I hate to spoil anyone's illusions, but a bite from a radioactive spider would not bestow superpowers on anyone. More likely, an irradiated arachnid would be a sickly, staggering creature with too many appendages and haphazard web-spinning skills, unlikely to turn a bullied, brainy high schooler into a costumed crime-fighter.
Spider-Man 3 manages to emulate both a real radioactive spider and the mythic one of comic-book fame. It may be awkward, ungainly and structurally unsound, but it has powers and potency that inspire supernatural feats to offer the most spectacular, entertaining film of the Spider-Man trilogy.
Part of the reason Spider-Man struck a chord in the first place in his 1962 debut was writer Stan Lee's notion of teenage heroes with mundane problems. Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, was no dashing protagonist but a put-upon kid not unlike Marvel Comics' own readership. Paradoxically, the added touch of realism gave the escapist fantasies a greater hook.
Director Sam Raimi has always worked to honor that aspect of the character, and the first two films focused on Peter's (Tobey Maguire) personal difficulties with being Manhattan's masked protector. The films also established personal relationships with the supervillians, such as the way Peter's best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), takes up the gliders and grenades of his late father, Spider-Man's Green Goblin.
After mining Peter's problems for sad-sack humor, Spider-Man 3 flips the script and puts its hero on top of the world. He's won the heart of longtime love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) while New York City has recognized Spider-Man as a good Samaritan and eligible bachelor. The sour note comes from Mary Jane herself, who suffers painful setbacks in her showbiz career while Spider-Man smooches pretty girls at public ceremonies.
Peter's insensitive behavior can offer a metaphor for the arrogance brought on by fame and success, and one suspects the film's celebrity actors could identify with that. Spider-Man 3 also explores the darker side of superheroics. Spider-Man uses powers to benefit people, but discovers that his beloved Uncle Ben was murdered by a petty thief, Flint Marko (Sideways' Thomas Haden Church). The discovery taps Peter's anger and vengeful side, more like the motivations of Batman, only with borderline-homicidal tendencies.
The plot point also coincides with the arrival of a black, sticky parasite from outer space that fixates on Peter. That a meteorite containing an alien blob could land unnoticed within feet of Peter in Central Park offers just one of the film's bizarre developments, but it neatly fits the character's internal struggle. The "symbiote" attaches to Peter as a black-scheme Spider-Man suit, giving him heightened powers and an insufferable mean streak. But will the clothes make the man, or unmake him?
Maguire relishes tapping his nasty side, much like his wicked turn in The Good German, and the Bad Peter subplot proves strangely reminiscent of the evil-hero comedy in Superman 3, only here, it works. Spider-Man 3 takes some odd changes in tone – Peter wears black and struts down the street like John Travolta circa 1977, but the scenes prove funny and confident, and Maguire's dorkiness conveys the idea that Peter's walk on the wild side goes against his true nature.
Screenwriters Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent rely a bit too easily on teen soap-opera plot twists, including romantic triangles, blackmail efforts and even amnesia. Supporting players pop up and vanish with inconsistency, such as bombastic newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), beautiful nice girl Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and pesky, stalkerish Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a rival photographer and near-double of Peter who may be a more suitable host for the increasingly dangerous "black suit."
Significantly, the special effects prove by far the best and most imaginative of the three films. Raimi oversees numerous slam-bang action scenes, in which the antagonists smash through skyscrapers or careen like pinballs off the sides of subway cars. Best of all, the film offers a classic villain when fugitive Flint Marko runs afoul of a high-tech experiment and transforms into the Sandman. Science gone awry converts his body into sand, so he can ride the winds like a sandstorm, turn his fists into rocks and even use sand and cinderblocks to become giant-sized.
The Sandman has superficial similarities to Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy films, but Raimi appreciates the appeal and menace of movie monsters far better. For a rampaging freak, the Sandman proves sympathetic, robbing only to pay his daughter's medical bills. There's an eerily beautiful sequence when he first attempts to reanimate, resembling a man-shaped sand castle collapsing and rebuilding itself. Church's craggy features and understated acting evoke Lon Chaney Jr.'s tortured turns in films such as The Wolf Man (1941), and the soundtrack wittily evokes the music of old creature features.
Like the X-Men movies and many of Marvel Comics' other big-screen ventures, the Spider-Man films all start with razzamatazz title sequences that zoom along spiderwebs or DNA strands. I'll bet they've been subtly evoking actual roller coasters, conveying the notion that big superhero movies have become our culture's favorite thrill rides. Raimi, Maguire and company certainly outpace their previous efforts and, despite some lurching motions and a rickety framework, they make Spider-Man 3 into an E-ticket experience.