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Spider-Man 3 visits the dark side but returns entertainingly and intact

The arachnid war

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The tangled webs we weave: Tobey Maguire takes Spider-Man to the dark side. - PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES

Declaring that Spider-Man 3 is the best third act in any movie series based on a comic book ought to be qualification enough for the film's deification. Unfortunately, the worst thing to happen to Spider-Man since we last saw him in 2004 was Batman Begins, the genre redefining opus that makes director Sam Raimi's friendly neighborhood franchise look winsome by comparison.

Perhaps it was the Dark Knight's atmospheric reboot that prompted Raimi to showcase Spider-Man's id as the centerpiece to the last leg of his now-trilogy. Or, maybe the Spidey sequels are merely continuing their curious aping of the Superman films—Peter Parker renouncing his powers for the love of his life in Spider-Man 2 mirrored Superman 2's storyline, whereas a literal battle between the divergent sides of Spider-Man's psyche recalls, yes, the otherwise forgettable Superman 3 (thankfully, Chris Rock does not show up to assume Richard Pryor's daffy scientist role). Supplementing what I wrote in my review three years ago, if the first film was about becoming Spider-Man and the first sequel was about the struggle to remain Peter Parker, then this third chapter is the final fight over Peter's Freudian fate.

It is even more likely, however, that this film represents the climax to a story arc about three carefree friends—Peter (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco)—each ripped from their innocent nonage and transfigured by death and sundry life-altering circumstances. What is frustrating is that the ingredients were within reach here for a bold, complex narrative involving the interplay between these central characters. As the curtain rises, Peter and Mary Jane are in the throes of their newfound spoony romance. Spider-Man has transformed New York City into an idyllic metropolis while MJ has worked her way into a starring turn on Broadway. Even Harry's enmity toward Peter is assuaged after a high-flying dogfight between the two amid Manhattan's canyons leaves Harry with short-term amnesia and no recollection of his Junior Green Goblin alter ego.

However, trouble is brewing below the surface. Peter begins gradually buying into his own hype as a cultural icon. Meanwhile, Mary Jane's latent jealousy over her beau's exalted status is amplified after critical reviews of her opening-night performance get her canned, and it goes into hyperdrive when Spider-Man unthinkingly and publicly repeats the upside-down smooch from the first film with college classmate Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the daughter of a police captain (James Cromwell) and a damsel-in-distress Spider-Man saves from a careening crane. A disconsolate MJ seeks solace from Harry, who together discover a brief, illicit romantic spark between them.

Stop at this point and consider the thematic possibilities. To the best of my memory, never has a mainstream Hollywood movie allowed a benevolent superhero to selfishly indulge in and succumb to, unaided, the temptations of fame, vainglory and power. It is understandable that Peter, still young and immature, would wander toward such a precipice, especially with the fallen angels of his nature potentially emboldened further by an internecine betrayal perpetrated by his lifelong sweetheart and his best friend, and the revelation that his late Uncle Ben's real killer, an escaped con named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), is still at large.

This is admirable, high-risk scriptwriting for an established, lucrative film franchise. Too risky, perhaps, since it is at this point that Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent's screenplay detours back into the safety of genre strictures. All the daedal character conflicts are co-opted by external copouts. Mary Jane's aborted infidelity becomes an invidious weapon coerced by Harry, his vengeful memory now intact. And, Peter's minatory side is ultimately manifested by a viscous extraterrestrial symbiont that blackens his Spidey suit and tickles his pleasure principle. Revenge becomes his guiding motivation in dealing with Harry, MJ, a rival photographer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) and Marko, whose tumble into a physics test facility leads to his transformation into Sandman, who can mentally and physically manipulate the sub-atomic particles of his body. At the same time, Peter starts dressing like a member of Il Divo and strutting down the street like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, setting the stage for a series of off-putting gaucheries that provides forced, extraneous comic relief (unlike a truly amusing cameo by Bruce Campbell, Raimi's former man-muse from his Evil Dead days, as a French maitre d').

There are two distinguishing hallmarks of the Spider-Man series. First are its elaborate special effects sequences, and although this film does not disappoint, on that count there is only so much CGI web-slinging and sandstorms you want to see over a two-hour, 20-minute movie. More important are the overarching characters and storylines that span the three films, which is mainly the consequence of a continuity of cast and creative team. You see the benefits of this in the evolution of the main leads as well as many of the recurring supporting characters. For example, Dylan Baker's Dr. Curt Connors appears for a second time without any hint of his character's ultimate fate other than a fossilized reptile lurking in the background of one of his scenes.

Nonetheless, much of the webbing is starting to look threadbare. J. Jonah Jameson's (J.K. Simmons) blustering has sunk into annoying self-parody, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) keeps spouting homespun platitudes, and Willem Dafoe is still hovering around like the ghost of King Hamlet prodding his scion to avenge his death. And then there is Dunst's Mary Jane, incessantly in and out of love with Peter and always the object of peril during the final act, this time by an evil Spider-Man doppelganger named Venom who forms after Peter's parasite chooses Brock as a substitute host. Oh, Dunst also sings two songs, undoubtedly to lend verisimilitude to why Mary Jane gets fired from her musical gig. Indeed, as superb as Maguire continues to be, the presence of the talented Grace and Howard made me momentarily wistful for the alternate universe where they play Peter and Mary Jane.

Even though Spider-Man 3 manages to eschew the narrative crutch of post-9/11 allegory, there are not many superhero movies in which almost all the protagonists end up crying for some reason, including a villain who is just allowed to drift away and presumably sin no more. At one point, Raimi frames Spider-Man against the backdrop of a giant American flag; to the extent movies reflect the zeitgeist, one wonders what this film is saying about us nearly six years thence.

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