Spidey Senseless

Spider-Man 3 is a great bellowing bore of a film -- the perfect opener for what's sure to be a summer of diminishing cinematic returns. The first of the film franchises to hit the theaters (Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Shrek 3, 28 Weeks Later will follow), Spider-Man 3 has an advanced case of sequel-itis, which occurs when directors try to gussy up their leftovers with CGI-effects, characters, hideous cameos, subplots and fashion flimflam, as if more were always more. And indeed, Sony Pictures seems to have thrown in mo' money in search of mo' honey -- the much-disputed estimate soars to $350 million, by some accounts -- which would make this over-hyped number the most expensive film of all time.

And for what? SM3 toes the now-familiar trope of the squashy superhero -- the broody Batman, sulky Superman, a Hulk with daddy issues. Just in case we've forgotten our adolescent angst, SM3 swings in to remind us that with great power comes great pop psychologizing.

Expectations were high for SM3 -- Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 was a great sequel coup, an actual improvement on the original. Alfred Molina's soulful performance as villain Doc Ock lent heft to SM2's exploration of survivor's guilt, loss and the ways in which stiff-necked independence can turn into isolation. SM3 reverts to a sophomoric sensibility, however, fueled by ADD-driven action scenes and a clunking obsession with identity issues.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is nerdy as ever, despite being blissfully in love with sweetheart Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst). Not only that, he's acing physics at the university, and growing gluttonous for more Spider-Man glory. "People really like me," he squawks, admiring a clips reel of his Spidey footage.

And yet trouble looms, and it comes in threes, as superstition and sequel-itis would stipulate. A con on the lam stumbles into what looks like a particle-physics Cuisinart, Peter's former best friend Harry (James Franco) is on a revenge-rage bender, and a strange seaweed-y black goo has attached itself to the back fender of Peter's moped.

Too detailed a summary would sound both insane and insulting -- to borrow a description from a friend, the film is all plot holes and Band-Aids. Must Harry come down with temporary memory loss? (Can't there be a ban on that particular plot device?) And why on earth does the black hijiki seaweed attach to Peter of all people? To keep him from boring the audiences to death, clearly. Lo, the hijiki goes wild, turning Peter's Spidey suit black and wreaking a similar change upon his personality.

As Peter's physics professor declares, the mysterious substance "amplifies characteristics of its host." So shouldn't Peter's fierce nerdiness be wrenched up to intolerable levels, with his hand shooting up even faster to every question in class, his apartment turning into an explosion of Star Trek bric-a-brac? But, no. Raimi uses that goo to try to bring out Peter's dark side -- a tired old trick, and one that becomes so embarrassing that I was squirming to take a strategically timed bathroom break. Peter fans his hair over his forehead with Adolfian flair, he snarls at or seduces all in sight, and he dons a black suit in preparation of gettin' jiggy wit it. Which -- horrors! -- he does. The audience is submitted to the excruciating sight of milquetoast Maguire performing hip-thrusts on the dance floor. By this time, I was crouched down in my seat, trying not to blush myself to death.

Charting the nerdo-emo-aggro progression of Parker's character is painful enough. But watching the film's flailing attempts to entertain is even worse. Raimi shoves his third villain on screen in the last act, as if to revive our flagging attention. The seaweed has latched on to Eddie Brock, a cocky photographer (Topher Grace) who tried to con Peter out of a job. So what would be amplified here? Eddie's hair-gel abuse, his adenoidal entitlement? What emerges is the black-clad Venom, with a maw like a creature from the deep. He looks spectacular, but that's the problem with SM3 -- it's all cosmetic. Peter's transformation is linked too heavily to his new sinister Spidey-suit, as if psychology were a matter of sartorial choice and vice versa. Why the hijiki? Peter was already on his way towards becoming a preening ponce, and Raimi could have turned the film into an organic exploration of grotesque success. He missed an opportunity to deepen his film by simplifying it.

SM3 tries to roll out a monster-truck rally finale, complete with big themes -- everyone needs help, even superheroes; making moral choices is hard but good for you like spinach; hey, how about some forgiveness here? But it's too much too late for an insincere attempt at emotional heft when all the film provided before was skin-deep spectacle. "We always have a choice," intones Peter. "It's the choices that make us who we are." Luckily, audiences have a choice, too. Although it may be hard to resist the dark side, the cinematic corral where we're supposed to chew recycled film like cud, we can still choose. Don't go.

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