What is it with the third installments in superhero film franchises? For whatever reason—and, oh, let's just call it the lack of fresh ideas commingled with the love of money—they always strike out swinging their third time up to bat. It happened with Superman, when Richard Pryor became a superfriend hatching the ridiculous plot that spawned Office Space; it happened with Batman, when director Joel Schumacher hired Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey and turned the serial into summer camp; and it happened with X-Men, when major characters were picked off for no good reason other than to make way for lesser superdudes and duds. Now we're faced with brand-new cinematic villainy in the guise of Spider-Man 3, which is overstuffed (three villains), overlong (at more than two hours and 20 minutes), and undercooked (plot points include amnesia and alien goo).
Once more Sam Raimi is directing Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's comic-book creation, and you can almost feel the fatigue; his weariness is as contagious as a yawn. Whatever its precursors had going for it—heart, mostly, an organ used almost as seldom as the brain in comic-book movies—Spider-Man 3 isn't even terribly interested in the title character anymore. This is fine, to a point; after all, what made Spider-Man such an intriguing departure from its Spandex-clad predecessors was that it was as much about Peter Parker's angst and affections as about the powers afforded him by a radioactive spider bite. As in the earliest comics, Spider-Man was nothing more than Spider-Boy, a guilt-wracked and love-struck high-school senior who found joy only when swinging among Manhattan skyscrapers.
But somewhere between that first joyous woo-hoo and this movie, Raimi and the revolving door of writers—David Koepp gave way to Alvin Sargent, who's now joined by Sam and brother Ivan—became too enamored of making Spider-Man movies in which the hero is but a bit player, a shrug in his own story. We don't even see much of the costumed character till late into the first act here; indeed, his very first fight amidst the NYC skyline and its alleyways takes place out of costume, when Peter is snatched off his scooter by one of the movie's trio of villains—in this case, Harry "Goblin Jr." Osborn (James Franco), who's still out to avenge the death of his daddy (Willem Dafoe) till a bump on the head makes him forget that he wants to kill his bestest friends in the whole wide world.
What's worse, the franchise's earnestness, its calling card, now feels forced—stunted, even. The relationship between Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) has ground to a standstill; that passionate upside-down, rain-soaked kiss from the first film feels like a thousand movies ago. They're no further along now than they were the first go-round, when the dorky science student was wooing his longtime, next-door infatuation. They're in love, but not exactly lovers—not people who've almost died for each other time and time again—and all they do is whine and moan at each other, to the point where Peter is driven to date lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard). Gwen seems an infinitely better catch than the perpetually shrill and inexplicably selfish MJ, whose Broadway career takes a nosedive after it's revealed that, you know, she's actually a lousy singer.
It all just feels so...Fantastic Four, so dopey and forgettable and crafted out of second-rate cheese. The interesting villains (Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus—decent but ultimately tortured souls corrupted by insatiable greed and arrogance) have been replaced by computer-generated leftovers, chief among them Thomas Haden Church's Flint Marko, a felon whose shape is shifted by an atom-scrambler that renders him the Sandman. Dafoe and Alfred Molina were Wagnerian villains who pummeled Spider-Man with great cruelty and glee. More important, they were always on screen, there in the flesh to break a few bones. Church is often nothing more than a computer-generated dust cloud or a skyscraper-sized ball of mud—a special effect that's none too special.
And then there is Venom, the alien entity who initially takes over Peter Parker before leaping, like a squid made of tar, onto the waiting flesh of Eddie Brock (a wasted Topher Grace), Peter's photojournalist rival at the Daily Bugle. A notable Spider-Man foe for years in the comics, Venom doesn't make a terribly good cinematic villain—chiefly because we don't know squat about who or what he or it is, aside from a "symbiote" that amplifies Peter's worst instincts and turns him from a nebbish into an asshole in a silly and wholly inappropriate song-and-dance number straight out of Staying Alive. And Venom—like every other character fighting for face time in an overplotted picture—is barely in the film, here only so he and Sandman can face off with the lil' Goblin and Spidey in a finale so slapdash and silly it wouldn't even pass muster in a comic book (something to do with a taxi cab, a dump truck, and Mary Jane suspended in a web over Manhattan). Cobweb-Slinger is more like it.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.