(Reviewed April 20, 2007, by James Dawson)
The third installment in the Spider-Man franchise suffers from the same shortcomings as its predecessors: unnatural videogame-style action, inappropriately violent brutality and a generally downbeat tone. It's too vacuous for adult audiences and too vicious for kids. Also, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst look uninterested and unconvincing as Peter/Spider-Man and his girlfriend Mary Jane.
What makes "Spider-Man 3" the worst of the trio is that it's also at least an hour too long (a butt-numbing 139 minutes), often boring, sometimes incomprehensible and even more ineptly directed than the first two.
There's only one good thing about the movie: Thomas Haden Church is excellent as frustrated hood-on-the-run Flint Marko, who only turned to crime because he couldn't pay his daughter's medical bills. His accidental encounter with a scientific experiment transforms him into the shape-shifting villain Sandman. Church never plays down to the material, even though his character is basically a pulp-fiction archetype with powers. Instead, he gives Marko/Sandman a kind of tragic dignity that makes many of his scenes surprisingly moving.
Nearly everyone else in the cast is content to camp things up or coast. Maguire wears what looks like a mildly retarded expression throughout, especially noticeable when he is supposed to appear happy. Dunst seems to want to be anywhere but in this movie. Topher Grace, as a photographer who hopes to take Parker's place at the Daily Bugle and who eventually becomes the villain Venom, is off-puttingly hammy. James Franco, as Parker's former best friend and Green Goblin son Harry Osborn, over-emotes in classic teen-soap fashion.
Because the movies have screwed with the chronology and characters of the original comic-book series, the introduction at this late stage of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her police captain father (James Cromwell) will seem awkward and a little insulting to purists. In the comics, Gwen was Peter's girlfriend before Mary Jane came along, at which point all three became pals. Years later, the Green Goblin tossed Gwen from the top of a bridge to her death before getting killed by his own flying machine. (In the first Spider-Man movie, it was Mary Jane who got tossed, but she survived the fall.) The movie version of Gwen is merely an incidental character whose main purpose is to make Mary Jane jealous.
In "Spider-Man 3"'s first action scene, Harry Osborn uses his dead father's Green Goblin technology and toys to attack Peter, whom he believes is responsible for killing the old man. Unfortunately, their battle is literally a blur. All of the fast-motion CGI swoops and flips and zooms during this mid-air melee don't add up to much when it's hard to tell what is going on half the time.
Peter's main concern during the battle is getting back the dropped engagement ring he intended to give Mary Jane. This means the scene plays out like a confusing quidditch night game, with the falling ring as the golden snitch and Harry's goblin grenades as bludgers. (There's also a very "Lord of the Rings"-ish shot of Peter reaching for the falling ring, just to cover all fantasy-franchise bases.)
Harry ends up losing his memory after the fight. It takes about an hour for him to get it back and re-start things from the same point as before.
Mary Jane -- who, like far too many people after the events of "Spider-Man 2," knows Peter is Spider-Man -- becomes jealous of Spider-Man's popularity when her Broadway career suffers a setback. This inexplicably sends her into the arms of Harry.
Meanwhile, Peter falls asleep in his ridiculously crappy apartment. He awakens elsewhere to discover that a gob of space goo from an asteroid has covered his body and become a black version of his Spider-Man costume. We next see him (in his street clothes) and his chemistry professor examining a piece of the goo in an empty classroom. An awful lot of exposition seems to have gone missing along the way. For example, if the goo has become his costume, where did he get the glob they examine? If the goo is a symbiotic life form, why would Peter be able to take the black costume off and put it in a trunk?
I had stopped reading Spider-Man comics before the black costume/Venom storyline played out, so maybe everything made some kind of sense there. What we see onscreen doesn't. When the goo takes over Topher Grace, for example, Grace becomes some kind of monstrous thing with a shark-toothed mouth so wide it splits his head from ear to ear. Yet Grace later is able to remove the goo with his head still intact. Huh? Granted, we're talking about a reality where a guy bitten by a radioactive spider gets super powers, and another guy can turn into a living sandstorm, but still.
Director Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" star Bruce Campbell shows up in a small role, and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee makes another welcome cameo appearance. The score retains Danny Elfman's completely forgettable themes.
Nearly every fight scene leads to brutal beat-downs best enjoyed by sick sadists. A final confrontation in which Spider-Man is repeatedly thrown against steel girders and pounded to within a inch of his life is nearly as nauseating as seeing Superman get his liver pierced in "Superman Returns." Parents, you have been warned.
The best thing that could happen to this series would be a complete re-boot next time around, with a new director and cast who could make this stuff more frivolous and fun instead of overly sappy and sadistic.
Back Row Reviews Grade: D
To see my reviews of the two earlier Spider-Man movies and 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man," use the links below:
"Spider-Man 2" (2004)
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)