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Illustration by Paul WilloughbyPhoto: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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.

The overextravagance of Spider-Man 3 made me nostalgic for the days when comic books were nerdy and disreputable. Like many other misfits, I read them with a flashlight under the covers; I never dreamed I’d someday have to read them for my job, that I’d get hate mail if I wasn’t conversant with the complete oeuvre of Marvel Comics. I never dreamed that the most expensive movie of all time would feature the figure who, on Saturday-morning cartoons, “spins a web, any size / Catches thieves, just like flies / Look out!” With its cathedral-set epiphanies and holy choirs and good-conduct sermons and bad guys who don’t really mean it, it’s a different order of comic-book movie. It’s the new Ben-Hur.

The young Canadian actress Sarah Polley has always combined a blunt, no-b.s. delivery with a slightly abstracted air, and she brings that odd blend to her focused yet dreamy debut feature Away From Her. A loving adaptation (by Polley) of Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it’s about the struggle of an ex-professor, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), to come to grips with the Alzheimer’s disease of his wife of 50 years, Fiona (Julie Christie). But this is no Illness of the Week movie. Its real subject is the instincts that emerge as Fiona’s short-term memories fade—that steer her away from her husband, who once cheated on her with his students, and into a nurturing, dependent relationship with a mentally enfeebled patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), at her “retirement facility.” This sounds like the stuff of a male-comeuppance movie—but Polley (like Munro) aims much higher. Away From Her is a twilight-of-life love story, one that harshly demolishes our romantic notions of love and loyalty, then replaces them with something deeper and, finally, more consoling.

Could there be a more transcendent Fiona than Christie? The actress has wrinkled, of course, but all hail great bone structure! She has the same face, the same faraway eyes, the same otherworldly beauty she had in her youth. Her Fiona is present (the shell remains, and so does the inner glow) and yet just out of reach. When she greets her husband with a coquettish, “You’re persistent, aren’t you?” you don’t know if she recognizes him or regards him as a new suitor (it’s likely a bit of both). As Grant trails her around her new home, watching her stroke and cling to her new special friend, you see in his eyes the raw pain of a boy abandoned by his first great love, struggling to make cosmic sense of the injustice. Where this takes him is nowhere you could imagine.

Away from Her is part memory play, weaving in and out of the past as Grant drives down the wintry Canadian roads to see Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis). How you view what follows might depend on how you regard both the character and the actress—who is fresh and youthful-looking and funny, but has the unenviable task of playing an alternative to one of the screen’s most sublime beauties. However you feel, you’ll brood on it long after this haunting movie ends.

More than anything, I wish I could write about the boisterous romantic comedy Waitress without reference to the tragic murder of its writer, director, and co-star Adrienne Shelly. It’s hopeless, though. Because the movie is so hit-and-miss, I kept getting thrown out of it and returning to thoughts of its maker—of what must have been her busy inner life, her evident joy in making movies, and her potential, down the road, to develop an authentic American voice and make wonderful screwball farces.

Waitress centers on a creative and enthusiastic small-town pie-baker (Keri Russell), who’s married—rather inexplicably—to a brute (Jeremy Sisto) and who gets thrown into emotional chaos when she finds herself pregnant. The baby is an alien, a parasite, an agent of her husband. But she won’t get rid of it. And her new OB-GYN (Nathan Fillion) is smitten—which means weekly and sometimes daily visits to his office. The ping-pong dialogue seems more suited to the stage than the screen, but Fillion—star of Joss Whedon’s neat sci-fi series Firefly and its movie, Serenity—has the perfect dopey haze, and during his scenes with Russell, some old-fashioned movie magic takes hold.

Shelly’s staging is pushy, and the film doesn’t look very good—the lighting does the actors no favors. But the climax, in which the heroine finally regards her little girl, is wrenching for all kinds of reasons. I think of Waitress as an overstuffed, overcooked pie—too ungainly to eat all of, too generous to pass up, too heartbreaking to contemplate for long.

Blocked streets were plentiful during the five weeks Spider-Man 3 shot in Manhattan last spring, but not all of the skyscraper backdrops are authentic. The city wouldn’t suspend traffic for the six days needed to film a climactic chase scene, so Sam Raimi chose the next best thing: Cleveland. The priciest movie in history (somewhere between $270 and $500 million, depending on who’s counting), this was also the first film to take advantage of the Cleveland Convention Center. The crew even threw a public wrap party.

Spider-Man 3
Directed by Sam Raimi. Columbia Pictures. PG-13.

Away From Her
Directed by Sarah Polley. Lionsgate. PG-13.

Directed by Adrienne Shelly. Fox Searchlight Pictures. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

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