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Spider-Man 3 (***)

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Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007 10:00 pm

To hear some people tell it, "Spider-Man 3" has got to be the most egregiously awful, overstuffed, under-thought big-budget misfire in Hollywood history. From stories on the Internet about premier screenings in which audiences were downright hostile toward what they were seeing on screen, to word-of-mouth buzz that has the film painted as the Bay of Pigs of summer blockbusters, it doesn't appear as though many people have anything nice to say about Peter Parker's third cinematic outing.

Indeed, it is by far the franchise's weakest outing to date, and I can sympathize with many of the fanboys' complaints. Compared to the first two movies (particularly "Spider-Man 2," which is quite possibly the finest film ever made in the comic-book genre), this third installment seems underwhelming to a frustrating degree. But when evaluated on its own merits as a season-opening summer action flick, the eye-candy-laden "Spider-Man 3" has a lot to offer moviegoers looking for nothing more than a big, loud, sporadically thrilling theatrical experience.

This time around, Spider-Man faces not one, but three formidable foes. The central villain is Sandman, aka Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), an escaped convict who inadvertently becomes genetically melded to sand particles, and who also happens to have painful ties to our hero's past. Next up is Venom, formerly Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who turns up late in the film and doesn't really do much besides look cool and wreak some random havoc. Last - and most interesting - is the new Green Goblin, alias Harry Osborn (James Franco), who is still holding a grudge against Spider-Man for allegedly killing his father.

As if these three weren't enough, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) also has his own inner demons to contend with. He and Mary Jane (Kirstin Dunst) are encountering some problems in their relationship (so much for "Go get 'em, tiger!"), and in the midst of this bit of trouble in paradise, Peter stumbles across some inner-galactic black goo that attaches itself to him and brings out his more undesirable traits. Between three insane, mutated super-villains, an uppity girlfriend and a glob of random space slime, our hero's certainly got his work cut out for himself.

Now, for all the flack "Spider-Man 3" has been receiving from dismissive critics and disappointed moviegoers, the film's box office numbers have been incredible - record-breaking, in fact. That's because for all its weak points, the film boasts enough positive attributes to redeem itself.

Yes, there are an inordinate amount of head-scratching gaps in logic that the movie never even attempts to explain. No, the film's central villains are neither engaging enough nor developed enough to justify their place in the story. And yes, the film jumps around an awful lot, and sometimes inches dangerously close to the realm of self-parody. (By the time Maguire's "evil" Peter Parker does a "Saturday Night Fever" routine in front of a clothing store, my companion and I turned to each other with looks of confusion and abject horror as the rest of the auditorium either tittered hesitantly or audibly groaned.)

But to focus on all that is to be overly pessimistic, and to ignore the considerably dazzling filmmaking wizardry that dominates the bulk of the movie. There's nothing quite as riveting as our hero's train fight with Doctor Octopus in part two, but Spidey's first clash with the new Green Goblin - staged across the New York skyline and through the city's narrow back alleys - comes darn close, and Sandman's transformation sequence is the most genuinely heart-breaking scene in the entire trilogy. For all its faults, it's magical scenes like these that make "Spider-Man 3" a worthwhile sit for action-starved audiences.

"Spider-Man 3" is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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