Superman has always been the star of "Superman," not Clark Kent. Same goes for Batman/Bruce Wayne, only a little less so. What's different about the Spider-Man series is that it's always been more about sensitive, vulnerable Peter Parker than about his superhuman alter ego. Spidey's not a natural-born superhero. It's damn hard work swinging between skyscrapers, and Parker spent a good portion of "Spider-Man 2" wondering if it was worth the trouble. Where was the respect? Where was the glory? He was this close to turning in his spandex suit.
"Spider-Man 2" was hailed by many as the most grown-up of comic-book action movies, which was ironic in that nerdy Peter is the most adolescent superhero in the Marvel movie galaxy. It was all about his growing pains, his doubts, his insecurities, which all former adolescents could relate to—though to these eyes "Spidey 2" got a little too self-important for its own good: the less prestigious, more slapdash original was actually more fun.
Now, in the considerably more entertaining "Spider-Man 3," Peter (Tobey Maguire) is starting to enjoy himself. He doesn't have to hide his secret identity from Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) anymore, he's getting good press and the babes are looking at him in a new way. At a parade in his honor—he's just rescued a screaming blonde (Bryce Dallas Howard) from a collapsing building—he poses for an upside-down kiss with her. "Lay it on me," he says, with a most un-Parker-like swagger. If these flashes of ego seem troublesome, just wait until he gets infected with a creepy-crawly symbiote from a meteor that lands conveniently nearby. This mysterious substance unleashes the vengeful, murderous Black Spider-Man within him (complete with his own fashionably black arachnid outfit). Talk about split identities! Now we have four characters rolled into one: the good nerdy Peter and his cocky, hipster alter ego, who struts down the street as if he's been watching too many reruns of "Saturday Night Fever," and the good Spidey and the bad one, who threatens to ruin the original's reputation.
"Spider-Man 3" is all about quadrupling the fun. There are actually four villains (each of whom, of course, has a split identity). The best of them is Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped con who gets zapped in a physics experiment that turns him into the shape-shifting Sandman—a special effect that is truly special. Then there's his best friend/worst enemy, Harry (James Franco), who in his nasty phase flies around town as the New Goblin. He'll whiplash back and forth from friend to foe throughout this installment, depending on a bout of amnesia that allows him to forget his oath of vengeance against Peter for killing his father. Nemesis No. 3 is the unscrupulous news photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace, with blond highlights that turn him into a Ryan Phillippe clone). This sleazeball, who is Peter's rival at the Daily Bugle, gets transformed into the snarling Venom by the same black slime that alters Parker. Venom, to confuse the identity issue further, is Spider-Man's mirror image, down to his matching black outfit.
These multiple villains make for an eventful but not always coherent plotline. Could somebody explain the supernatural rules? I'd like to know how Sandman keeps reverting to Marko's human form, and why. And is it just a weird accident that black glop from outer space picks on Peter Parker? Seems kind of arbitrary for a major plot point.
But never mind. About an hour into the adventure, "Spider-Man 3" finds its groove and its focus when Peter/Spidey meets his most troubling foe—himself. The juiciest battle here is Spidey vs. Spidey, or, if you prefer, superego vs. id. When Peter starts to go seriously bad, the movie becomes seriously fun. Maguire drops the sweet smile and replaces it with a smug leer: he gives new meaning to the term swinger. Director Sam Raimi, who's always had a taste for loopy comedy (his "Evil Dead" movies are a delirious mix of slime and slapstick), clearly enjoys turning Peter into a wild and crazy guy. He even gives him a dance number in a smoky nightclub that plays like a parody of a '50s gangster musical.
"Spider-Man 3" is nothing if not eclectic, but somehow this ambitious mishmash works. Action-packed, with all the digital fireworks that a $250 million (or more) budget can buy, it's both the most grandiose chapter and the nuttiest. It's a love story in which Peter alienates the woman he loves and has to win back her trust. It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde battle for the soul of Spider-Man that turns on a dime from broad comedy into a quasi-religious parable about forgiveness and redemption. Even the scariest of the villains, like the malevolent Marko, turn out to have a redeeming human side. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, implies this comic-book blockbuster. This is not the typical message of a kick-ass summer extravaganza, but Spider-Man has always swung to a different beat.