Review: 'Spider-Man 3'

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Bottom Line: A dazzling kickoff to the summer '07 movie season.

Left dangling for the past three years, arachnophiles everywhere finally have cause to celebrate.

The biggest (with a production budget due north of $250 million) and longest (clocking in at 139 minutes) and quite possibly the capper of a trilogy featuring the current talent lineup, "Spider-Man 3" has done it again.

Certain to please the geek squad by remaining ever true to its comic book roots while retaining that satisfying emotional core that has registered with equal numbers of female fans, "Spidey 3" has all its demographic bases covered.

And while the picture as a contained whole may fall an itsy-bitsy short of the personal best set by Sam Raimi's 2004 edition, the wow factor works overtime with state-of-the-art effects sequences that are often as beautiful as they are astonishing.

Having already received its world premiere in Tokyo on Monday and, in a nod to piracy concerns is slated to arrive in a good portion of the globe ahead of its May 4 North American bow, the film's already impressive tracking numbers should be off the hook by the time it hits theaters here.

Factor in those additional Imax screens, and the Columbia Pictures blockbuster should spin a worldwide web that should build substantially on the $1.6 billion already brought in by the first two installments.

Fittingly for a Marvel comic book character who seems to be even more tormented by issues of duality than his super-powered colleagues, "Spider-Man 3" introduces not one but two formidable foes determined to take the web-slinger down.

First there's Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped con who becomes better known as Sandman after his DNA bonds with sand particles when he inadvertently gets caught in the middle of a molecular fusion experiment.

Then there's Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), Peter Parker's photo-snapping rival at the Daily Bugle who is transformed into the extremely nasty Venom after being enveloped in that black goop from another galaxy that temporarily brings out Parker's own darker impulses.

That's in addition to the love-hate relationship Pete already has with Harry Osborn (James Franco), who's very much in the latter mode at the beginning of the picture, determined to make Parker pay for his father's (aka Green Goblin) death.

But Parker also is preoccupied with his relationship with longtime girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Things have hit a bit of a rocky patch as Mary Jane's acting career suffers a serious setback at the same time that Spider-Man's public adoration is at an all-time high.

Further complicating his marriage proposal plans is the appearance of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the daughter of a police captain (James Cromwell) and a classmate of Parker's (not to mention object of Eddie Brock's desires) whose public crush on Spider-Man has been duly noted by Mary Jane.

'Tis a very tangled web of relationships, indeed, and things only become more enmeshed when Marko is found to be implicated in the death of Parker's Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson).

Keeping them all neatly interconnected is the ambitious script by Raimi and his brother Ivan Raimi, along with Alvin Sargent, who also helped elevate "Spider-Man 2."

While there are times the film's underlying theme of the power of forgiveness isn't always quite as subtle as it could be, it nevertheless serves as an effective anchor for the performers.

That aforementioned sinister substance that turns Spidey's suit a sleek, inky black, also affords Maguire the opportunity to have a little fun getting in touch with his dark side, even when the bad-boy makeover -- with his slicked-forward bangs and finger-popping attitude -- reminds one of a "Reefer Madness" fiend or, say, Robert Downey Jr. in "Less Than Zero."

At times it also feels as if Raimi, his Spidey senses tingling that this could well be his last stint as web master, is determined to make sure he gets everything in. The result, aside from a running time that comes in 12 minutes longer than the previous edition, isn't always as cleanly executed as it might have been, especially toward the end.

But there's plenty to enjoy here, from all the usual suspects, plus nicely conflicted performances by Church and Grace (ironic names for portrayors of bad guys, huh?).

Not to be outdone are those visual effects, which have again grown in leaps and bounds.

Entrusted with the new technologies, visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk and Sony Pictures Imageworks deliver big-time here. On more than one occasion, those breathtaking sequences -- from Marko's molecular deconstruction/Sandman's subsequent reconstruction to that final face-off between Spider-Man, Sandman, Venom and Osborn -- are deservedly met with bursts of spontaneous audience applause, which is no mean feat when balancing tubs of popcorn and super-sized beverages.

Rounding out those money-well-spent production values is Bill Pope's vibrant cinematography, Bob Murawski's propulsive editing and James Acheson's dynamic costume design.

All three worked on "Spider-Man 2," as did production designer Neil Spisak, who this time is also joined by J. Michael Riva ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), and "Spider-Man 2" composer Christopher Young, who seamlessly incorporates Danny Elfman's original themes.

SPIDER-MAN 3
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures presents a Marvel Studios/Laura Ziskin production
Credits:
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriters: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
Screen story: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Based on the Marvel Comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Producers: Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad, Grant Curtis
Executive producers: Stan Lee
Kevin Feige, Joseph M. Caracciolo
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designers: Neil Spisak, J. Michael Riva
Editor: Bob Murawski
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Stokdyk
Costume designer: James Acheson
Music: Danny Elfman, Christopher Young.
Cast:
Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Harry Osborn: James Franco
Flint Marko/Sandman: Thomas Haden Church
Eddie Brock/Venom: Topher Grace
Gwen Stacy: Bryce Dallas Howard
Captain Stacy: James Cromwell
Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons
Running time: 139 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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