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"Falls prey to Hollywood sequel subterfuge - namely, that bigger is always better."
"The film is bursting at the seams, trying to satisfy everyone."
"A bit excessive, the film succeeds because of its characters."
Spider-Man 3  

Cast

Peter/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Flint Marko/Sandman: Thomas Haden Church
Harry Osborn: James Franco
Eddie Brock/Venom: Topher Grace
Gwen Stacy: Bryce Dallas Howard
Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons
Capt. George Stacy: James Cromwell
Dr. Curt Connors: Dylan Baker
Review May 2007

While Peter Parker is certainly no Michael Corleone, he might find himself repeating the same popular phrase, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me right back in!" Because just when things seem to be on the up and up for Peter, just when he experiences a moment of sheer contentment, something always comes along to bring him right back down. This could not be more evident than in "Spider-Man 3," when Parker, on the verge of romantic bliss with the lovely Mary Jane Watson and a city celebrating the heroism of Spider-Man, has everything taken away. His girlfriend, his job, his life - all thrown upside down because of a mysterious black alien substance that merges with his body and provokes his darkest desires. Add to that an ongoing personal battle with his best friend, Harry Osborn, and the emergence of two formidable villains in Sandman and Venom, and you have a Godfather-like saga. Made with a bigger budget, a bigger cast, bigger effects, and bigger everything, "Spider-Man 3" attempts to be better than its predecessors. But in doing so, falls prey to Hollywood sequel subterfuge - namely, that bigger is always better.

At long last, Peter Parker has found the right balance between his work and personal life, able to make ample time for crime fighting, web crawling, and his aspiring actress, Mary Jane Watson. On top of it all, Spider-Man has earned the respect of New York. In fact, the city has made plans to honor Spider-Man with a celebration and a presentation -- a key to the city. Life is good. So good that Peter even makes special arrangements to propose to Mary Jane.

But just like the sound of screeching tires, when things get too good for Peter Parker, they quickly begin to unravel. Across town, an escaped convict named Flint Marko accidentally runs into a particle changer, merging his body with sand. Now known as the Sandman, Marko begins to wreak havoc on the city. While at the Daily Bugle, Parker finds himself in the midst of competition in the form of Eddie Brock, a rival photographer. And let's not forget Harry Osborn, still miffed over his father's death, who takes on the role of Green Goblin and seeks to put an end to Spider-Man. First and foremost, Harry convinces M.J. to break up with Peter.

And thus, the downward spiral begins. Peter learns that Marko was involved in the death of his Uncle Ben. But before he can take action, a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to Peter in a symbiotic relationship, inducing his dark side. Not to mention a darker side for Spider-Man. Parker changes his hair, his mannerisms, and his personality. And he uses this new attitude to exact revenge, taking away Brock's girlfriend Gwen Stacy, going out of his way to humiliate M.J., throttling the Sandman, and scarring Harry for life. Doing so, Peter causes further harm to himself and others, helping to create a new villain named Venom, and possibly leading to the end of everything he holds sacred. Unless, of course, he can rediscover his self, his compassion, and his purpose.

"Spider-Man 3" is reportedly the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget dangling around $250 million. Easily the most embellished, the most emotional, and the most action packed, the film is bursting at the seams, trying to satisfy everyone. There are hysterical cameos from Bruce Campbell as a French Maitre'D and J.K. Simmons as the hard ass, J. Jonah Jamison. There are sentimental and profound moments, delicately touched upon by Rosemary Harris' Aunt May, Peter's moral compass, and magical chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. And then there are dramatic rescue sequences as Spider-Man saves Gwen Stacy and M.J. from high rise contraptions out of Fear Factor, wicked transformations as Sandman and Venom are born, and dark and surprising character turns as Peter embraces his inner dark side and strolls the streets in Rat Pack fashion with dark locks and a dark suit, brimming with confidence.

The high price tag, however, is well worth the while if only for the special effects. Although John Dykstra, the visual effects genius and Academy Award winner for "Spider-Man 2," declined to work on the film, his partner, Scott Stokdyk, adequately fills the void. In particular, the way he and his team use quantum physics to bring Sandman to life. Whether using 4,000 pounds of ground corncob in substitution for sand or 50,000 gallons of water to simulate wet sand, Stodyk and crew spent two years developing a new industry standard for manipulating billions of sand particles by computer.

The end result is an incredible triumph, as Marko's body flakes away, crumbling into individual grains and re-emerging as a solid form. Tons of sand collapsing on police officers in a heist, a punch that goes right through his sandy torso, and one gigantic sandy monster trying to pound Spider-Man. Additionally, the effects used to transform the black liquid alien embryo into a living, breathing creature are fantastic, like strings of salt-water taffee that attach themselves to a human host. And occasionally mutate to form a snapping jaw of razor sharp teeth.

However, if there's one thing the original Batman franchise proved, it's that bigger doesn't always mean better. Adding more villains, adding more character turns, adding more special effects, and upping the emotional quotient with water works from everyone from Spidey to Sandman only complicates things. It requires a lot of juggling, perhaps more so than necessary. And it's rather obvious at the film's conclusion. Because even though it doesn't fracture the fun, it does dilute the story of its primal purpose - which is to show Peter Parker's maturity into a responsible, compassionate adult.

Unlike "Spider-Man 2," which was a near perfect balance of story and character, with the right amount of sentiment, conflict, and personal development, "Spider-Man 3" exaggerates and embellishes too much. Even worse, for those who are staunch advocates of the comics, there are artistic changes that are somewhat hard to take. Such is the far-reaching connection between Sandman and Uncle Ben. The all too quick rise and fall of Venom, played expertly by Topher Grace. And the sad misuse of Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's first love, who supposedly dies at the hands of the Norman Osborn's Green Goblin, bringing maturity and compassion to Spider-Man. But in the film, is a mere plot device used to create jealousy -- jealousy that never really existed in the comics.

All creative differences aside, "Spider-Man 3" remains a fun ride. While not the best in the series, it is fun to see familiar faces again, fun to see character arcs resolve, and fun to sit back and absorb. A bit excessive, the film succeeds because of its characters. Whether new or returning, the characters pull you in so that you know what they're thinking and feeling. Peter's darkness, M.J.'s dejectedness, Eddie Brock's humiliation, and Flint Marko's unmistakable grief - all resonate with the viewer because of Raimi's attentiveness. Says Mary Jane, "Everybody needs help. Even Spider-Man." A subtle reminder that with great power, comes great responsibility, and in superhero films, the all-important need to let humanity shine.



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