Cinema Signal:

Spider-Man 2.1
. "Spider-Man 3" (aka, "Spiderman 3")

Pushing the acrobatic possibilities of this superhero to its DGI limits, director Sam Raimi presides over another high adventure across the parapets and skyscrapers of Manhattan. As he contends with three muscular supervillains, the emotional side of the tentpole coin is covered by his problems with the girl of his dreams. Non-Marvel Comics readers may find themselves losing interest in the franchise but the fan base will eat it up one more time with endorphin-producing gusto.

The first menace for the red-suited one and his alter ego, nerdy Peter Parker, freelance photog for The Bugle, comes from outer space in the form of a shooting star, one that neither he nor girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) notice as they watch the real ones in the sky while cozying up on a web-woven hammock one fine night. Obviously, they're coo-cooing too much to be aware of the life-like ooze that's coming toward them from the space rock.

It's also because Parker/Spidey is off his guard since things have been so tranquil lately. Mary Jane just sang in a Broadway musical, which has him agog over her talent. Parker, still a simple soul if not a simpleton in worldly matters, acts like a retarded teenager without a concept of physical desire, let alone downright sex. A bad word has never slipped past his lips, let alone a suggestive one. All of which is just fine with the demure Mary Jane. He does, however, harbor thoughts of marriage with his lifelong sweetheart. (Pre-teens who find whole line of subject matter abhorrent will just have to sweat it out).

As the pristine couple drives off on his motorcycle, the black mucous-like substance, snaking closer to Parker, just misses making contact by a tire tread. Its spooky presence, however, is destined to become a major force from the dark side (yes, I know it isn't "Star Wars" but we're borrowing here).

In the meanwhile, we're treated to the derivation of the dread Sandman. Just as Spidey acquired his peculiar gifts from a spider that tranmitted them with a bite, a petty criminal called Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), having just escaped from prison, is eluding police. Captain Stacy (James Cromwell) is pissed. But his men force Marko to fall into an experiment chamber with a floor of sand just as a machine revs up, trapping the man in its power structure and doing the molecular necessaries to turn him into a sand giant who always seems on the verge of tears.

The emotions of a villain adds dimension to a character and a movie as a whole, but the resolution of such good and evil complexity is a downer. Where is Doc Ock when we need him?

Threading his way through the melodrama of Parker's civilian life is papparazzi Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) whose perpetual smile and air of competitive superiority threaten the mild frelance photographer's meager source of income from The Bugle. Its editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) once again demonsrates his ineptness. While this character is pure stereotype, it must be said that it's mined here for some of the film's best laughs.

Laughs, and a somewhat new look at the Parker character, also come when he waltzes down 5th Avenue (or is that Madison?) like a peacock, smug, self-satisfied, the ruler of the roost.

But there's nothing to laugh about when it comes to Brock, who will do anything and say anything to replace Parker and, even, crawl his way into a staff position, something Parker never dreamed possible. Brock is a guy who never saw a scruple he couldn't ignore when it comes down his ambitions. Which fits perfectly when he takes on the black mystery cloak and becomes the powerful Venom, with powers equal to or greater than Spidey, himself.

Finally, there's old bosom buddy Harry Osborn, with whom Peter and Mary Jane grew up together as a bonded trio. Harry, the outlandishly rich son of Norman Osborn, aka, the Green Goblin, never hid his feelings for Mary Jane but has learned to accept her choice of Peter, if with a residue of jealousy.

Ah, but it's not a mere matter of the heart driving Harry, it's the provoking voice from the grave that calls out to him in demand that he take on his father's purpose as Spider-Man's nemesis, providing some of the most bone-breaking superhero-on-supervillain combat sequences. It results in a severe head injury that causes Harry to temporarily lose his near term memory and provide a friendship shelter for Mary Jane when misunderstandings (forced) turn into estrangement with Peter.

The problem with sequels of major tentpole successes is that they are constrained to conform to the original. the secret of success continuing is to maintain as much of the originating creative team as possible, which is done here. But, even then, evolution of the characters is a mine field most studios and investors don't take chances with. Director Raimi broke that mold a bit in Spider-Man 2 with a greater emotional content in the Parker-Watson romance than in the original and wowed audiences. But in playing it safe here he did the series no favors. "2" was better than "1" but "3" lets you down after the possibilities shown in "2."

This is also a special-effects intensive undertaking like few others. The whiz-bang action in defiance of gravity can't let up and doesn't. We revel in the soaring swiftness of our modest friend and his demonic enemies, a major part of the budget, as well as screen time. We're uplifted every time Spidey comes to the rescue in a new ballet dreamt up by the CGI team. We're relieved by his capacity to withstand a beating.

Spidey's Worldwide Performance
Spider-Man (2002): $821.7 Million
Spider-Man 2 (2004):$783.8 Million
Spider-Man 3 (2007): $629.3 Million
(to date)

To see how these figures stack up against other boxoffice leaders, click here.

But, of course, given the costs of such spectacle, an investment of $200,000,000 is a lot to worry about. So... rather than protecting that investment with studious adherence to the safety of political and cultural correctness, the series might do better for itself with a bit more daring in the plotline and in the potential of the villains to rivet us to our seats. Even if it means tearing away from its comic book origins. A movie installment demands more.

There are some excellently entertaining concepts here and it's not a bad night out. On balance it's good and is likely to be a contender in this year's blockbuster derby. But it leaves you with the feeling that the allure, the intensity of the excitement, the repeatable satisfactions may be tipping into a downswing.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Spidey greets Sandman with a fist.
Thomas Haden Church and Tobey Maguire do the honors.

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