Spider-Man 3 is the latest quasi-religious comic-book superhero epic to demonstrate that with extreme power comes extreme spiritual torment, that there are grave psychological dangers when the mask (in the Pirandellian sense) supplants the face, and that the practice of throwing around insane amounts of cash while getting absurdly rich off “tent-pole” studio franchises can make even an ecstatic horror maven like Sam Raimi a little flabby. For Raimi, this is meant to be the Big One—the most spectacular monsters, the most grown-up relationships, the most Sunday-school homilies. The movie isn’t a dud: It has exuberant bits and breathtaking (money money money) effects. But it’s supposed to be fun and inspirational, and it’s too leaden for liftoff.
This is a trend: Since the angst-ridden (and deeply expressive) Tim Burton Batman, there haven’t been many simple, straight-ahead superhero movies. Ang Lee’s Hulk groaned under cheap Freudian baggage, and even Superman, in Superman Returns, took to his bed in a lingering depression. But in Spider-Man and especially Spider-Man 2, Raimi got the balance right. The bashful, dorky Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, with his soft features and pale blue eyes) had to cope, as all adolescent males must, with sudden sticky excretions, and to live up to his newfound potency by facing his fears (among them declaring his ardor for Mary Jane, the buoyant Kirsten Dunst). It was too bad that at regular intervals this grounded character metamorphosed into a weightless little video-game Luigi swinging through a cartoon cityscape. In the sequel, the FX were more tightly woven into the drama; the villain, played by the soulful Alfred Molina, had more dramatic stature; and the love story was a few notches up the evolutionary scale from adolescent infatuation. It was both amusing and affecting to watch a hero so conflicted that neither side of him, human or superhuman, functioned properly.
His Spider-Man 3 trajectory is more of a slog. At the start, Spidey is a celeb (he’s even, bless me, on the cover of this magazine)—and it has gone to Peter’s head, so that he can’t begin to empathize with Mary Jane’s disastrous Broadway debut. (He says not to worry about the critics—good advice!) Although he still lives in a hovel, Peter enjoys the perks of superheroism, among them gazing on a meteor shower with his beloved in a web high above Central Park. Smooching, he misses the rock that lands on cue and bears black sticky stuff with legs—a blob from space with no apparent purpose except to bring out Peter’s Darth Spidey.
The charcoal-black Spider-Man is pretty cool-looking, and the black-clad Peter (with a lock over his forehead) brings off some snazzy moves in a jazz club when he tries to make Mary Jane jealous with his blonde arm candy (Bryce Dallas Howard)—he’s like Jerry Lewis’s Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor. It’s disappointing that Peter/Spidey doesn’t seem particularly power-mad, and that he’s so easily swayed by tiresome old Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), whose scenes stop the movie cold.
He’s also upstaged by three (count ’em) antagonists: Harry “Son of Goblin” Osborn (James Franco), still bent on vengeance for his father’s death; Venom (Topher Grace), a jackass photographer who has been black-slimed; and, most memorably, the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church plus 6,782 computer artists and programmers), an escaped con who was pulverized in one of those many hazardous particle-physics labs that dot the marshlands around New York City. Haden Church is an inspired choice for the role, since his groggy voice matches up with the behemoth, who has to practice (in an exquisite sequence) holding together the millions of grains that constitute (and reconstitute) his body, and who swirls around the city to the strains of Christopher Young’s “Night on Bald Mountain”–style strings. The clashes between Spider-Man and his foes still look a tad video-game-esque, but who cares with all the rock-’em-sock-’em new permutations—the spiraling midair collisions, the Sandman’s thunderous fist? Today’s kids have more incentive to study math and physics: better CGI superhero battles!
What’s missing? Momentum. A touch of meanness. A centrifugal threat like Molina’s octopus man. (In terms of dramatic stature, the three villains here don’t add up to one Doc Ock.) The script, by Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, wears its heart on its web: It pointlessly revises the murder of Peter’s uncle so he can forgive the new culprit, and gives nothing new to J. K. Simmons, whose once hilarious snarling editor is now a tiresome fellow. I lost count of the number of times Dunst plunges from a building during the climax—enough to make you think, Put her on the ground or let her fall! It’s fun to see Raimi stalwart Bruce Campbell channel Peter Sellers’s Clouseau, but apart from the Sandman and the nightclub dance, my favorite thing in the movie is when a rejected Peter fishes an engagement ring out of a Champagne glass with a fork: small, poetic, perfect.