May 3, 2007

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Spider-Man 3 (PG-13)
Tobey Maguire suits up for another giddy, heady, weepy, dorky superhero adventure in Spider-Man 3, the third film in the series that has created the best modern adaptation of comic books.

Even the X-Men movies, the other comic book series that mostly did it right, can’t compare to the well-rounded achievement of the Spider-Man movies. The Spider-Man movies proved to the mainstream what geeks and nerds and fan-boys have been saying for years — just because your main character wears tights and has special powers doesn’t mean he can’t be a three-dimensional character. Superheroes can be just as flawed, as confused, as sad, as lonely as “serious” characters in “realistic” movies. The one identity trait that Peter Parker has never been able to keep secret is his own dorkiness. His pissy teenager years and his dorky young adult years made him as real a character as any you’ll see in the Cineplex.

And Peter Parker (Maguire) is still a dork here, even though he seems to have the superhero-life balance down a little better and is enjoying a robust academic life, steady freelance work as a photographer and a giggly-cute relationship with MJ (Kirsten Dunst). He is all adoring grins when he sits in the front row of MJ’s Broadway début. Peter even makes a boastful visit to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), whom he tells about his plans to propose to MJ. They are in love with each other, our happy couple, and in love with life, both so ecstatic they could almost float.

Oh, you poor kids.

On the way back from his visit with Aunt May — and getting her engagement ring to use in his proposal — Peter is suddenly embroiled in a fight to the death with a vengeance-seeking Harry Osborn (James Franco), now outfitted in Goblin-wear. Peter’s attempts to convince Harry that he’s not responsible for the death of his father (the original Green Goblin) are unsuccessful but Peter is able to knock Harry unconscious. When Harry comes to, he remembers that his father is dead, but little else from the past few years. He’s genuinely pleased to see Peter and to see MJ, both of whom visit him in the hospital. Peter, delighted at getting his friend back, happily pulls on the Spider-Man get-up and heads to a ceremony where he receives not only the key to the city but also a kiss — a very specific, MJ-angering kiss — from Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a girl Spider-Man saved and who is Peter’s lab partner in school.

For MJ, this is just another step in her path to misery. Her Broadway career lasted only one night — bad reviews led to her speedy replacement. Peter’s kiss with Gwen — along with his apparent insensitivity to how much it bothers MJ — leads her to think that she and Peter might not be the 4Ever couple she thought they would be. And guess who shows up to lend her a shoulder but her old friend (and boyfriend) Harry.

This familiar love triangle is only part of Peter’s problems. He soon finds his photographer position threatened by Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a fellow freelancer who is angling for a staff position and desperate to get some dirt on Spider-Man. And police tell Peter and Aunt May that the man they thought killed Uncle Ben (the man Peter saw die in the first movie) wasn’t really Uncle Ben’s killer, only an accomplice. The real killer was Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who is now on the loose. While being chased by police, he becomes an even more formidable enemy by falling into a centrifuge and becoming Sandman, a villain who can form and crumble at will.

But the biggest enemy Peter faces is his own lust for power. Black goo from a meteor finds him and latches itself onto his Spidey costume. The result is a stronger, more confident, less concerned-with-people’s-welfare Spider-Man. The more he wears it, the more addicted he becomes to the deliciously bad feelings it gives him. Will Spider-Man allow himself to be destroyed from within?

Even if the answer to that question turned out to be “yes,” it would still be worth it for the sequences featuring the Evil Peter. Evil Peter wears eyeliner and all-black and a hairstyle that is part new new wave band and part Hitler. Evil Peter hits on all the girls and is convinced the ladies love him. He walks down the street with a disco swagger in his step that eventually becomes full-on dancing. Evil Peter thinks he’s suave, he’s sassy, he’s badass.

Evil Peter is a big honking dork.

The brilliantly played joke of this movie is that even as a devil-may-care cad, Peter Parker can’t hide a dorky quality that makes him more ridiculous than frightening. These scenes bring out the fun that made the other movies so thoroughly likeable. Spider-Man 3, like its predecessors, doesn’t forget about how important laughter is to its story. The movie features everything from the throwaway line (“Where do these guys come from?” asks Peter after his first encounter with Sandman) to a broad bit of comedy in the restaurant where Peter plans to propose (wonderfully performed by Bruce Campbell). Camp, wit, pratfalls and sight gags — we get them all without seeing the movie overloaded by jokiness.

Spider-Man 3 is almost as good as the first two movies, maybe even 85 percent as good. But ultimately, the movie lacks some of the exuberance that made those movies (and especially the last two) so thoroughly charming and endearing. Late in the film, Spider-Man gets yet another villain, Venom. Venom looks creepy and — as with all Spider-Man villains — imperils MJ. But neither he nor Sandman nor even the vengeance- and hate-filled New Goblin are as affecting as Doctor Octopus or as deliciously bad as the Green Goblin. The scenes of Spider-Man and his relationship with New York City aren’t as touching. There’s a bit of wear to the MJ-Harry-Peter stuff and to Aunt May’s advice about patience and wisdom and caring. And we leave the theater without the jolly end-note that “Go get ‘em, tiger” provided to Spider-Man 2.

Spider-Man 3 didn’t squander my goodwill but it didn’t completely fulfill my expectations. But even through I didn’t leave the movie drunk with joy, Spider-Man 3 is still not a bad way to begin the summer. B+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence. Directed by Sam Raimi and written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent from Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man 3 is two hours and 20 minutes long and will be distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.