Tangled web

Spider-Man 3

Spidey likes to keep his groin well-stretched and ready for anything.

Spidey likes to keep his groin well-stretched and ready for anything.

Rated 3.0

Director Sam Raimi has been on quite a roll with the Spider-Man movies, turning out what many people (myself included) consider the apotheosis of the comic-book superhero flick. Raimi certainly has had a triumphant ride since 2002’s Spider-Man. Remember the howls of protest that arose from the comic’s millions of fans in 2001, when word got out that Tobey Maguire, of all people, would star as the legendary web-slinger? And remember how Maguire hadn’t been on screen 10 minutes back in ’02 before the decision began to look like a brilliant stroke of intuitive casting?

Where Spider-Man was a home run, Spider-Man 2 (2004) hit a grand slam—a quantum improvement over the original, both technically and emotionally. Now we have the third installment and, perhaps inevitably, we get the first disquieting hints that the franchise may be—dare I say it?—running out of steam.

As the film opens, Peter Parker is a happy-go-lucky guy who feels secure both in the hearts of New Yorkers as his Spidey alter ego and, as himself, in the heart of winsome Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But there are cracks in his perfect life that he doesn’t even notice until it’s almost too late. Mary Jane flops on Broadway, but Peter, on a Spidey-high, hardly notices. Mary Jane seethes, especially when Spider-Man publicly shares “their” upside-down kiss with his latest rescued victim, lovely model Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Meanwhile, criminal Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) escapes from prison and, in one of those comic-book accidents that always happen, is trapped in a mysterious scientific experiment and transformed into the Sandman, a shape-shifting supervillain.

Next, Peter’s former friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), knowing Peter’s secret identity and still blaming him for his own father’s death, surfaces as the New Goblin, bent on revenge.

Then, piling on, comes Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a rival for Peter’s job as photographer for the Daily Bugle who is also jealous of Peter’s innocent attentions toward Gwen.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, a meteorite from space brings to earth a strange entity, a kind of creeping sentient tar that likes to latch onto living creatures and bring out the worst in them. Before long the alien tar has invaded both Peter and Eddie, turning Peter (and Spider-Man) into an obnoxious show-off and Eddie into Venom, yet another supervillain with a score to settle against both our heroes.

By now, an exhausted viewer could be forgiven for wanting to shout “Hold, enough! There are too damn many villains in this movie!” Even Spider-Man has trouble dealing with them all, and he’s a superhero, for cryin’ out loud. We’re only human.

Don’t get me wrong. Spidey 3 is still fun and worth the price of admission. The movie’s emotional core, the romance between the dweeby Peter and lissome Mary Jane, is still strong, albeit cluttered and hampered by the jumbled threads of the script (by Raimi, his brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent). Credit for this goes to the invincible screen chemistry between Maguire and Dunst, and to Raimi’s acuity in casting them in the first place.

But this time, there is no overarching nemesis like Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock in S-M 2 to focus Spidey’s efforts and our attention. With Sandman, Goblin, Venom and the alien tar, the movie threatens to succumb to “sequel-itis,” the constant impulse to outdo its predecessors.

Plus, all the on-screen love of Spider-Man comes to look like a self-referential boast by the franchise itself. It’s unseemly in a way, almost as off-putting as Peter and Spidey at their tar-infected worst—with nothing like the tender beauty of the moment in S-M 2 when the train passengers pass the unconscious and battered Spider-Man from hand to hand (“Why, he’s just a kid …”).

If this is, as some (including Maguire) suggest, the last big-screen installment of Spider-Man, it may not matter that the series is losing steam. But the movie ends with the usual dangling outlet into which Raimi can plug Spider-Man 4.

Whatever happens, Spider-Man 3 is still well worth a look. Let’s just say it’s my third-favorite Spider-Man movie.