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'Spider-Man': Third Time's a Yawn

Superheroes tend to dwell on their outsized insecurities lately, so maybe this was inevitable: A hero whose emotions spiral out of control, villains who "mean well," no end of anguish over the leading lady's singing career --all shot in close-up so the movie will look good when it's played on cell phones in a few weeks. With four separate subplots and more twists than a daytime soap, Episode Three of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series plays like As the Web Turns. With special effects.

One very special effect sends a construction crane swinging through an office building, presumably so the audience can stop worrying for a moment about the chief bad guy's daughter's life-threatening illness. I say "chief" bad guy because there are three this time, and that's not even counting the mysterious black goo that turns everyone it touches into either a revenge-crazed freak or a bad dancer. We'll get to the bad dancing in a moment, but first the three bad guys: There's Spidey's estranged best friend, who's morphed into Green Goblin Junior. There's Venom, who's not much more than a mess of black goo — with fangs. And there's Sandman, who gets "de-molecularized" in the film's coolest effect and becomes the object of Spider-Man's goo-fueled ravings.

If you're over 13, this is all allegedly interesting because of the special effects — which are pretty special, if a little videogame-y. They're also consequence-free, since nobody even gets bruised when crashing through brick walls. Sandman gets his face shaved off by a passing train, after which he merely re-molecularizes. You sort of have to de-molecularize your brain to stay engaged.

Happily, the screenwriters still have good old Aunt May around to remind us that there's a message. "Revenge is like a poison that can turn us into something ugly," says actress Rosemary Harris to Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker at one point. Makes your Spidey-sense tingle, doesn't it?

Now, there are some real-world parallels for a super-powerful American (with black goo possibly coloring his thinking) who imagines he can take on the world's bad guys all by himself — especially when you throw in a revenge motive centered on a father figure, people falling from pulverized skyscrapers and enough swirling sand to suggest a Middle Eastern desert. I'm not sure these parallels have actually occurred to Raimi, but when Spidey finally decides he needs "allies" to fight the evildoers, he does put on his red-and-blue suit and swing in front of an American flag. Isn't comic-book-land refreshing?

Now, about that bad dancing I mentioned earlier. Aunt May said revenge can turn you ugly, and Raimi illustrates that notion not just with the black goo, but by dressing Maguire in a skinny black suit and having him sleaze his way around a dance floor. Wait'll you see how much editing it takes to turn him into a sort of Eurotrash John Travolta.

Worse, Raimi photographs his star from odd angles, making him look puffy during love scenes and awkward when he's not being digitized in Spidey spandex. We're supposed to sympathize with this guy, but when I eventually did, it was mostly because I'd started to wonder: "What's a poor superhero to do when not just three villains, but even his director, have turned against him?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.