Spider-Man 3

As an ardent admirer of the first two “Spider-Man” films, it brings me no pleasure to say that Part 3 is not great. It’s OK, and it seems to have been made uncynically (i.e., not just as a money-maker), but it’s not nearly as thrilling, funny, or emotionally powerful as it could be — no, as it should be, given the materials it has to work with.

It begins just months after Part 2. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) are in love with each other, and all of New York is in love with Spider-Man. M.J. has a leading role in a Broadway show. Peter intends to propose marriage, and saintly old Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) has given both her blessing and her own engagement ring.

But danger lurks on the fringes of Peter’s life! Perhaps too much danger, actually, to be adequately addressed in one film. Peter’s erstwhile best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) still blames him for his father’s death and is following in Dad’s footsteps on the path toward total insanity, re-creating his experiments and learning how to use the old man’s Green Goblin weaponry for himself. A low-rent criminal named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison, and while this initially means nothing to Peter, it becomes important when he and Aunt May learn that it was actually Marko who killed dear old Uncle Ben in the first film, not the thief Peter pursued and exacted revenge against. A brash young photographer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is trying to replace Peter at The Daily Bugle, and has nearly persuaded J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) to give him a full-time position — something Peter has never been offered.

There’s a hitch in Peter’s relationship with M.J., too. Her acting career hits a snag while Spider-Man’s star is on the rise, and Spidey gets cozy with a model named Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) during a publicity appearance, thus fueling M.J.’s fairly irrational jealousy and giving her more reasons to be the dour, whiny girlfriend she’s become since the last film.

Basically, every aspect of Peter Parker’s life — romantic, professional, familial, fraternal, and heroic — is thrown into turmoil all at once. And then? A mysterious black goo arrives from space via meteorite, infects Peter, and unleashes his selfish, vengeful, swaggering Id. Now he is at war with himself, along with everyone else. Yeesh.

It is too much. A multitude of villains and threats might sound like a good time, and I understand the urge to raise the stakes with each passing sequel. But part of this franchise’s success has lain in its ability to infuse even the bad guys with humanity, to make everyone seem real and relatable. With so much crammed into one film, even a very long film, no character gets the full attention he or she deserves. The only plot thread that is explored in depth is the least interesting one: the stormy romance between Peter and M.J., which is altogether too WB Network for my tastes.

While fleeing the police, Flint Marko stumbles into a particle physics experiment and comes out of it made of sand, with all the powers of, um, sand. As the newly christened Sandman, he wreaks havoc on New York and tussles with Spider-Man over his alleged involvement with Uncle Ben’s death — a bit of revisionist plot history that is way too lame for such a savvy, self-aware series of films. Between that and the outrageous amnesia subplot that affects another character, I have to wonder if director Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alvin Sargent, have been cribbing from soap operas. What’s next? Evil twins? Interrupted weddings?

Ah, but I’m sounding more critical of the movie than I should. Despite these flaws (and some others — Aunt May is getting way too preachy; there’s not enough action; and so forth), I still essentially enjoyed the film, if not nearly as much as the previous ones. It has moments of great humor (Bruce Campbell makes his requisite cameo as a snooty French maitre d’; the sequence in which an emo-looking black-goo-infected Peter Parker struts around town is hilarious) and a few brief action scenes that are truly dazzling. There simply isn’t enough of it.

The frustrating part is that all the raw materials for a great film are here. Brock and Marko both have potentially fascinating backstories and motivations. The idea of a self-serving, revenge-minded Spider-Man is intriguing. There are themes of redemption and forgiveness woven throughout the movie, but they’re delivered tritely and without the deft touch that characterized the emotional aspects of the other films. Sometimes the film feels chaotic, as though scenes are missing, as if they’re still sorting out what to keep and what to throw away. Harry Osborn’s misconceptions about his father’s death are resolved in 30 seconds by a character we’ve never seen before — an outrageously simplified pay-off to his and Peter’s struggle. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

But, again, it’s not that the movie is bad. It’s generally fun and generally pleasant. I can recommend it, halfheartedly. I just hope the other sequels to good movies that we’re expecting this summer don’t suffer from a similar decline in quality.

B- (2 hrs., 20 min.; PG-13, a little very mild profanity, a lot of action-related violence.)