Jane has a terrific subplot as well, voicing the frustration of a thousand girlfriend/sidekicks who have more on their mind than just waiting to be rescued. The central theme of the battle within -- pushed mercilessly in the film's omnipresent marketing -- is never overplayed, and Maguire has fun showing Spidey's symbiote-fueled descent from a decent guy in need of some humility to a cruel bastard living only for himself. His journey back from that abyss uses classic monster movies as inspiration -- complete with Gothic churches, underground tunnels, and Venom's terrifying appearance as a demonic doppelganger. Church lends heft to that theme as well, with a simple performance evoking the sad monstrosity of Boris Karloff, while the dark colors and copious nighttime scenes give Spider-Man 3 a visual distinction separate from either of the first two films. It's a testament to Raimi's confidence that he can toy with such motifs without detracting from the spandex super-heroics that the material demands.

To be sure, it doesn't quite add up to perfection: the proceedings wobble on their wheels from time to time, and not all of the dizzying story arcs are sewn up the way they should be. But any complaints on that front are minor at best; the film's credentials are more than solid enough to forgive a little jury-rigging here and there. These people know what the hell they're doing, and after five years of practice, they're not about to drop the ball now. In a summer chock full of part threes, this one has the good grace to start things on the right foot. If it's the last outing for the principles (as several of them have intimated), then they can relax with the knowledge of a job well done. If it isn't, then Spider-Man 3 more than justifies their right to take our favorite webhead for another spin or two. At this rate, they may not be capable of letting us down.

Review published 05.01.2007.

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