The new Spidey does what a lot of “threes” do in that it doesn’t particularly disappoint, but can’t quite match what has come before. As with the Fantastic Four movie, the opening half-hour at least is primarily a series of set up scenes, with little attention given to the depth of the characters – something that was in abundance in Spider-Man 2 and lifted it above other recent comic book offerings. The movie plays out Revenge Of The Sith like, with things happening merely because the plot demands they do so as opposed to the first and 2‘s careful organic story building, but each scene felt flabby within itself even though they were all short. I needed more of Flint Marko’s escape (rather than just him on the run), a better excuse for him becoming Sandman than just falling into a ludicrously unguarded (a chain fence!?) giant nuclear whisk experiment (which no-one seemed bothered about checking out afterwards, and what was its point anyway – to mix some sand?), a little less of him lovingly holding that sweater, and more of a resolve on his motivation than the “sorry” we get. Mary Jane Watson, especially, just hangs around (no pun intended) waiting to be rescued, with little thought given to what would actually happen to someone with a full-on Broadway career if they ended up in the position she does. It amounts, unfortunately, to little more than filmmaking by numbers, a point of view not helped by one character’s amazingly convenient shift towards the end that proves all too much that this is dumbed-down formulaic Spidey and not the multi-layered approach of the previous films.

In some cases, it was as if the franchise had been handed to newcomers, like the switch between the first and last two pictures in the Batman quartet. The early scenes, while not as tightly edited as they could be, zip through without much consideration or consequence. An early attack by the new Green Goblin (if he really wanted to hit Spidey where it hurts, why not use his considerable wealth to expose him on a billboard?) is so overly directed that one can’t often see what’s going on (as with King Kong‘s dino fight, a few steps back with the camera could have given us a wider frame in which to follow the action). The effects here aren’t great either – Imageworks still having trouble creating a convincing human, and the bane of special effects filmmaking – the green screen – means that a lot of the trick scenes just don’t look real. This strange, not quite right feel extends to the music, which this time around incorporates Danny Elfman’s themes but is scored by Christopher Young, who genre fans probably know best for The Fly II, Swordfish, The Grudge and Ghost Rider, though I’ve been a fan since his work on the Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little in 1997. Here (picked due to a prior relationship with Raimi on The Gift and composing “additional music” for Spider-Man 2), Young is hampered in having to ape Elfman’s style and orchestrations, being barely able to express his own musical abilities. It’s almost an invisible score – and not for the right reasons – made up, like Superman II, from pre-existing cues. He serves what the music needs to do adequately, but it never lifts the film up to another level the way direct involvement from Elfman could have done.

In many ways, the trilogy so far – this caps it off nicely and Sony should, artistically, call it a day – reminds me of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. The first set up the myth splendidly, while the second entries became more gritty, deeper affairs where the leading ladies discover the hero’s identity (and they both, for a while, lose their powers). In each third film, the hero finds himself under the influence of an alien substance and goes schizoid, though bad-Spidey doesn’t ever do anything too nasty or stray far out of character (nothing more, in fact, than behave like any other arrogant, short-tempered teenager). Actually, this is very much to the detriment of the script, which desperately needs more weight, and isn’t helped in that there’s no big redemption moment, such as the one that just about saved Superman III, that particularly urges the audience to cheer him on in the final act. And that goes for the movie overall too: it’s often split emotionally in what it wants to push as its primary plot and becomes perilously unbalanced as a result. Most of the time there are just too many things going on and what should have been big character motivation moments are nothing more than throwaway scenes for the supporting players to try and make their mark with while they compete against the CGI pyrotechnics blasting away for all they’re worth. There are also several misguided sequences, and while Peter Parker Saturday Night Fever-footing it down the street could be fun, it just doesn’t belong where it occurs in the plot, especially when the film promotes itself specifically as showing Spidey’s dark side.

And then there’s Venom. Or at least there would be if he didn’t only show up for the final battle of the film, leading to an incredible waste that could have very nicely set up a stunning villain for an eventual fourth film. Its genesis is as ham-fistedly explained (a meteorite, which lands so softly it doesn’t form a crater, shake Peter’s web, or even set his Spidey-Sense off, which seems mostly absent for the entire movie) as the amount of time it takes to find a host. When it does, eventually transforming Parker’s Daily Bugle photographing rival into the Venom we’ve been waiting for, it’s not even an outright consumption: the guy “underneath” is still in full control and well able to pop out from behind his mask (in an over-sophisticated and ultimately boring way) to taunt Parker as the Sandman (only occasionally successful visually) pounds away at him. Even here, there’s a spot of comedy (J Jonah Jameson desperate for photographic shots) that seems well out of place, and indeed brings the otherwise exciting climax of the film to a crashing thud of a stop until it motors up again. And just what was with the female TV reporter – was she supposed to be taken seriously? These off-putting elements really didn’t help the film progress in any dramatic sense and only contributed to its overlong running time.

What is nice is that the film resolves itself and mostly ties up the series’ loose ends, apart from the mystifyingly baffling decision to let Sandman disappear instead of allowing himself to disperse into the wind (hey, he could still come back). If Raimi and the cast (and I’m not sure it’s too long before we could start confusing MJ with Aunt May!) did want to throw in the towel right now the Spider-Man films would be remembered, as with the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, as having a great first outing, a much more elaborate middle act that went deeper and darker, capped by a third part that goes back to basics (perhaps a little too much) and simply provides a satisfying ride movie, if nothing special. The sense of fun (missing so achingly from Superman Returns) is still here and, thanks to the cast, the characters just about remain faithful to their previous incarnations though not really offering anything new (as with Venom, the Gwen Stacy character is also woefully underused), a complaint that could be leveled at Spider-Man 3 itself. If the staleness is beginning to set in at this relatively early stage, this does not bode well for dragging the franchise out, for Sony’s planned 4, 5 and 6, to anything else but a creatively bankrupt future.

I did actually enjoy the film, and do recommend seeing it where it should be seen, in a theater with a whooping audience loving every bit, but as an entry in a series that looked to have more stability than most other similar fare, this one trades depth for spectacle. In lieu of the hearty snack the first provided and the full, main-course meal enjoyed with 2, think of this one as the desert: over-puffed and delicious looking, but simply stocked too full with lots of empty cinematic calories.

Spider-Man 3
Columbia/Sony Pictures Entertainment
139 minutes
Rated PG-13
directed by Sam Raimi