Reviewing franchise movies is a bit like reviewing an ad campaign. The studio mind-set and promotional tie-ins are as integral to the discussion as the film itself. In a sense, they are one and the same.
With "Spider-Man 3," the studio's mission is clear: Sony wants to keep this tent pole upright for as long as possible – maybe until Tobey Maguire qualifies for the AARP.
I thought the first Spider-Man movie was OK and the second much better. The new one, however, is a let-down – too much going on with too little to show for it. Director Sam Raimi and his team will do anything to hold the audience's attention, even if it means clogging the landscape with so many bad guys that the movie develops villain gridlock.
Spidey gets lost in the shuffle. To some extent he always has. Especially as played by Maguire, Spider-Man has to be one of the most recessive superheroes in movie history. I realize that his ordinary-guy routine is integral to his appeal, but a little of this meekness stuff goes a long way with me.
In "Spider-Man 3," we are brought into Spidey's "dark side" – which turns out to be grayish. It all begins with a gloppy substance that crashes to the earth and affixes itself to Spider-Man's suit, turning it black and enhancing his powers. Also his ego. He spiffs up his hairstyle and struts the city streets while women gasp.
Given what a dweeb Peter Parker – Spidey's Clark Kent-like self – is, I initially welcomed the Nutty Professor-style transformation. But it turns out that a little of this goes a long way, too. Maguire isn't really a different actor playing the "dark" Spider-Man – he just has a different haircut.
Much more of a drag this time around is Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, whose Broadway career takes a nose-dive along with her love life. With Peter gallivanting about much of the time, she has little to do except fume and act bereft.
So who does that leave to look at? For me, it was pretty much all Sandman – the best of the villains by far. It was a brilliant move to cast Thomas Hayden Church, the somnolent jock from "Sideways," as escaped con Flint Marko. Church's morose doggedness works perfectly here. Even before Marko morphs into the shape-shifting Man of Earth, his movements have a slurry slowness – he's a human sandbag.
The other bad guys are visually less interesting. Topher Grace plays a rival for Peter's job as photographer at the Daily Bugle who is transformed into Venom – a megaversion of Spider-Man. Their aerial fight scenes are well done – all the aerial special effects in the film are – but overlong.
Harry Osborn (James Franco), out to avenge his father, the Green Goblin, also signs on as a villain. Sporting the latest in trendy Goblin-wear, he zooms into the stratosphere to battle his nemesis. Lots of midair clanging ensues.
"Spider-Man 3" is far from a flop, and I'm sure the Spider-maniacs will eat it up. For me, it's a buffet without much aftertaste. Grade: B–
• Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence.