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Spinning out of control

Spider-Man 3's special effects are flawless, but the movie is missing essential threads of logic

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 4, 2007 at 4:01 a.m.

spider-man-tobey-maguire-takes-on-sandman-thomas-haden-church-in-spider-man-3

Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) takes on Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) in Spider-Man 3.

— Before we get into this, you should understand I am a Spidey skeptic. I like the first two movies fine, especially the second installment, which seemed on the brink of transcending the conventions of the comic book genre and evolving into a full-fledged movie. Buteven when they please me, I never take them as anything a thinking adult person should get excited about.

Comic book movies owe more to their natural constituencies than they do to the rest of us; those of us with a lesser investment in the legend of Peter Parker ought to be careful about joining fanboy debates about the worth of this possible series closer. My credentials are somewhat thin; I was through caring about comic books by the time I hit junior high school. (Not that the enthusiasms I picked up were any more worthy, just different.) I know the basic outlines of the Spider-Man story, am familiar with a few of the villains, and take the great breakthrough of the Marvel universe to be the naturalistic portrayal of the human beings behind various masks. Spider-Man is essentially a wad of angst, an ineffectual kid whose alternate identity as a superhero is as much a burden as a gift.

But Spider-Man 3 aspires to much more than fan service; it is reportedly the most expensive movie ever made (some estimates go as high as $350 million) and it won't be counted as a commercial success unless everybody in the country goes to see it twice. It is the movie of the summer (unless that Pirates movie is) and you know right now whether or not you're going to see it. Spider-Man 3 is not only critic-proof; it's probably bad-word-of-mouth-proof as well.

It disappoints me. It seems cobbled together, with too many story lines shooting out in different directions before wrapping around and bowing up neatly as a parable about the power of forgiveness at the end. Yet, despite the structural tidiness of the schematic, there's never a sense that the movie really coheres.

At the beginning of this presumptive end of the series, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is still as feckless and callow as he was in the beginning; for all the tragedy that has gone down around him he still seems mired in an arrested adolescence, unable to commit completely to either his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) or his destiny as Spider-Man.

This is a promising start, and it's only after a good halfhour - and the best fight sequence in the film - that Parker hauls out his Spidey suit. Unfortunately it's downhill after that as we get a succession of bad guys moving inexorably toward their ultimate confrontation with the webbed one, picking up curious powers along the way.

Parker's old friend (and enemy) Harry Osborn (James Franco) is temporarily jogged back into his amicable mode by a blow on the head that allows him to temporarily forget he believes Parker (as Spider-Man) killed his Green Goblin father.

Then there's Flint Marko (a sullen Thomas Haden Church, looking more like a special effect than the fleshy no-account from Sideways), a prison escapee. While on the run from the cops, Marko inexplicably gets caught up in a weird science experiment that converts him into a shape-shifting hulk known as the Sandman. As Marko tells us, he's not a bad person, he's just had bad luck - he needs to rob banks and kill old men because his daughter is sick and needs some sort of surgery.

In the meantime, Parker finds himself competing with Machiavellian Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) for freelance photo gigs at the Daily Bugle. Brock's not above enhancing his photos, a practice that not even ethically flexible editor J.J. Jameson (J.K. Simmons) can countenance. When sneaky Pete snitches out his rival, Brock vows vengeance. Conveniently, he's soon to be converted into the ferociously evil Venom.

Huh? Exactly. It makes no sense to try to explain the plot points - the movie doesn't even try. When a meteorite that carries evil slinky gunk slams into the earth, it does so a few yards away from where Parker and M.J. are snuggling in a giant spider's web. It just naturally hops onto the back of our hero's scooter, because he's the hero.

That's all right, we can buy into the comic book logic that requires Parker/Spider-Man to have two or three points of connection with every villain or victim. We can accept that the real point of the film is to set up the CGI-enhanced chases and battles. But we can ask that the movie not feel like a paint-by-numbers exercise,can't we? Or that the actors at least look like they're pretending to have fun?

Actually, Grace is very good as Brock/Venom, and Simmons' Jameson is still a kick. But Maguire looks like he's got one foot already out the door, and in a couple of supremely silly scenes meant to show him flirting with the dark side of his nature, he seems determined to kill the movie. Dunst, whom I normally enjoy, is wretched asa whiny, self-centered character who is supposed to provide some kind of contrast with Parker's self-absorption.

It goes without saying that the special effects are impeccable, but to what end? Maybe they reflect the kineticism of a state-of-the-art video game. Cool whiparounds, dude.

But I get it. This isn't like a real movie, it's a Spider-Man thing.

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 39, 44 on 05/04/2007

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