Sam Raimi's Spiderman 3, which I saw a week ago, before this recent illness descended in earnest, is -- as you likely already know -- a disappointment. Both undercooked and overstuffed, it oftens feels like a Sequel-By-Numbers, the creation of a boardroom of comic-book-ignorant Sony suits who sat down and watched the splendid Spiderman 2, brainstormed for two hours about what its main selling points were, and tried to add 20% more of each to Spidey 3. The end result, as Joseph II might say, has too many notes. There occasionally seems to be a decent, heartfelt Sam Raimi Spidey foray struggling to get out in here somewhere, but it's mostly wrapped up and powerless against the black suit of the corporate bottom line. I highly doubt this film will be the end of Spiderman, after that outrageous opening weekend take, but it does sadly suggest that it may be time for Raimi & co. to escape Spidey's web and take a break from the franchise.

In true comic-book fashion, Spiderman 3 begins basically where the last installment left off, with Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson (Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, both of whom seem bored) in love, his secret identity out to her. But, just as our friendly neighborhood webslinger begins to contemplate wedding bells in his future, a slew of supervillains rise up to disturb Spidey's domestic peace: The Green Goblin II (James Franco, putting in his best work of the series), who's also aware of Spidey's identity and is out to avenge his father's death; The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church, good with what he's given), who's out to find his daughter some quality affordable health care (good luck! Even fantasy has limits); and, most troubling, Venom (ultimately, Topher Grace, a likable actor that sadly doesn't work here), an oozing alien symbiote that first draws out Spiderman's dark side before congealing with his biggest rival at the Daily Bugle, photoshop expert Eddie Brock. Eventually, Spidey must find a way not only to beat back this rogues' gallery before doom befalls Ms. Watson high above Manhattan, but also come to terms with his darkest impulses, grapple with his deepfelt desire to cut a rug in a jazz club, and make Mary Jane feel important and special despite her withholding secrets from Peter most of the movie for unexplainable reasons. Can he pull it off, Spider-fans?

Maybe so, but the movie sure can't. If that litany of villains put you in mind of the later installments of the Batman franchise, Batman Forever or Batman and Robin, you're in the right ballpark. Basically, Raimi has too many balls in the air this time around (I haven't even mentioned Gwen Stacey, who's also in here for some reason), and the film just can't do justice to all of them. The Sandman in particular is given short shrift -- much time is devoted to giving him a backstory, but it gets dropped halfway through and never amounts to much. Meanwhile, other important plot points, such as how Spidey's enemies decide to gang up on him, are handled perfunctorily, apparently to make room for more wet blanket Mary Janeisms or badly-conceived comedy involving J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). By the end of the film, when Harry Osborne's butler becomes Basil Exposition and Spiderman runs around without a mask in front of hundreds of cameras, the carelessness taken with this installment of the franchise becomes manifest. Raimi would likely have done better to leave Venom out of this episode and saved him for the next one (and, indeed, circumstantial evidence suggests that Venom was foisted on him by Sony -- Raimi wanted the Vulture.) As it is, though, Spiderman 3 is a swing-and-a-miss -- not as bad as X3, mind you, but definitely the worst outing thus far in the Spidey franchise. 'Nuff said.

[First appeared in Ghost in the Machine, 5/14/07.]

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