It's a messy business. And it gets messier, as Parker, also known as Spider-Man, wrestles with villainy, romance, his own exploding ego, and the burden of coming up with something to satisfy the millions of fans of Installments 1 and 2.
It's a mighty burden, and one that Spider-Man 3 doesn't shoulder well. There's a certain desperation evident in the plot's busyness, and a bloated quality that may come from having too many villains, too many characters, too many big set pieces - and too much money to toss around.
Although Sony Pictures denies it, there are reports that the second sequel in this billion-dollar franchise tallies up as the priciest release in Hollywood history, with combined production and marketing costs of $500 million. Even if the sum is $200 million less than that, it's a ridiculous amount of money, and it doesn't really show on-screen: Spider-Man 3, once again directed by Sam Raimi, suffers like its predecessors from video-game syndrome.
The big special-effects action sequences, with Spidey projectiling those webs and swinging through skyscraper canyons like Tarzan on steroids, never, ever, feel "real." But they don't feel fresh anymore. They're just cool computer-graphic shots, mixed with stunt-double acrobatics.
The screenwriters (Raimi, his older brother, Ivan, and veteran Hollywood wordsmith Alvin Sargent are credited) have forgotten one of the essentials of the Marvel comic books, and one the writing team embraced in Spider-Man 2. In that movie, as Spidey whirls, spins and kapows, he doesn't stop talking, issuing one smart-aleck riposte after another.
But in Spider-Man 3, our hero mostly preens, or broods.
A big part of that has to do with the aforementioned intergalactic goop: Whatever that black substance is, it's fixed itself on Parker (soft-spoken boy-man Tobey Maguire), "amplifying aggressive characteristics." It's like hubris-slime: It sticks, makes you swell-headed, and compels you to try on that new all-black costume that's mysteriously appeared in your closet.
Welcome to the Dark Side - or the side where most of L.A.'s talent agents live.
Peter/Spidey's new smug, swaggering ways do make for one of this overstuffed sequel's more entertainingly oddball sequences: Pumped on his own pomposity, Maguire's Parker struts down the street like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, believing himself irresistible to the ladies (they just sneer, or flee). At a nightclub where girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is performing, Peter brings that other blonde, Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard), along. Then he starts hoofing on the bar, like Astaire amped up on testosterone. It's a first: a Marvel superhero song-and-dance routine.
Along with Maguire and Dunst, Spider-Man regulars Julie Harris (as Peter's wise, beloved Aunt May), J.K. Simmons (the Daily Bugle's blustery editor in chief), and James Franco (millionaire scion Harry Osborn) are all back for more. Franco serves double duty: He's Parker's old school buddy and rival for the heart of Mary Jane, and he's also the "New Goblin," taking over from his dead dad, the Green Goblin (Part 2's Willem Dafoe), and blaming Spider-Man for his father's demise.
But one villain's not enough: Enter Thomas Haden Church as Flint Marko, a hulking prisoner-on-the-run who stumbles into a top-secret science experiment and emerges as Sandman, a shape-shifting behemoth with the body mass of a grain silo.
Apparently, two villains aren't enough, either. Topher Grace (who's sort of Tobey Maguire with irony) appears as Eddie Brock, the ambitious young photojournalist who'll stop at nothing to gain a staff job at the Daily Bugle. Brock gets contaminated by the same black ooze from outer space that's buggin' Spidey. Suddenly, Grace is suited up in black reptilian spandex, and sprouting fangs (it makes it hard to deliver those lines). His name: Venom.
A cautionary tale about the danger of letting success, and superheroism, go to your head, Spider-Man 3 kicks off this Summer of Sequels in big, loud, occasionally clever, but more often meandering ways. It's not dull, exactly, but neither is it much fun.
Spider-Man 3 **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, photography by Bill Pope, distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man. . . Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson. . . Kirsten Dunst
Harry Osborn/New Goblin. . . James Franco
Flint Marko/Sandman. . . Thomas Haden Church
Gwen Stacy. . . Bryce Dallas Howard
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, mayhem, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.