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Spider-Man 3

(2007) *** Pg-13
140 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, James Franco.

The comic-book movie has experienced a slow redefinition in recent years, from nouveau pop art to serious-minded action drama. Filmmakers like Ang Lee, Bryan Singer, and Christopher Nolan have brought weighty themes, contemporary issues, gravitas, and even—heaven forbid—verisimilitude to the "superhero" narrative. But Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, even at their most thoughtful, put children of all ages first. And if his latest sandbox (actual sand included!), Spider-Man 3, strains against the chaotic, roughhousing abandon of its inhabitants, it nevertheless delivers on its promise of hours of fun.

With all eyes on the enormously popular franchise, Spider-Man 3 is go-for-broke pop entertainment (literally, with a budget said to be the highest of all time). Taking stylistic risks might not seem the wisest course of action to an investor, but the choice powers this eccentric third entry, which finds Raimi at his friskiest. This Spider-Man has more action, more humor, and more nastiness than either previous installment, often in loopy combinations.

The sentiment also returns in full bloom, with Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker plagued once again by romantic trouble with eternal flame Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, annoyingly angsty). The sodden contrivances around their falling out are the picture's least satisfying element, but the picture runs much more on energy and creative invention than it does on plot sense. As Spider-Man, Parker must contend with at least three villains (depending on your accounting), including the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Venom, an alien substance that forces Peter and his photojournalist nemesis Edward Brock Jr. (Topher Grace) to battle their own dark sides.

Some audiences may not be up for traipsing all over the map, but those who are will get their eye-popping money's worth. Raimi approaches the transformation of desperate ex-con Flint Marko into the Sandman as a moment of lyrical transcendence, dark and wondrous (composer Danny Elfman absconded to other films, but Christopher Young fills in nicely), though in the film's climax, Raimi breaks the rules of particle physics to make Sandman an inexplicably towering threat. The gentler moments, then, live side-by-side with strokes of fifties science-fiction, goofy gags, and kinetic action. Take, for example, the scene in which Peter and Mary Jane watch the stars in Central Park, from the cradle of a web—Raimi pans over from their pillow talk to reveal a small meteor crashing to earth just yards away and emitting the black goo known as Venom.

Raimi not only allows for such preposterous coincidence in the name of expeditious plotting, but he embraces it—nay, gives it a bear hug. He does so with such a knowing smile that it's difficult to stay angry at him (or co-screenwriters Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent). One character—Bernard, the butler to Peter's on-again/off-again buddy Harry Osborne (James Franco)—gets so absurdly paid off that you know Raimi is behind the camera laughing, shrugging, and saying, "Look, either you're gonna roll with this, or there's the EXIT." Or how about the scene where Marko runs past a sign reading, "DANGER: Particle Physics Test Facility"? Surely, it is to laugh. [Taking a page from the Superman films, Raimi continues to provide New York flavor and awkward patriotism. This time, the laziness of the latter is glaring: a gratuitous shot of Spidey landing in front of a rippling flag, followed by a reaction shot of an NYPD firefighter.]

So on it leaps and swings and drops and screams, setting new records for shattered glass on screen. The plentiful action has its ups and downs, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, Raimi has allowed these scenes to be defined by impossible camera moves, letting the wow-factor cart go before the excitement horse. But if you don't like one effects shot, dozens more come at you: resistance is futile. Besides, it's the nutty, whiplash plot turns (MJ sings! Peter dances!) that make or break the picture, with Venom capitalizing on Spidey's swelled celebrity head. The dark-side storyline may be corny, but the archetypal "choose good, not evil" comic-book lesson feels a bit subversive as acted out by a Hollywood star, and it's a relevant variation on "With great power comes great responsibility."

A game Maguire effectively anchors the film, and his playful sensibility is infectious. The strapping, adenoidal Church proves ideally cast as force-of-nature Sandman, and Grace makes a convincing silver-tongued devil. J.K. Simmons has a hilarious (though nonsensical bit) in his Daily Bugle office, and, oddly, James Cromwell and Theresa Russell flit by in roles less notable than the obligatory Bruce Campbell "cameo." The busy plot means that no one character, excepting our hero, fully gets his or her due, a reminder that the movies shouldn't be so overeager to crowd out story in favor of trying to accomodate every fanboy's favorite character. Despite Spider-Man 3's lack of discipline, no one can accuse Raimi of leaving out the kitchen sink.

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