Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat. Longtime readers may recall that I was not a fan of Spider-Man 2, a movie whose obsessive adherence to formula made it play more like a half-hearted remake of the original than a sequel. I'm happy to report that Spider-Man 3 has added some new ingredients to the recipe, though somewhat less pleased to note that it's added several too many: another crisis of identity for Peter Parker; a roller coaster of affection and enmity with his best friend Harry; new revelations about his Uncle Ben's death; multiple interlocking love triangles; another calamity involving heavy machinery; and not one, not two, but three new supervillains dedicated to squashing Spider-Man.
This, evidently, is what happens when your star, Tobey Maguire, has expressed doubts about making any further sequels. (As he put it a while ago, "It feels like a trilogy to me, and it feels like the end.") Early on, there was reportedly some discussion of dividing the developments in Spider-Man 3 into two films; instead, Director Sam Raimi has crammed everything into one $250-plus million, two-and-a-half-hour behemoth, the most exhausting mass entertainment since Peter Jackson's King Kong. Every plot thread is tied up, every character completes his assigned arc, and every special effects technician on the planet will be able to put food on the table for months to come. Even viewers who enjoy the movie--and for fans of the franchise there's plenty to enjoy--may be relieved that this could be the last we see of the webcrawler for a while.
When we first drop back in on Peter Parker (Maguire), he's facing a novel dilemma: happiness. He's won the love not only of sweetheart Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) but, more improbably, of New York City. Even the newspapers are explaining "Why NY ?s Spidey." Peter is so giddy at his good fortune that we're soon begging for a super-baddie to come along and knock the insipid grin off his face.
It doesn't take long. Peter and M.J. are lounging away a sultry evening in a decidedly uncomfortable-looking web hammock when a small meteor crashes mere feet away--what are the odds?--and releases what appears to be an inky, ambulatory booger. This bit of villainous snot follows Peter home and soon takes the form of a rubbery, black Spider-Man costume. A professor friend of Peter explains to him that it's a dangerous symbiotic life form that he should avoid at all costs, but he takes to wearing the suit anyway: It seems to enhance his superpowers and, besides, it goes with everything.
In the meantime (expect this phrase to come up often in any discussion of the film), a thief and murderer named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) escapes from prison and, while fleeing pursuit, falls into a pit in which a nuclear experiment is taking place. His body is quickly disintegrated and then, rather more slowly, re-integrated from granules of sand. Dubbed "Sandman" by the ever-literal press, he finds he has the ability to take any shape he chooses, from towering golem to dust in the wind. In keeping with the immutable law that any Spidey villain must have a connection to Peter's personal life, Marko/Sandman is soon revealed to have been ... well, you can find out for yourself. It will come as no surprise, though, to report that Peter's old friend Harry (James Franco) has also decided at last to follow his supervillain dad, the first movie's "Green Goblin," into the family business.
The challenges facing Peter are not solely of the superpowered variety, however. His relationship with M.J. has become, well, a relationship, and as such requires tending. And while things are going fabulously for Peter, M.J. is struggling. Fired from a Broadway play for her weak singing voice (it's hard to differ), she is in need of a little attention. But Peter, in his cheery self-absorption, is oblivious to her unhappiness. He is wearing success rather poorly, in part because he's also wearing that extraterrestrial body suit, which has the side effect of making him not a terribly nice person. The slithery symbiote will eventually leave Peter for another host, who will as a result become the villain "Venom" (Spidey nemesis number three, for those counting at home). Before then, however, it will force Peter to exhibit all the behaviors familiar to those of us who've ever watched a good man go bad: flirting with another woman (Bryce Dallas Howard); crushing a professional rival at his day job (Topher Grace); jive walking down the streets of Manhattan to a funkadelic soundtrack; and restyling his hair in the angry, diagonal wash of bangs that has consistently denoted madness, from Hitler to Crispin Glover.
In the meantime (told you!), Harry has bounced from bad to good to bad, with plenty of time to reassess again before the end of the movie; M.J. and Harry have momentarily rekindled a romantic spark; a runaway crane has taken its best shot at the Manhattan skyline; Spidey has staged a series of frenetic fights with all three villains; and Raimi regular Bruce Campbell has given Steve Martin a run for his money in bad Clouseau impersonations. Remarkably, Raimi does a pretty good job of keeping all these balls in the air and moving his multi-pronged story forward; unfortunately, his ultimate destination is a conclusion so hermetically tidy it could get on even Felix Unger's nerves. (Among other frustrations, getting there entails one of the most idiotically delayed revelations in the history of popular film. Prepare yourself to ask in annoyance, why didn't the butler mention that two movies ago?)
Yet for all its flaws, Spider-Man 3 has a surprising amount to recommend it. The scene, following Marko's nuclear accident, in which a mound of sand slowly billows and builds itself back into his likeness is the first genuinely beautiful moment of the series, and probably the most emotionally affecting since Peter took his powers for their first test drive. Thomas Haden Church, moreover, bears an uncanny, evocative resemblance to an early Marvel Comics drawing; if there were a Ron Perlman/Hellboy prize for comic-book verisimilitude, he'd be a shoo-in. As Harry, Franco is largely freed of the drunken, impotent ranting that characterized his entire Spider-Man 2 outing and is instead allowed a few flashes of charm and diabolical slyness. Maguire has a great deal of fun with his descent into Disco Hell (though the gag is extended far too long). And Topher Grace is perfectly cast as Peter's unfortunate doppelgänger/competitor at the Daily Bugle--it's long seemed his DNA was spliced from Maguire's by Hollywood scientists.
But the best aspect of Spider-Man 3 is that it aggressively pushes its characters, and their story, forward. After the marvelous setup of the original Spider-Man, the first sequel settled for a timid narrative stasis: The villain was another brilliant-and-friendly-scientist-turned-deranged-villain; Peter again confronted the question of whether superheroing was worth the trouble; he and M.J. were stuck somewhere between flirtation and actual dating; and Harry was left to marinate in his Maker's Mark.
Spider-Man 3 frees the franchise from this torpor, and enriches its themes, if sometimes heavy-handedly. In Sandman, it finally offers a villain who isn't crazy, and who poses a new challenge to Peter's decency. Under the influence of the symbiote-suit, Peter at last gets to tell a self-pitying Harry what, at least in part, he really thinks of him. And Peter and M.J. learn that deciding to be together is far easier than doing the actual work required to stay together.
Related to all these developments (and especially the last) is the movie's most interesting shift. In the first two films, Peter had to balance his personal life with the obligation of crime fighting; this time out, he must balance it with the thrill--the fame, the adulation, the resulting ego. Even before he first dons his alien couture, Peter is crossing the line where happiness becomes self-satisfaction. Early in the film, as M.J. struggles to explain her dejection, Peter interrupts time and again with a breezy "don't worry, I know just how you feel, I've been through exactly the same thing"--the sweetest of solipsisms. In moments like these, Spider-Man 3 offers a touching portrait of the need for humility in the face of great success. It's a lesson the creators of this oversized blockbuster-in-waiting might have taken a little more to heart.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.