Buckle your seat belts. It's time for the summer movie season. Let's get this out of the way first: this is the summer of the sequel. Of the ten most hyped movies in the next four months, eight of them are sequels, and seven of those are at least the third in the series. Sequels are a tricky business, because there are often massive built-in expectations and points of reference. They can't be too similar to the prequels without risking boredom, but if they stray too far from the tone of the original, they risk alienating their audiences. Like last year's summer season, this year kicks off with the third movie in a blockbuster series. In 2006, the first out of the gate was Mission: Impossible 3; in 2007, it is Spider-Man 3. (Audio review here.)
When we last left Spidey three years ago, he had rid the world of Doctor Octopus, and had his identity revealed to his two closest friends, his girlfriend Mary Jane and his buddy/enemy Harry Osborn, whose father was the Green Goblin in the original picture. SM3 picks up not long after, in a New York City where Spider-Man has gone glam, with his name and image plastered all over the media. Peter Parker relishes his newfound fame, so much that it begins to impede his relationship with Mary Jane. As that hits the rocks, he finds himself vulnerable at an inopportune time, which leads to the chaos that forms the crux of the movie.
One strong point of the movie is that is has the same principal cast as first two and also possesses a continuous story arc. Both features (think about it) are actually rarities among superhero trilogies. That definitely helps in the continuity department, because the characters, locations, and relationships are familiar. On the downside, the similarities amplify the fact that little of the movie is original. We've seen Spidey swoop and soar through city canyons, and we've seen him fight nasty villians. With the exception of an early chase scene, nothing is particularly different, either in style or content. That's disappointing, as a Spider-Man movie begs to be exhilarating. Say what you will about the vastly different styles of the three Mission: Impossibles, but each of them had a unique feel that individually defined each movie and made like events more interesting.
While the lack of novelty is disappointing, the most significant attempt at being unique provides the most unusual portion of the movie. As Parker/Spidey undergoes a transformation in the middle act, the movie takes a bizarre turn into romantic comedy. The idea is commendable; too few movies take too few chances. But this one doesn't work. For twenty minutes you understand what is happening, but still can't quite believe it. It would be like if Golden State had gone into a stall offense when they were up 20 against Dallas last night. Sure, it makes sense given the circumstances, but it still feels completely wrong and out of place.
The bigger problem is the end consequence of the emotional speed bump. It's something very rare in superhero movies: Peter Parker is not likeable. Granted, that is part of the point, but when one starts disliking the title character, one loses interest in the movie, and that is huge strike against this kind of flick.
Like the later Batman installments, SM3 also has too many characters and stories for one movie. Instead of completely marginalizing the hero like Batman & Robin did, SM3 races through the stories of the antagonists. Two of the three could easily have filled the requisite two-plus hours in finer fashion. Then the villains' stories could have been fleshed out better to create the rare well-rounded superhero movie. Not only that, but Peter Parker's issues could have been expanded as well, in a manner more like its predecessors. One of the taglines for the movie is The Battle Within, and that promising fight unfortunately is not fully addressed, though in a pleasant surprise, numerous positive themes of responsibility and choice are.
Having said all that, I must provide the disclaimer that Spider-Man just doesn't do it for me. Batman does; Superman does; but Spider-Man doesn't. Maybe it has to do with Tobey Maguire's relatively diminutive stature, that I don't believe he could be a butt-kicking hero. Maybe the face-covering mask dehumanizes Spider-Man for me. Whatever.
People won't care that much; Spider-Man 3 will still make a webful of money. If you like the other two Spider-Man movies, you'll enjoy this one, which isn't painful to watch. There are plenty of characters and eventually plenty of action. But Spider-Man 3 matches its predecessors ways it shouldn't and doesn't match them in ways it should.
Bottom Line: 6 of 10 for the first big release of the summer and perhaps the final Spider-Man movie. Not bad, but nothing special.