Review: Spider-Man 3

When we last left our friendly neighborhood web-slinger, he was swinging off to another adventure, gassed up on the profession of love from his adored Mary Jane. The future was tentative, but the heroic spirit was soaring, the conflict cleared, and the promise of hope virtually fluffed the clouds. Now it's time to usher in the darkness.

Content with a city that loves him and with Mary Jane (Kristen Dunst) at his side, life is good for Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). Before he can get too comfortable, new troubles start raining down on his life: a newsroom rival named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace); an unexpected love interest in classmate Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard); a heavily-armed Harry Osborn desperate for revenge; and Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), a petty criminal revealed to be responsible for the death of Peter's beloved Uncle Ben, and now on the run as the mutated creature Sandman.

If that wasn't enough for a superhero's "to do" list, there's an alien "symbiote" on the loose, attaching itself to Peter, turning him into a young man of impulse and a hero of vengeance. The parasite also has designs on Brock, forming a beast called Venom who has an endless appetite for inflicting pain on Peter.

2004's "Spider-Man 2" wasn't just a triumph of a movie; it was a revelatory comic book adaptation experience. Director Sam Raimi hit the jackpot furthering the adventures of Peter Parker. The filmmaker found an adversary worthy of elaborate special effects and screentime, and took these characters into dangerous waters.

"Spider-Man 2" is a tall order to top, but nobody was asking Raimi to keep ascending. Unfortunately, "Spider-Man 3" (IMDb listing) didn't heed the warning of overindulgence laid out in the Batman films of the 1990s or Brett Ratner's "X-Men: The Last Stand." Spidey's newest adventure wants to make sure the audience gets the most bang for their buck, but in the process, the franchise has lost the focus, and in some instances, the pure joy of it all.

Of course, that's being negative too quickly. Raimi still has quite a splendid vision laid out for his superhero, and "Spider-Man 3" executes some powerful, epic moves during its time onscreen. Most of the excess is saved for the baddies, most notably Sandman, who is bestowed a spooky yet balletic introduction to the film that ranks up there with the best of them. A granular menace, often the size of a national monument, Sandman is a striking special effect and a sincerely tough foe for Spider-Man. The dusty character represents the pulsing sense of awe this sequel is committed to dishing out in massive amounts.

By now, Raimi has perfected his stunt set-pieces, layering in many rapid-fire battles for both Spidey and Peter. The action is frenzied, sensory-overload stuff; the kind of mayhem Raimi is just so damn good at, but only recently became infatuated with again. The new sequel quickly dials up the blitzkrieg with Harry's predatory designs on Peter, and the larger-than-life nature of some of the battles, along with their classic Spider-Man bruising nature, will tickle fans of the series. The way some of the combat is dazzlingly staged, I'm shocked Raimi didn't elect to go 3D with this feature.

What's keeping this second sequel from reaching glory is simply a development issue. Imagine a "Spider-Man" film with Peter Parker battling his moral queasiness and a villain, while trying to juggle Mary Jane and her endless drama. Now picture "Spider-Man 3," which has those essential pizza toppings, but toss in three villains with serious backstory, a photographic rival, the trouble with Harry, the introduction (and awkwardly quick dismissal) of Gwen Stacy, and the whole reopening of the Uncle Ben case. As you might expect, that's one massively jammed pie.

Even at a healthy 140 minutes, "Spider-Man 3" falls prey to the seduction of expanding the dinner plate to better satisfy the common good. It's a noble gesture, and I know Raimi isn't being careless with the over-scripted happenings, but the arteries clog fast on the production. If the sheer amount of plot doesn't exactly leave behind holes, it scatters enough doubt to keep the mind off the matter at hand: Spider-Man.

The most obviously constipated segments of the script belong to the heavies. While the Green Goblin and Doc Ock were given an entire feature film to work the poison out of their system, "Spider-Man 3" has to make sure three guys find their way to an endgame. The Harry Osborn arc is already in progress, yet, while set up gorgeously in the last film, the payoff is far murkier than anticipated. Sandman is a one-note bullet train of sympathy; a glum bad dad looking to right his wrongs by committing more wrongs. He's a barely literate tank with a conscience. Sandman is a neat villain in design, but Raimi doesn't find much for him to do (the Uncle Ben subplot is a big thematic mistake) or stand for outside of thrilling sandy punches.

This leaves Eddie Brock and fan favorite Venom. Played with expected impulse by Topher Grace, Venom is more of an iconic freak show than an actual rounded creation suited for the sequel. The whole symbiote angle feels hurried and shoved into the film by committee rather than by artistic vision. Venom is more of a third-act roadblock than a true adversary, and Grace fails to dig deeper into the psychotic shading of the creature.

A notable change in the production department is the departure of composer Danny Elfman. Replaced by Christopher Young, the new score for the film retains the lively hero theme that Elfman established, but brews it with jazzy tones that alternate between working for and against the picture. It's a more brassy direction, and it cleverly sets up a mid-movie comedy sequence that has a darkside Peter Parker taking over a nightclub, but Elfman's jubilant touch is missed.

I'm not positive I felt disappointment with "Spider-Man 3," because the film is still miles of breezy, heroic, summer-popcorn-stuffing fun. This is, for all intents and purposes, a fine movie that will do a very efficient job entertaining the pants off audiences. The creak, however, cannot be denied. "Spider-Man 3" doesn't quite bring the story of Peter Parker to a close by the time the end credits roll, but more to a point of fatigue. It will take some very concentrated screenwriting to shake off the excess if this series straps in for another adventure down the line.

Filmfodder Grade: B