THE opening credits for "Spider-Man 3" showcase moments from the 2002 original, pieces of time that remind us that once upon a time the story of a spider-bit boy turned love-struck crime-fighter was just another movie hoping to be a hit.
What a difference a few years and more than $1.6 billion in worldwide Spidey and Spidey 2 theatrical receipts makes. All that money means that it wasn't in the cards for "Spider-Man 3" to be a tale that demanded to be told in any artistic sense, a story that anyone burned to make for anything like purely creative reasons.
Rather, this is a film that commerce mandated, a marketing puzzle that insisted on a solution, an uber-franchise whose north of $250-million budget and sky-high expectations make it a master that must be served, a monster to be fed, an imperious creature with its own needs and drives.
In the face of those unbending commercial imperatives, it is simultaneously encouraging that this "Spider-Man" actually attempts to bring some originality to the table and disheartening that those attempts are not enough. Certainly acceptable as a sequel to a sequel, "Spider-Man 3" misses an opportunity to be a movie that could be wholeheartedly recommended to those not already ensnared in its web.
Without doubt, anything that money can buy was provided for returning director Sam Raimi (who, with a brother as a credited co-screenwriter and children in cameos, is turning the franchise into a bit of a family sinecure). More than a thousand people worked on the production, some of them putting in the 8,000 hours it took to construct the film's 40 Spider-Man suits and others writing ultra-complex CGI software that we are told "required 10 man-years to code." That's a heck of a lot of code.
Unfortunately, all that money also allowed spendthrift "Spider-Man 3" to acquire too many villains. It is one of the weaknesses of the Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent script that our hero has to contend with so many menaces -- Sandman, Venom, New Goblin, even some especially toxic gook from outer space -- that none of them gets the traction the wonderful Doc Ock did in the last film.
First among equals is the Sandman, both because of Thomas Haden Church's performance and the special effects involved. Church, best known for his wacky work in "Sideways," spent a year bulking up for the role of a troubled troublemaker named Flint Marko who claims "I'm not a bad person, I've just had bad luck." The film's ability to turn Marko into a creature of sand -- ground corncob was used after 16 varieties of the real thing failed to pass muster -- is wizardly.
One reason Church is effective is that he's excited by this, his first "Spider-Man" appearance. Conversely, the weakest performances come from the film's two stars, Tobey Maguire as the overly earnest webbed hero and Kirsten Dunst as frustrated girlfriend Mary Jane Watson.
Though both performers endeavor to be heartfelt, the film's emotional component -- the strength of the original "Spider-Man" -- feels unmistakably pro forma by this point in time. Even supplying both protagonists with potential new romantic interests, including Bryce Dallas Howard as hotshot blond Gwen Stacy and Topher Grace as her beau, doesn't stop the nonaction parts of the film from feeling as if they're running on fumes.
To their credit, Raimi and company seem to be aware of this problem and, though they stumbled in the way it is presented, they have come up with a potentially effective new kind of opponent for Spider-Man. That opponent would be Spidey himself.
We get a hint of this dynamic in the film's opening, as we hear Spider-Man's voice-over boasting that he's come a long way in how he stands in New York's esteem. In fact, he practically gloats, "they love me." Just the way it's said indicates that public acclaim is going to this man's swelled head, that he's getting stuck on himself to a potentially dangerous extent.
As anyone who's heard anything about "Spider-Man 3" knows, Peter Parker's bright red spider suit eventually turns a dazzling black, as his character gives in to his dark side and, in the film's most amusing moments, gets downright nasty as he hits a jazz club in his wanderings around town.
But rather than take the more adventurous route of having a superhero with a legitimate nervous breakdown -- something the original Marvel comic would have relished -- the movie opts to lay it all at the feet of that nasty substance from outer space. It's by far the safer choice commercially, which means it is the only choice in town.
Though aspects of it are entertaining, the presence of all these mismatched pieces give "Spider-Man 3" an ungainly, cumbersome feeling, as if its plot elements were the product of competing contractors who never saw the need to cooperate on a coherent final product.
"We always have a choice," Peter says at one point, delivering one of this film's numerous uplifting messages. Here's hoping that the choice about whether to make yet another "Spider-Man" is based on more than the almighty bottom line.
"Spider-Man 3." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. In general release. Opens Friday, with midnight shows in some theaters on Thursday.