The three main recurring characters get stuck in a rut and the same can be said of the film itself in "Spider-Man 3." After the significant improvement of the second installment over the first, new entry reps a roughly equivalent dip in quality and enjoyment, with Spidey now giving off the faint odor of running on fumes.

The three main recurring characters get stuck in a rut and the same can be said of the film itself in “Spider-Man 3.” After the significant improvement of the second installment over the first, new entry reps a roughly equivalent dip in quality and enjoyment, with Spidey now giving off the faint odor of running on fumes. This devaluation shouldn’t hurt at the box office, at least at first, as the vast majority of the fans who turned the first two into $822 million and $784 million worldwide grossers, respectively, will cram multiplexes around the globe to see the first blockbuster of the summer.

A sense of strain envelops the proceedings this time around. One can feel the effort required to suit up one more time, come up with fresh variations on a winning formula and inject urgency into a format that basically needs to be repeated and, due to audience expectations, can’t be toyed with or deepened very much.

Big problem with third Spideyis the script, the very same element that elevated the second yarn. Four years back, vet scenarist Alvin Sargent, with a story assist from Michael Chabon, enriched the premise from all angles — emotion, humor and villainy. This time, the magic has eluded Sargent and the Raimi brothers, director Sam and co-writer Ivan, the result being a story that would have provenmore satisfactory for a late ’60s cartoon-hero TV show than for a new-century blockbuster.

At the outset, everything is so hunky-dory that New York City looks like Pleasantville. Thanks to Spider-Man, crime is virtually non-existent, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is a burgeoning musical theater star, and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), still studying science at college, is dorkier than ever.

But evil begins to reassert itself on several fronts. As Peter and Mary Jane gaze at the stars from their spider-web hammock overlooking the city, a modest “War of the Worlds”-like meteor crashes nearby and emits a gooey black silk that slithers and slides of its own accord.

A hard-outside/soft-inside criminal (Thomas Haden Church), who turns out to have been responsible for the murder of Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, escapes from prison and, through a process that defies comprehension but is undeniably eye-catching, turns into a shape-changer named Sandman who can blow through the caverns of Manhattan or become a giant hulk with fearsome pummeling power.

And then there is Harry Osborn (James Franco), who, still blaming Spider-Man for the death of his father, decides to emulate the great green one by engineering a new designer Goblin outfit and flying board and taking to the skies to avenge his old man.

Peter acquires yet another adversary in the person of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), an aggressive street photographer who vies with Peter to capture the revelatory shot that will reveal Spider-Man for who he really is, a coup that will land the winner a full-time job from editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) at the Daily Bugle. The rivalry turns into outright war when Eddie morphs into one more Marvel supervillain, the fanged Venom, whose skills eerily match those of Spidey.

Early going is enlivened by a couple high-wire action sequences, a Goblin attack and especially a vertigo-inducing scene in which an out-of-control construction crane demolishes part of a nearby skyscraper, sending platinum blonde Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard), a classmate of Peter’s, heading toward the pavement, only to be saved at the last second by guess who.

But the dramatic temperature is brought way down by Mary Jane, who’s become a real drag. Fired, in a poor scene, from her Broadway play, she pathetically begs for attention, becomes petulant when Spidey plants a public kiss on Gwen after saving her, then seeks solace from Harry.

In all his dealings with her, Peter still acts like the prim, naive high school kid he was when first seen in the series five years ago, as if he hadn’t learned anything through all his subsequent trials. Scripting of the many domestic scenes between Peter and women, specifically Mary Jane and Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May, is very dull and unimaginative.

Script’s one big idea is to have Peter/Spidey explore his “dark side,” a gambit of tiresome psychological value but with the obvious side benefits of temporarily suspending his goody two-shoes personality and giving him a new, black costume. All the ploy really amounts to is an interlude in which Peter struts around Gotham with a trendy new haircut ogling women and humiliating Mary Jane with some aggressive nightclub antics.

Given the setup, Spider-Man in the end has to contend with multiple villains in a gigantic action climax that, unfortunately, is too reminiscent of the first film’s Roosevelt Island episode thanks to the similar imperilment of Mary Jane. Still, Sandman is a strange and visually interesting baddie endowed by Church with a melancholy undercurrent.

Grace, who could plausibly have played Spider-Man himself, provides a spark with something extra as Spidey’s first major adversary his own age.

Technically, pic is fully on a par with the previous entries, which means the visual effects will have fans wide-eyed throughout.

Spider-Man 3

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Marvel Studios/Laura Ziskin production. Produced by Ziskin, Avi Arad, Grant Curtis. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Joseph M. Caracciolo. Directed by Sam Raimi. Screenplay, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent; screen story by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, based on the Marvel comicbook by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Bill Pope; editor, Bob Murawski; music, Christopher Young; original music themes, Danny Elfman; production designers, Neil Spisak, J. Michael Riva; art directors, Christopher Burian-Mohr, David F. Klassen, Dawn Swiderski, Suzan Wexler, David Swayze (N.Y.); set designers, J. Andre Chaintreuil, Aric Cheng, Kevin Cross, Andrea Dopaso, Noelle King, Jeff Markwith, Barbara Mesney, Theodore Sharps, Patte Strong-Lord; set decorators, Leslie A. Pope, Susan Bode-Tyson (N.Y.); costume designer, James Acheson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Joseph Geisinger; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Paul N.J. Ottosson; supervising sound mixers, Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell; visual effects supervisor, Scott Stokdyk; special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; special effects supervisor, John R. Frazier; stunt coordinators, Dan Bradley, Scott Rogers; assistant director, Eric Heffron; second unit directors, Bradley, Jeffrey A. Lynch, David Lowery; second unit camera, Jonathan Taylor; casting, Francine Maisler, Kathleen Driscoll-Mohler. Reviewed at the Grove, Los Angeles, April 19, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 139 MIN.

With

Spider-Man/Peter Parker - Tobey Maguire Mary Jane Watson - Kirsten Dunst New Goblin/Harry Osborn - James Franco Sandman/Flint Marko - Thomas Haden Church Venom/Eddie Brock - Topher Grace Gwen Stacy - Bryce Dallas Howard May Parker - Rosemary Harris J. Jonah Jameson - J.K. Simmons Captain Stacy - James Cromwell Emma Marko - Theresa Russell Dr. Curt Connors - Dylan Baker Joseph "Robbie" Robertson - Bill Nunn Maitre d' - Bruce Campbell Miss Brant - Elizabeth Banks Hoffman - Ted Raimi Penny Marko - Perla Haney-Jardine Green Goblin/Norman Osborn - Willem Dafoe Ben Parker - Cliff Robertson

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