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Since his debut in 1962, near the peak of the baby boom’s entry into adolescence, Spider-Man has been divided between his two identities as action hero and nerd-boy Peter Parker—the superstar and his fan base in one body. In Spider-Man 3, some new fissures open: Spidey first polarizes between good and bad, then sees the latter persona hop to another guy and become a fully separate entity. In theory, that rupture may seem psychologically and dramatically profound. In practice, it’s just a mess.
Because comic books and movies are both visual storytelling media, the common assumption is that they’re made for each other. Yet the two aren’t all that comparable, especially if the comic book in question is a Marvel invention. The company’s one-time auteur, Stan Lee, approached comics as a serial form, with endless complications, frequent twists, and lots of asides. Filmmakers have struggled to adapt Lee’s approach for movies that run between 90 and 150 minutes. For Spider-Man 3, which nearly reaches the upper limit of that time frame, writer-director Sam Raimi loads the scenario with crises and breakthroughs, underscored by flashbacks. The film climaxes with a sequence in which Spider-Man, his mask torn to nearly reveal his Peter Parker identity, battles with and against Venom, Sandman, and the New Goblin, as his girlfriend, Mary Jane, dangles vulnerably in mid-air. That’s not just an enormous set piece, it’s Raimi’s fundamental narrative strategy: Compress the serial form until everything seems to be happening at once.
Nearly everyone who sees this movie will know the primary characters, but Raimi (who scripted with Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) recaps the tale during the opening credits. Peter (Tobey Maguire) is a science undergrad and freelance photographer who got “spider powers” from a radioactive arachnid’s bite. Mary Jane, an aspiring singer-actress, is his true love. Peter’s pal Harry (James Franco), the son of dead supervillain the Green Goblin, blames Spider-Man for his father’s death—except when he doesn’t. New this time are the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), a hard-luck thug whose body melds with sand in another freak nuclear mishap, and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), an unprincipled photog who enters as Pete’s rival for Daily Bugle assignments and later is possessed by intergalactic goo and becomes Venom. The New Goblin, Sandman, and Venom all attempt at one time or another to kill Spidey, who when not saving Mary Jane from vertiginous doom is rescuing classmate Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) from similar danger.
In Raimi’s previous Spidey flicks, the Peter Parker sequences were more engaging than the developments involving his costumed alter ego. That may be why the director—nearly forsaking the traditional secret-identity setup—has sought to merge the two personae. This time, the outer-space “symbiote” that transforms Brock into Venom first affects the web-spinner, making him cockier and borderline evil. But the bigger change comes in Parker, who swaggers down the streets as if he’s just seen Saturday Night Fever. He starts dressing in black, uses his bad-boy allure to attract women, and ultimately takes Gwen on a date just to hurt Mary Jane. Parker’s temporary descent into depravity is more amusing than any of the supervillian melees, but anyone who saw The Good German knows that Maguire can’t play a bad guy. He seems even more callow as a strutting chick magnet than as a withdrawn high schooler.
Whether or not all the soap operatics and high-altitude tussles are entertaining largely depends on your patience for crude dialogue, sketchy characterization, and jerky CGI. Raimi reportedly spent more than $250 million on this trifle, and its action sequences are a bit more convincing than in the previous two installments. Yet Spider-Man 3 still looks more like a video game than a film, and its rapid-fire cutting seems designed less to create a sense of excitement than to divert attention from the cheesiness of the images. The compositions push everything to the foreground, as if the film were designed for direct-to-video release, and Christopher Young’s score (which resets Danny Elfman themes) smothers the emotional moments in corn syrup. Stylistically as well as narratively, Spider-Man 3 is one big pileup.
Raimi recently announced that he’s going to make three more movies in the series. The only way they could be more chaotic than this one would be if all three were projected at the same time. But given the way that Spider-Man 3 throws new characters and old tricks at the screen, that wouldn’t even be much of a change.