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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Iíve always considered the Spider-Man movie series to be anti-blockbuster blockbusters. The first two films were so phenomenally popular not because of the amazing effects and the exciting action but because they took the time to establish a deep human element. The effects and action were, essentially, the icing on the cake. Spider-Man 3 continues this trend, but in a way you might not expect; the primary villain this time is Spidey himself, or rather Peter Parker, who experiences situations that threaten to bring out the dark side in him.

The story opens with Peter (Tobey Maguire) about to propose to true love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). Heís happy as can be in his love life, and the people of New York are constantly celebrating his alter ego. Mary Jane, on the other hand, is going through a down period. Her big Broadway debut turns out to be a bust. She also feels neglected by the fact that Peterís always off fighting crime. Thereís even a little matter involving Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Peterís school lab partner who has a major crush on the famed web-slinger, much to Mary Janeís dismay.

In the midst of this personal drama, Peter learns that the man who killed his Uncle Ben was misidentified. The real culprit was Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), an escaped convict whoís trying to steal enough money to save his sick daughter. Long story short, Marko accidentally ends up in the middle of a government science experiment and becomes the creature known as Sandman. Normally, Peter would go out and try to stop Marko, but his body has been overtaken by a strange black substance that fell to earth from a meteorite. The goo turns his Spidey suit black and brings out his inner rage. Peter doesnít just want to catch Marko anymore; he wants to make the guy pay.

While encased in the darkness, he also takes aim at Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a conniving photographer who tries to usurp Peterís position at the Daily Bugle. Brock similarly falls under the spell of the goo and morphs into famed nemesis Venom. As if all this werenít enough for a young superhero to deal with, Peter has to face series regular Harry Osborn (James Franco), who tries to avenge his fatherís death by becoming the Hobgoblin. After a whack on the head, he loses his memory and forgets that he was holding Peter responsible for his Dadís death. If he ever remembers, it could spell real trouble.

Okay, so letís get the negative out of the way first. As you may have guessed from all Iíve written, Spider-Man 3 at times feels a little overstuffed. Youíve got three bad guys, two love interests, a hero with two alter egos, and an assortment of returning characters such as Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and editor J. Jonah Jamison (J.K. Simmons) all trying to squeeze in some screen time. I have always maintained that less is more when it comes to comic book adaptations. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in the disastrous Batman & Robin, which was so crammed with characters that it suffocated itself to death. Spider-Man 3 never reaches that level (thank goodness) but it does feel a tad crowded at times. A couple of the subplots could have been trimmed or excised altogether. As good as Bryce Dallas Howard is here Ė and thatís very good Ė Gwen is not an essential character, as proven by the fact that she all but disappears after a certain point.

The thing that allows the movie to overcome this potentially crippling flaw is that the screenplay (by director Sam Raimi, his brother Ivan, and Alvin Sargent) puts everything here in order to pursue a classic ďman vs. himselfĒ theme. It may have too much going on, but at least itís all for a purpose. Once you realize that Spider-Man is basically fighting his own repressed desire for vengeance, the overabundance of characters and subplots starts to make sense. Each of them helps to illustrate the rage in Peter Parker that comes to the forefront when he puts on the black suit. Yes, he takes on Sandman and Hobgoblin and Venom, but his greatest struggle is with himself.

Spider-Man 3 deals with issues of forgiveness and redemption. Peter, for instance, doesnít believe in killing bad guys, just capturing them. Yet when he discovers that Marko killed his uncle (and when the suit takes over), his anger bubbles to the surface, threatening to corrupt everything he supposedly stands for. Peter then must make a choice: give in to that rage, or fight it knowing that full justice might not be done. I like this approach because it gives this second sequel an identity of its own. It would have been too easy to simply show us the origin of another bad guy and then have Spider-Man battle him for two hours. This spin feels fresh to me, and the movie subsequently avoids that ďthree-peat burnoutĒ that affects many film series.

The performances Ė which were terrific in the first two pictures Ė remain a key element of success this time. The actors continue to bring added depth to their roles with each passing sequel. The special effects, meanwhile, outdo themselves. I think theyíre even better here than in the first two films. There is an amazing sequence involving a crane that goes haywire while on top of a skyscraper, the metal arm smashing into buildings and sending people and office supplies flying. Spidey naturally shows up to save the innocent (including Gwen), and the whole sequence has a vertiginous feeling that is sickening in the best possible way. You really feel like youíre falling and flying through the air. This might be my favorite scene in any of the Spider-Man movies to date. Equally impressive are the Sandman scenes. Itís kind of hard for Spidey to catch him since things pass right through his surface. Capping it off is a battle royale in which Sandman teams up with the creepy Venom to fight our hero at a construction site. From an action standpoint, Spider-Man 3 delivers the goods in a way that will have fans talking all summer.

But as I said at the top, itís the human element that rules the day. Yeah, thereís a little too much going on all at once, but when placed in the context of the series, Peterís struggle with his darkest impulses is the logical next step in his tale. The original movie ended with a rousing shot of Spider-Man swinging toward the camera. The first sequel ended more emotionally, with a close-up of Mary Jane watching her boyfriend swing off to fight crime. Spider-Man 3 also ends on a more tender note, and for good reason. As dazzling as the action and effects are, itís the personal journey of Peter Parker that I care about most.

( 1/2 out of four)

Spider-Man 3 is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Spider-Man 3

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