The flaws are on full display, too. Spidey is the toast of the town as the film opens, and even before he puts on the alien-infested black suit, the adulation has gone to his head and made him kind of a jerk. When Mary Jane loses her coveted position in a Broadway show thanks to a lousy review, Peter tells her he knows exactly where she’s coming from and recites a Spider-Man anecdote — not what his girlfriend wants to hear. The creeping, tar-like alien symbiote that fuses with Peter’s Spidey suit only amplifies the weaknesses in his character we’ve already seen.
The first two films gave us fascinating and sympathetic three-dimensional villains; in Spidey 3 we get a trio of them. One of them we’ve met before: Harry Osborn, taking up the mantle of the Green Goblin as we all expected him to. Another, Eddie Brock, spends most of the film as a thorn in Peter Parker’s side, only becoming a full-fledged Spidey villain in the last act. The third and best of the rogues this time around is Flint Marko, who in due time is transformed into the shape-shifting, dust-storm-raising Sandman. Like Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, Sandman doesn’t set out to be a killer. He turns to crime to get money for his terminally ill daughter, and escapes from prison in order to see her. Running from the cops, he stumbles into a particle accelerator and is transformed into a seemingly indestructible walking sandcastle. A lesser film of this genre would have treated this perfunctorily as yet another hokey supervillain origin; instead, through Raimi’s lens, the scene where Marko first tries to reassemble himself into human form is wondrous and melancholy. Sandman is played by Thomas Haden Church, who surprised most of us with how great he was in Sideways a few years ago. His angular face and weary demeanor are perfect for this character, and instrumental in helping him remain sympathetic even when he’s kicking the shit out of Spider-Man.
Tobey Maguire stakes his claim alongside Christopher Reeve. His Peter Parker/Spider-Man is every bit as definitive as Reeve’s Clark Kent/Superman. As one of the best actors of his impressive generation — able to hang with the Gyllenhaals and Dicaprios without breaking a sweat — I’m sure he’d rather be remembered for Wonder Boys or The Ice Storm, but his performances in the Spider-Man series are some of his best work. In Spidey 3 he is witty and agile in the Spidey suit, and awkward and human as Peter. He also gets to show off a little-seen goofy side, when Peter (transformed into an oblivious emo loser by the symbiote) prances down the sidewalk pointing flirtatiously at women, all of whom react with mortified disgust.
The rest of the cast is excellent, as expected. Topher Grace plays Eddie Brock as a cocky, self-deluded prick, and is great at it. Kirsten Dunst does a terrific job playing Mary Jane as she grows increasingly confused, hurt and annoyed by Peter’s erratic behavior. She sings a couple of songs, too — not the highlights of the film, but they don’t suck. J.K. Simmons gets a few more funny bits as J. Jonah Jameson, and Rosemary Harris is perfect as always as Aunt May — her scenes with Tobey Maguire are some of the best.
The real star, though, is the story. This isn’t a heavy movie — it has dark moments, but also some profoundly silly ones — but it’s a movie that is really about something. Woven among the exciting action set pieces and comedy are themes about love, friendship, forgiveness and redemption. Like the previous films in the series — especially the sublime Spider-Man 2 — this isn’t a serious film, but it’s about some serious things. And above all, it is invested in its characters. The death of Uncle Ben again plays an important role, as it should — real people don’t forget such life-changing experiences. The villains each reflect back to Peter, to his shortcomings and failures. When he battles Sandman or the new Goblin or the evil symbiote that nearly consumes him, Spider-Man isn’t just fighting random, interchangeable bad-guys; he’s fighting himself.
Sam Raimi has lived and breathed Spider-Man since he started making the first film over six years ago. He must be exhausted. But if there is to be a Spider-Man 4 — and if early box office for this one is any indication, there is — I hope Raimi will return to the helm, and I hope he will bring this cast — including Maguire, who has hinted that 3 might be his last time in the Spidey suit — along with him. The majority of this story is adapted from comic books that are over 40 years old, and yet it is as fresh and exciting and full of meaning as any film I’ve seen this year. I think it’s the best third entry in any film series (beats the shit out of the third Superman and Batman films, don’t it?), and belongs alongside its predecessors, and Hulk and Superman Returns as one of the best films to emerge from the ongoing renaissance of superhero films. See this one and then see it again.