Less Than Hero


The sands of crime: Thomas Haden Church (left) takes a punch from a suspiciously brawny Tobey Maguire.
The sands of crime: Thomas Haden Church (left) takes a punch from a suspiciously brawny Tobey Maguire.


Bigger, louder and a good deal longer than its delightful predecessors, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 makes just about every wrong move in the sequel playbook, substituting scope and scale for the warmth and wit that made those two previous pictures so memorable. This lumbering third installment finds a trio of villains jockeying for screen time amid several half-developed storylines and a darker, self-serious tone that veers into the overwrought.

At the start things seem to be going pretty well for the webslinger. Much to the consternation of the Daily Bugle‘s J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, hilarious as always), Spidey’s become New York’s favorite celebrity, and is even given the key to the city by the prettiest girl in his chemistry class (a terrible Bryce Dallas Howard). Unfortunately Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker seems to be letting all this adulation go to his head, and he’s paying so little attention to his precious Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) that our clueless hero doesn’t even notice she’s been fired from her Broadway debut.

It’s a bad time to grow an ego, as there’s trouble brewing on several fronts. First, Peter’s former best friend Harry Osborn (still played by James Franco, unfortunately) has discovered his late father’s stash of Green Goblin super-soldier serum, and he’s suiting up for second-generation supervillian-hood with a personal vendetta against Spider-Man.

And speaking of personal vendettas, it turns out the man who murdered Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben wasn’t actually the guy we saw Spidey take out in the first film. In a strange little chunk of revisionist history, we now see a bunch of reshot scenes illustrating that Thomas Haden Church was the trigger man. As if all this weren’t awkward enough, James Cromwell’s police captain calls Parker and Aunt May down to the station and explains it to them for absolutely no discernible reason. (The exposition in this movie is often laughable.)

The punchline isn’t only that Church just escaped from prison, but he also accidentally tripped and fell into a top secret science experiment that, for some reason, was being carried out in the middle of the night–so suddenly he’s the Sandman.

Still not enough story points for you? Well there’s also the matter of this strange alien goo attaching itself to Peter and spontaneously transforming into a shiny black costume. It’s a parasitic organism that makes Spidey a lot more aggressive, and causes Tobey Maguire to grow his bangs out like he’s in an ’80s New Wave band.

Compressing years of complicated comic book mythology into a matter of minutes, the plotline doesn’t really make any sense. It does, however, allow the movie to stop dead in its tracks and turn into a remake of The Nutty Professor, in which this nasty “Buddy Love” Peter Parker takes his anger out on Mary Jane’s floundering musical career.

But wait, I haven’t even gotten to Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock, an unctuous ass who’s trying to muscle his way into Parker’s gig at the Daily Bugle by Photoshopping forgeries of Spider-Man committing robberies so the people of New York will turn on their hero. And that’s before Brock gets his grubby paws on some of that alien goo.

Honestly, folks, it’s exhausting just trying to type all this out. Spider-Man 3 eventually gets so tangled and top-heavy, Raimi has to resort to Peter Parker watching television so news crews can helpfully recap at least an hour’s worth of off-screen events that set the final battle in motion. (Note to aspiring screenwriters: If your superhero needs to watch CNN in order to figure out what’s going on in his own damn movie, that’s a good sign you’ve written yourself into a corner.)

Raimi’s action set-pieces are certainly massive monuments of special effects, but the sheer size of the spectacles feels almost oppressive. There’s precious little of his Evil Dead visual wit on display here, as if the logistics of the project got in the way of the humor. Spider-Man 3 never settles into that groove of pop bubblegum wonder, instead teetering on bathos as characters deliver long, angsty speeches over Christopher Young’s syrupy score. Kicking off the summer blockbuster season with a sigh of disappointment, Spider-Man 3 only proves that more is less.

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