Spider-Man 3 opens with Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) drunk on the adoration showered upon his web-slinging alter ego Spider-Man, a cockiness that unfortunately also seems to have consumed director Sam Raimi, who –with this third installment in the lucrative Marvel Comics-based franchise – seems convinced that he can chew whatever he chooses to bite off. Unfortunately, as with Peter, the filmmaker’s hubris is ultimately a one-way ticket to disappointment, as this latest go-round with the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler is so bloated with villains, love interests and peripheral dramas that it almost never manages to get off the ground, much less into the euphoric stratosphere of its wholly superior predecessor. Inelegant, superficial and – worst of all – acutely unexciting, it’s a preordained box office blockbuster unwisely guided by a more-is-more mentality, a surprisingly jumbled creation that weeps, roars, swings, screams and explodes with Dolby-enhanced bombast yet, for the most part, proves to be a hollow shell of a saga devoid of both thrilling action and rousing passion.
Written by Raimi with his brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent, Spider-Man 3 has enough material for two films, a bounty that proves to be its undoing. Peter’s self-infatuation threatens to destroy his romance with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), whose flameout on Broadway is callously ignored by her beau, just as his egomania leads him to believe that he has the right to play superheroic judge, jury and executioner. This latter attitude is magnified by a mysterious extraterrestrial symbiote (read: gooey, parasitic life form) which shapes itself into a sleek, all-black (and thus all-evil) Spider-suit that gives Peter increased strength as well as amplifies his anger. As it turns out, he’s got plenty to be angry about, as Raimi and company pit their masked crime-fighter against not only friend-turned-enemy Harry Osborne (James Franco) – still convinced that Spidey murdered his Green Goblin father (Willem Dafoe) – but also two additional adversaries: ex-con Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), aka Sandman, who happens to be the real killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a competing Daily Bugle photographer who in due course merges with the symbiote to become the ferocious arachnid-monster Venom.
Throw in a love triangle involving Peter, MJ and Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) – punctuated by Peter heartlessly duplicating his and MJ’s seminal kiss with Gwen – and what you get is a distended superhero version of The Young and the Restless. Of course, comics are, at heart, serial melodramas, but the film’s plot pile-up results only in diffusing the potential depth of its various narrative strands – of which Marko’s internal struggle between noble aims and criminal impulses holds the most (squandered) promise. In keeping with Marvel tradition, Raimi remains dedicated to fleshing out his bad guys’ motivations, and in his scant non-CG’ed screen time, Church imbues his malleable, physically impermanent baddie with a soulful desperation and self-loathing. Yet despite the director’s best intentions, virtually every other aspect of this lumbering threequel is given woefully short shrift, from Brock’s skimpy impetus for wanting Peter dead, to the role of cantankerous Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), to Peter’s fury and desire for vengeance, to Harry’s temporary amnesia (a device which proves the height of corniness) and decision to let bygones be bygones during a discussion with his butler that reeks of screenwriting laziness.
Whereas its predecessor struck a near-perfect balance between razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics and pulpy emotion, culminating in a quasi-religious battle against Doc Ock on top of a runaway train, Spider-Man 3 is a didactic sermon about free will color-coded for young tykes. Red, white and blue are good (hammered home by Spidey’s climactic run past the billowing Stars and Stripes) and black is very bad, though Venom’s evil is so carelessly defined that any substantial impressions of the character must inevitably center around his frighteningly elongated tongue. A sterling cameo from Raimi favorite Bruce Campbell proves to be the rare successfully jovial moment, offering temporary relief from the barrage of leaden speeches about revenge’s ability to corrupt, clunky song-and-dance numbers, and pedestrian showcase sequences peppered with too many cutaways to kids saying the darndest things. In Peter’s use of church bells to exorcise himself from his alien garb, Spider-Man 3 achieves its sole, subtle symbolic touch, but it’s not nearly enough to resuscitate this depressingly moribund film, which gracelessly lurches between thinly conceived storylines to the point that any rooting interest in their resolutions is eventually negated.