Spidey Runs Out of Webbing

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

Must we always kill the thing we love?

In an apparent effort to put a stake in the heart of the franchise that threatens to swallow his career whole, "Spider-Man" series director Sam Raimi has delivered an overlong, visually incoherent, mean-spirited and often just plain awful "Spider-Man 3," a tangled web of special-effects overkill and self-indulgence that all but destroys the fun and goodwill created by the first two movies.

If this first of the blockbuster "three-quels" is any indication, it's going to be a lumbar-challenging summer. And when viewers consider that, at nearly 2 1/2 hours, "Spider-Man 3" is 30 minutes shorter than the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, they might want to cancel the paper, hold their mail and simply move to the multiplex for the duration. (Fans with memories of "Batman Forever," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Blade: Trinity" might also conclude that the number three is to comic-book franchises what 13th floors are to hotels.)

Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco reunite in the third installment of the Spidey story, which is still dominated by father figures, sexual competition and revenge. Peter Parker (Maguire), now a New York hero as Spider-Man, is ready to pop the question to Mary Jane (Dunst), whose Broadway career -- singing a painful rendition of Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful" -- is off to an un-wonderful start. Meanwhile, Peter's erstwhile best friend, Harry (Franco), is still convinced that Peter killed his dad, played by Willem Dafoe, way back in "Spider-Man" circa 2002.

Peter, viewers will remember, also suffered his own primal loss in that first installment, when his beloved Uncle Ben was brutally murdered. That event comes back to haunt Peter in the form of Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped convict with bulging biceps, a mournful visage and a score to settle. (A blondified Topher Grace plays another new character, a cub photographer named Eddie, but he doesn't make nearly the same impact.)

Whereas the first two terrific "Spider-Man" movies stayed true to the original comic book's dark psychological materials without sacrificing an overall tone of lightness and wholesome fun, "Spider-Man 3" is a curiously joyless enterprise, with Peter becoming infected with a weird supernatural substance that allows his native fatheadedness to metastasize into full-blown jerkdom. It all starts when a dollop of black alien glue attaches itself to his scooter and follows him home one night; soon, a thoroughly unpleasant alter ego emerges, propelling Peter to assume the haircut and eyeliner of an old Joy Division cover band and sashay down Manhattan streets with an awkward cock-of-the-walk strut.

Maguire, who recently proved he can play a rat in Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German," doesn't pull off the physical bits of business Raimi asks of him here, whether in that weirdly off-key sequence or an even stranger musical number in which he dances like a reject from a Bob Fosse bus-and-truck audition.

Raimi has always been a conscientious shepherd of the characters who populate the "Spider-Man" series, giving them their depth and narrative due. Here, he seems to have it out for both Peter and M.J., who never quite manages to overcome her pathetic story line. From that tuneless opening number, things never get much better for poor M.J.; even when Peter realizes what an egomaniac he's been, things end on a decidedly minor key. (Indeed, the entire movie doesn't conclude so much as deflate, in large part because Raimi's idea of wrapping things up is for a butler to suddenly appear with a confession best described as Tenetesque in its now-you-tell-us timing.)

"Spider-Man 3" has been reported as the most expensive movie ever made, at an estimated $350 million, most of that money going toward computerized visual effects. Even with countless effects-driven set pieces -- including an early showdown with Harry as New Goblin (decked out as a Space Age skate punk, whizzing around like the Silver Surfer from the new "Fantastic Four"), a terrifying stunt with a crane run amok, and several encounters with two new villains, Sandman and Venom -- there are no truly memorable stunts, with Raimi filming everything in jittery close-up with head-spinning edits and slice-and-dice sound effects. "Spider-Man 3" may eventually look good on an iPod, but on the big screen it's a blobby, illegible mess.

There's one exception: when a character falls into a particle physics lab (particle physics labs being as common as sidewalk cracks in Spidey-world), and is blown into more pieces than James Frey. When he's reconstituted as Sandman, the effect is truly stunning, with each granule swirling together at the hands of an invisible sculptor. Not only is that visual creation myth itself a terrific piece of artistry, but Church, as the Sandman's human alter ego, turns out to be unusually well-suited for such a larger-than-life tale. With his preternaturally muscular build and deeply etched, sorrowful features, he's the one person in "Spider-Man 3" who already looks as though he could have been drawn at a drafting table, yet is still recognizably human.

Spider-Man 3 (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense action violence.

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