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It's odd to think of Spider-Man 2 as a small movie, but next to the clanking, wheezing contraption that is Spider-Man 3, that $784 million-grossing megahit feels like some little Sundance indie. In an attempt to break opening-weekend records and justify this movie's much-disputed price tag, director Sam Raimi has piled on so many villains, subplots, supporting roles, and production numbers (Kirsten Dunst sings! Tobey Maguire dances!) that a news anchor is brought in at one point to help distinguish between two separate black-Lycra-clad superdudes who are terrorizing the city at the same time.
The second Spider-Man, one of those rare franchise sequels that surpasses the original, cleverly kept things simple: Peter Parker (Maguire), the superhero's schleppy alter ego, had to decide whether saving the world was worth losing his beloved Mary Jane Watson (Dunst), while Mary Jane had to decide between sticking with Peter and marrying a square-jawed astronaut. Spidey 2 also had a knockout villain in Doc Ock, a man-machine-octopus hybrid played with Byronic gloom by Alfred Molina.
The writers of Spider-Man 3, a team that includes Raimi and his brother Ivan (but not novelist Michael Chabon, who collaborated on the script of 2) seem to be suffering from villain insecurity. Are they afraid that James Franco, as Peter's best-friend-turned-superfoe Harry Osborn, isn't threatening enough? Why do they feel the need to overcompensate by throwing in the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), an ex-con who can change into a shape-shifting heap of sand particles, and Venom (Topher Grace), an envious rival of Peter's at the Daily Bugle who transforms into a fanged, building-scaling meanie? And I'm not even counting Bad Spider-Man or the evil space licorice.
Yes, licorice. In a development entirely unrelated to any of the abovementioned bad guys, a meteor harboring an evil symbiotic life form just happens to land near the spot where Peter and MJ are lounging on a giant spiderweb, looking at the stars. (Yet another perk of dating a superhero: He can weave you a rad hammock!) A bit of this space fungus, which looks like a living bundle of black licorice whips, just happens to wrap itself around Pete's scooter. The candy rides back to his squalid apartment, where it hangs out under the furniture till it's time to wrap itself slowly, inexorably, around his Spidey suit. Overnight, Spider-Man gets a black-clad evil twin, while the modest, nerdy Peter metamorphoses into a conceited, spotlight-hogging ladies' man—basically, a superdick.
Peter's narcissistic self-enjoyment during the early phase of this transformation is one of the funnest parts of the movie. Tobey Maguire struts the streets of New York like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, giving finger guns to every attractive woman he sees. He heads into a clearance sale and comes out looking fine in a suave black suit. He performs a weird Bob Fosse jazz-hands evil dance with his new love interest Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) while Mary Jane looks on, crushed.
These utterly silly scenes add little to the movie's multiple story lines, and this film, at 140 minutes, is plenty well-padded without them. But they do return us briefly to the spirit of Spider-Man, the endearing fact that, as Dan Kois points out in his slide show on the character, this is a superhero for the rest of us. He's broke, a bad dresser, clumsy at romantic gestures, and perpetually late. The evil Peter Parker is funny because he's nowhere near as frightening as he thinks he is—a gambit that, in a defter movie, could have been played not only for laughs but for drama. The script hints that Peter's jerkification was already under way before his encounter with the corrupting space candy. Why not go with that internal motivation for the transformation? Scrap the Black Vines of Doom and this becomes a fable about how success makes monsters of us all (a story that Raimi, helming one of the top-grossing franchises in movie history, no doubt knows something about.)
Of course, the critics could condemn Spider-Man 3 in one thundering chorus, and we'd sound like a few sorry crickets chirping to the hordes who will line up to see it this weekend. There are plenty of pleasures here: The slow birth of the Sandman from a heap of supercharged sand crystals (or something) is a marvel of digital animation, and the chemistry between Dunst and Maguire feels like the dynamic of a real couple, full of subtle shifts and eloquent silences. But the climactic action sequence, with its surfeit of villains and its final weepy sacrifice, seems hastily assembled from a bargain rack of lesser movies. Your first thought as the credits roll isn't "Wow, what'll happen next?" but "Where is there left to go with this?" Raimi and his Spidey team may be spending and making money by the forklift, but they're nickel-and-diming their hero out of a story.