Spider-Man 3

Early reviews have been inordinately pissy for the third chapter in the Spider-Man series. And there's no arguing that the movie is too long at 139 minutes, too packed with villains (did we really need three of hose suckers?), too limp in its love story (Kirsten Dunst looks weary of playing Mary Jane), and too reliant on a climatic battle scene that trains to clone the booming Roosevelt Island crescendo of Spider-Man 2.

Know what? Audiences won't give a damn. In an era of cynical, cash-in sequels, Spider-Man 3, like its two predecessors, has a heartbeat that resonates just as strongly as its box-office ka-ching. Director Sam Raimi, who wrote the script with his brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent, has always kept his focus on the human side of this Marvel Comic hero: that means screwed-up crybaby geekboy Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) over the superhero he becomes when he dudes up in Webslinger drag. Even when the movie is just running in place, you can still feel its pulse. Take that Pirates of the Caribbean.

Peter's real adversary this time is his own hubris. He's so into his media image ("They love me!") that he doesn't notice or care that his girlfriend MJ is a talentless singer who gets canned from her Broadway gig. He even participates in a charity event in which hottie Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) plants a kiss on Spidey while he's hanging upside own. Hey, that hint of oral sex play is how he and MJ sealed the deal in the first movie. No wonder she ignores Peter when he tries to give her an engagement ring in a fancy restaurant with the help of a fawning maitre'd — a delicious bit from Raimi's Evil Dead maestro Bruce Campbell.

There are delicious bits aplenty in Spider-Man 3 for those who care to notice. Sure the fx steals a lot of thunder, especially Spidey flying through the corridors of Manhattan with the son of the Green Goblin in hot pursuit on his flying skateboard and a killer sequence in which a construction crane goes berserk and knocks the side out of a skyscraper.

Yet Raimi still manages to keep things personal, even the villains. Thomas Haden Church wins pride of place as Flint Marko, an escaped convict transformed by a freak scientific experiment into the hulking sandman, a scene that achieves a poetic grandeur rare in escapist fare. Church's beyond-the-call-of-duty performance makes you feel empathy for a character who can crush buildings but can't help his sick daughter. "I'm not a bad person," says the Sandman. "I've just had bad luck."

The same empathy extends to Harry Osborn (James Franco), Peter's former friend who wrongly blames Spidey for the death of his Green Goblin father and vows vengeance by becoming the New Goblin, a chip off the old nutso block. But the good Harry keeping peeking in between the cracks.

In the Raimi universe, everyone has his reasons, including Eddie Brock (Topher Grace with hair highlights), a photographer who tries to steal Peter's job at the Daily Bugle — J.K. Simmons again blusters up a storm as the editor — by Photoshoping Spidey into a compromising position as a thief. It's Eddie who morphs into Venom, a drooling, toothy monster befitting a character with the soul of a paparazzo. The agent of his transformation is inky oozing goo from outer space (I am not making this up) that covers him and brings out his inner demon.

The goo also sticks to Peter, but scale back on your expectations for dark side. If you want to see a truly malevolent Maguire grab the DVD of The Good German in which he forces Cate Blanchett into rough anal sex and then punches her out. The worst the goo does to Peter is turn him into a finger-snapping hipster recalling the Buddy Love character in The Nutty Professor (both the Jerry Lewis and Eddie Murphy versions). But Raimi knows we'll never buy Peter as a dick. So he uses the scene for comic effect — babes laugh at his cool act — and in the process liberates Maguire from the goody-goody goo that Peter wears like a second skin. The worst thing Peter does is use Gwen to make MJ jealous. And in typical Raimi touch, the director finds time to show Gwen apologize to MJ for letting herself be a pawn in a man's game.

Spider-Man 3 is full of Raimi nuances. But the attack dogs are out in force. They see the film's budget (a reported $250 million) and the huge box-office take of the first two installments ($1.6 billion) as evidence that the filmmakers are in it for the money. Now there's a shock. internet wags point out that Raimi, from a conservative Michigan family of Polish Jews, contributed $900 to Dubya's reelection campaign in 2004. What's next? Did Raimi phone in votes for Sanjaya? The third chapter in the Spidey saga (a fourth is in the planning stages) is uneven, ungainly and frayed at the edges but there's lively mischief in it still. My guess is that when the summer blockbuster season finishes pummeling s with formula, Spider-Man 3 is going to look like one of the few that as touched by human hands.

From The Archives Issue 471: April 10, 1986