Spider-Man 3: Third Time's (Not) the Charm
Forced humor, forced fun, a forced sense of reminiscence (the movie's so thick with long-established motifs, you'd think it was Spider-Dämmerung): These traits, combined with the grandiose theme, at last give you the impression not of ambition itself but of a desperate striving to be ambitious. It's the difference between creating an ingenious, delightful action sequence and telling the audience you've created one; between having Peter/Spider-Man race through well-defined streets so he can deliver a stack of pizzas (as in the beginning of Spider-Man 2) and having him whip through a random jumble of city views so he can stop and pose before a screen-filling American flag.
Note the operation of the First Law of Movie Dynamics: As self-importance rises, concern for common sense falls. Those unfamiliar with this principle might imagine that a writer-director's attention will be concentrated everywhere when greatness is the goal--that someone who so beautifully realizes the scene of Flint Marko's transformation into Sandman (a wonder of characterization and feeling, not just of special effects) will maintain the standard he's set. But see how the plot of Spider-Man 3 jerks along over groundwork that was incompletely laid. Convenient butlers dodder forward to supply information the characters ought to have known years ago. Unlikely changes of heart seize Peter, and then are magically undone a reel later, just so a conflict can be advanced. These breaks in the storytelling are too severe to be excused as mere shortcuts, taken for the sake of economy; but they are also too careless to be enjoyed for their own sake, as you might luxuriate in the incongruities of a more dreamlike picture. Here, you just get bumped out of the movie, for no better reason than that Raimi couldn't be bothered to keep you in. He's got higher priorities: preparing a long, loud battle for the climax, and writing some lines of fortune-cookie wisdom--repent! forgive! brush after meals!--meant to justify the clanging.
If forgiveness is the main concern of Spider-Man 3, then Raimi certainly has mine. He's given me so much pleasure over the years (For Love of the Game notwithstanding) that I probably should be apologizing to him, for finding fault. But then, Raimi headed me off by working his own criticisms into the movie.
Through his affection for some of the supporting characters--a secondary love interest played by Bryce Dallas Howard, an evil twin to Peter (mostly comic) played by Topher Grace--Raimi implicitly disavows Peter and Mary Jane, who no longer seem to inspire him. You can feel his relief whenever he turns momentarily from Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (good as they are) to the new faces in the cast. As for the film's outstanding performance, it's surely given by that handsome mug James Franco, in the role of Peter's sometime friend and sometime enemy Harry. There's an airy freedom in the way Franco veers from obsessive rage to open-faced sweetness, from murderous scheming to heroic self-abnegation. Lucky him. He gets to play, while Maguire and Dunst are stuck discharging an obligation.
She never gets to relax in the movie, except in Franco's company. He never gets to enjoy being a bad guy--even in that jazz club scene--but acts out his evil under compulsion. These are two seriously clenched characters--and the strain you sense in them tells you something about the explicit self-criticism in Spider-Man 3. Raimi's story proposes that Spider-Man has now become too popular for his own good. The cheering crowds, the marching bands, the breathlessly impressed young beauties, the giant-screen video billboards: These ceaseless accolades weigh on Peter's soul, the film tells us, and sadden Mary Jane.
It takes little imagination to conclude that the success burdening the characters now drags on the series, too. Impute the problem to social injustice, individual moral frailty or an ambitious extraterrestrial blob, but Spider-Man 3 is a come-down.