“Spider-Man 3” is an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink production, a narrative mess that thrives on its boundless energy and the sheer audacity of its vision. It’s the best-looking “Spider-Man” yet — clearly, director Sam Raimi favored style over substance for this installment, elevating the visual effects to a point where they overshadow his characters, who are too often neglected for long stretches. Still, it remains an invigorating distraction, even if Spidey’s web has never seemed so tangled.
Supervillains abound in “Spider-Man 3,” (see trailer, below) though none are afforded the depth of Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin or Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock. They are rough sketches, blunt instruments with which to challenge Spidey’s mettle. There’s the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped convict who stumbles onto a particle-physics test facility and is transformed, in one of the film’s most impressive sequences, into a malleable pile of sand; Venom (Topher Grace), an insidious creep who derives his superpowers from an alien symbiote; and New Goblin, son of the Green Goblin, who resolves to avenge his father’s death.
The New Goblin needs little introduction — he is Harry Osborn, the erstwhile best friend of Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker. He is consumed by his desire for revenge to the point of tedium, though he is hopelessly outclassed when he takes on his father’s old nemesis. Sandman is a different sort — he steals (and kills) to provide for his daughter, but beyond that, he is avirtual nonentity. He surfaces, quite literally, when Spidey needs a new bad guy to pummel, and makes himself scarce otherwise.
Venom is similarly enigmatic. He arrives late in the movie, first as Eddie Brock, an upstart photographer angling for Peter’s job at the Daily Bugle, and then as Venom, an unscrupulous villain who is Spider-Man’s mirror image, save for his razor-sharp fangs. His transformation is explained away by a mysterious black goo that attaches itself to his spindly frame. The same goo finds its way onto Spider-Man’s suit and, we learn, “amplifies the characteristics of his host” — a good thing if you’re Mother Teresa, a bad thing if you’re an egotistical brat.
Beneath Peter’s nice-guy persona, we learn, Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) is no Mother Teresa. Decked out in his new black duds, he is goofily charming at first, strutting through Manhattan like Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” winking at all the pretty passers-by. But his personality shift has a serious downside. He grows sullen, as evidenced by his new goth get-up, and violently unpredictable, driving longtime sweetheart Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) into Harry’s arms. He wins her back, of course, and the sequence ultimately proves a diversion, typical of an anything-goes plot that plays fast and loose, heaping one transient event on another.
In that sense, “Spider-Man 3” lacks the sophistication of its predecessors. Those movies had confidence in their characters, not just their superpowers, and proved that even tales of comic-book heroism could be both poignant and compelling. “Spider-Man 3” seems to forget that — it is an entertaining distraction with a sharp sense of humor, but the conceptual thinking behind it is shoddy. As lightweight, campy fun, it works, but this is more a pleasure for the eyes than the mind.
Spider-Man 3 ***
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace
Written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Sam Raimi
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes