- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

What made “Spider-Man” and its sequel great was that director Sam Raimi and crew knew to keep everything but the special effects simple. These were well-cast tales of an unlikely hero who wrestles with his identity, the woman he loves but can never be with, and the bad guy who wants to bring him down. These themes are age-old and, when handled adeptly, make a story timeless.

The long-awaited “Spider-Man 3,” however, pulls out all the stops — and all the villains (four, to be exact). The film does clean up the residue of its predecessors’ unresolved issues and continues to channel familiar subplots to a satisfying end. But it clogs up the machine with a flood of new characters and the odd, intergalactic black gunk that attacks Spidey’s suit.

When we last met our superhero protagonist, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (the excellent Tobey Maguire), had just joined forces with the love of his life, Mary Jane “M.J.” Watson (Kirsten Dunst). The two lovebirds are now a happy couple, despite Peter’s continued fears about her safety.

One night while they’re stargazing, a meteor shower drops a mysterious black goop nearby, which makes a beeline for Peter and hitches a ride home with him. At first, he doesn’t notice its presence, but days later, he recognizes its dramatic effects: enhanced superpowers and unprecedented luck with the ladies — a sort of “Axe Effect,” and it’s a hoot to watch.

His suit eventually turns black as a result of this “symbiote” — a symbol of the dark side that will surface in Peter. He becomes vengeful and cocky, and even when not donning his supersuit, he’s visibly changed, looking a bit like Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz with his trademark swept-aside bangs and black-limned eyes. (This must mean he’s turning evil, right?)

Peter becomes too enamored with his new big-shot persona to notice that M.J. is having a tough go of it in the acting world, sending her into the arms of former love interest and longtime friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco).

Things get even more complicated when Harry morphs into the New Goblin to avenge his father’s death by killing Spider-Man.

Meanwhile, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison, stumbled into some sort of physics test, and turned to sand in the film’s most visually spectacular scene. As Sandman, he’ll wreak havoc on the city, but that’s not the only reason Spider-Man will have a beef with him. (We’re keeping it a secret.)

But wait, there’s more: Photographer Eddie Brock (the perfectly smarmy Topher Grace) is about to give Peter a run for his Daily Bugle money, and also for the girl he thinks Peter’s trying to steal, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard). Unfortunately for our arachnid friend, the almighty gook finds its way onto arch-nemesis Eddie, spawning yet one more foe that Spidey will have to battle, Venom.

Instead of giving its characters space to grow like the other films did, this one just throws them all into the blender and hopes that audiences will like the coarsely chopped mixture that results. Too little time for too many bodies may explain a few things — like why some fight scenes happen so close to warp speed they’re hard to make out, why the Osborn butler comes out of nowhere to neatly spin the plot 180 degrees in the other direction and why the combatants often spar without masks on (lest we forget who’s who).

The overpopulated script notwithstanding, there are some fine elements here, including good acting, winking humor, masterful effects and high-stakes suspense.

But in the end, the “Spider-Man 3” crew should’ve listened to their movie’s own lessons: Even Peter Parker learns that bigger isn’t always better.

***

TITLE: “Spider-Man 3”

RATING: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam and Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. Based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Visual effects supervised by Scott Stokdyk. Original musical themes by Danny Elfman with a score by Christopher Young.

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sony.com/spiderman3

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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