Web of plots

May 9, 2007 at 12:00 am

The first Spider-Man movie was good, the second was great, this one ... well, it sure is big. Clocking in at 2 hours, 20 minutes, Spider-Man 3 embraces the "more is more" philosophy, proving that a little bit of everything ends up giving you not enough of anything. (You'd think that Sam Raimi would have learned from the '90s Batman films that too many subplots and villains spoil the broth.)

Our story picks up a few months after Spider-Man 2. Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) are on the brink of marriage but struggling with Spidey's newfound popularity (and egotism) while Harry Osborn (James Franco) thirsts for revenge over the death of his father (the Green Goblin) at the hands of his best friend.

You'd think that these complications would be enough to satisfy most of Raimi's needs, but the writer-director super-sizes the story with an alien symbiote named Venom that corrupts Spider-Man by feeding off his darker impulses. Add to that an escaped convict (Thomas Haden Church) who not only killed Peter's beloved Uncle Ben but also needs money for his terminally ill daughter; he turns into the shape-shifting super villain, Sandman. If that weren't enough, we get rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a competing love interest Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard), and a sudden bout of amnesia for Harry. Heck, if you look closely enough you'll probably find Waldo.

With all its overstuffed plot juggling, Spider-Man 3 wastes precious time on trite movie moments — like Harry and MJ cooking an omelet to "The Twist" — rather than developing its characters' emotions and internal conflicts. The film doesn't have the bright shiny enthusiasm of its predecessors, and you get the feeling that Raimi is suffering from cinematic ADD, cutting from one plot thread to the next without giving dramatic weight to any of them. Gone are the wonderful grace notes that deepened Spider-Man 2, which expertly balanced fun, camp, dread and humanity.

Still, pound for pound, the Spider-Man movies are the best popcorn flicks around and in many ways this one is no exception. Despite its many flaws Spider-Man 3 is entertaining as hell and will earn oodles of box office cash.

If nothing else, it's amazing that Raimi and his co-writers are able to lasso their stampede of plotlines together and get them all resolved. If only it weren't at the sake of character development.

As Spidey's personality adjusts to serve each plot contortion, his motivation gets watered down and the film loses momentum. Worse, Raimi's themes of forgiveness and corruption of power are rigorously applied to each and every character; the villains turn into abstract threats rather than terrifying foes. That is, until the action sequences kick in. Then Spider-Man 3 really shows off its $250 million budget.

The special effects have become so good that the line between Tobey Maguire and CGI Spidey is nearly impossible to distinguish. The actual action sequences, however, are more impressive than thrilling, lacking the visceral zing of the prequels. Nothing matches the train-top brawl with Doc Ock in the last flick and the emotional stakes just aren't as high. As remarkable as the set pieces are — and they are remarkable — there's a sense of "been there, done that."

Pressured by Columbia to include Venom, Raimi's rumored disdain for the character is immediately apparent — he laughably reduces the evil ooze's origin to an unexplained meteor that drops from the sky next to Peter and ... well, that's it. There's no further explanation. It hitches a ride on Peter's scooter, adheres itself to his spidersuit then enhances his powers while feeding his dark side. Still, the "Dark Spidey" story works well as Eddie and Peter are portrayed as two sides of the same superhero coin. Too bad Brock's motivations are so underdeveloped he never becomes the murderous villain he needs to be. On the other hand, the bad Peter Parker plot allows Raimi to indulge in some surprisingly broad humor (including a nutty homage to Saturday Night Fever).

Spider-Man's cast wins our affection, working valiantly to flesh out underwritten parts. Maguire comes off best as Venom's evil ooze gives him the room to convincingly explore Peter Parker's asshat side. Unfortunately, poor Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is relegated to a cameo; Dunst is never permitted to sparkle as Mary Jane; and the inspired actors cast as Spidey's foes are wasted. Thomas Haden Church is forced to portray Sandman as a mope and Topher Grace gets one acting note: be smarmy.

You'd think from this review that Spider-Man 3 is a big disappointment. It's not. It's actually quite a bit of fun. Unfortunately, the earlier films set the bar so high you walk in expecting a boffo superhero epic and end up sitting through a fitfully inspired soap opera. Raimi keeps the film exciting, impressing us with stellar moves, thrilling us with bounces off the rim but rarely sinking the basket. As a kickoff to the summer blockbuster season it's a good start but I suspect there'll be better.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].