In a way, spider webs are like movies. They take a lot of effort to make, require certain specialized skills, are wondrous things to behold if spun just right, and when the latter is the case, they can snare a great many of the intended target. Of course, most movies nowadays cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to make, while webs are essentially free, and although hundreds if not thousands of people and months if not years are need to create a film, spiders do their work in just a few hours by themselves.
Since they do that day in and day out, you have to wonder if they learn from both their failures and successes, or whether they feel the pressure to make their latest web bigger and better than their previous ones. Cinematic arachnid Sam Raimi clearly did that in his second outing with the "Spider-Man" series, appropriately titled "Spider-Man 2."
The first film (released back in 2002) went through the to-be-expected motions -- albeit in an infectiously fun and creative fashion -- of introducing the characters and story. Yet, the sequel two years later magnificently expanded upon all of that and more with what was just about a perfect example of summer, blockbuster entertainment. Since that film set the stage for another sequel, the question was how the third outing would turn out and whether it could continue to build on the artistic success of its predecessors.
If anything, "Spider-Man 3" is certainly ambitious, and while it has its moments (be they dramatic, comedic or just visual spectacle) and ends up earning an overall recommendation, it clearly falls prey to the bigger is better mantra. Too long (at 140+ some minutes) and filled with too many characters (good, bad and incidental) and storylines (ditto), the film is uneven in its focus and momentum at times, and has begun to lose some of its novelty factor, an unavoidable predicament for most any third installment in a film series.
After the opening credits effortlessly bring everyone back up to speed with highlight clips from the first two films, Raimi -- working from a script he co-wrote with brother Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent -- takes a while to get things going. He shows us Peter and Mary Jane (Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst reprising their familiar roles) further along in their romance to the point that the former is ready to pop the question but not before getting some advice from his Aunt May about marriage.
He also introduces what will be the first of three villains our hero must battle this time around -- Thomas Haden Church who goes from the wine-swilling playboy of "Sideways" to a concerned father and escaped con who eventually will unwillingly become intimately introduced to the properties of a certain sedimentary material.
Things finally pick up when the new Green Goblin -- villain #2 via James Franco stepping into Willem Dafoe's departed shoes -- intercepts Spidey mid-inner city flight. The two battle (in a decent action sequence), Harry bumps his head and forgets he hates his former best friend, and Peter thinks everything is hunky dory.
Alas, it's not, as he starts to fall prey to his own Spidey hype, resulting in a familiar upside down kiss, albeit this time with Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a college classmate whose presence and receipt of that buss put Mary Jane in a dither. Capturing that and threatening Peter's shutterbug position at the Daily Bugle is Topher Grace playing an ambitious young man who will eventually transform into the third villain thanks to some sort of extraterrestrial, symbiotic black goo.
The latter also infects Peter's familiar Spidey suit, turning it black and him into a bad boy of sorts. That allows his increasing ego to go unchecked, while giving additional superhuman power to his vindictive desires (wanting to undercut Brock as well as get revenge on his late uncle's murderer). Such mindsets and behavior are the driving thematic forces in the film, and at times, Raimi and company seem as if they're going for a Shakespearean treatment of all of that and more.
It nearly works, but the filmmakers don't ever delve beyond the superficial and predictable elements of such matters. It also doesn't help that they intersperse all of that with various comedic elements. Many involve J.K. Simmons returning as the funny if terse newspaper editor, while there's also a Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly inspired dance moment, a restaurant scene straight out of a French farce, and Maguire doing the funny nerd bit. All are fairly to highly entertaining on their own, but they don't always jive with the rest of the film, thus giving it something of an uneven feel.
That also holds true to a degree for many of the special effects sequences peppered throughout the film. While they certainly show where the reported $250 million plus budget was spent, and some are spectacular in their own right, they sometimes feel like an isolated moment rather than a tightly woven and integral part of the film (unlike in the second installment where everything clicked with precision).
In fact, the effects work best when on the small scale, such as when Church's character initially gets the sand infusion treatment. Harkening back to the liquid metal creation in "Terminator 2" (that stunned viewers with what were then groundbreaking special effects), the earlier scenes of the character turning to dust and then back are visually amazing to behold.
Unfortunately, the script calls for him to get ever bigger as the story unfolds, and with each subsequent increase in size, the "wow" factor is proportionally decreased, which also holds true for the big set piece at the end featuring Spidey and not one and not two, but three villains battling each other.
Nevertheless, and all told, the film is still moderately entertaining, although the individual parts are certainly greater than their sum as a whole. It's just too bad that Raimi opted to spin a web that tries too hard to be bigger and better than his second one, resulting in all sorts of characters, plot elements and special effects ending up stuck in a less than perfectly cohesive picture. "Spider-Man 3" rates as a 6 out of 10.