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Spidey's got black power

3rd web-slinger flick has new villains, alien goo - & looks tired

Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) faces a new villain, the shape-shifting Sand-Man, played by Thomas Haden Church with a good deal of pathos in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3."
Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) faces a new villain, the shape-shifting Sand-Man, played by Thomas Haden Church with a good deal of pathos in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3."Read more

"Spider-Man 3" introduces us to Black Spidey, who, in his new ebony uniform, is angry, jealous, cruel, cocky, vengeful and vain.

That's right - Black Spider-Man is Bad Spider-Man, which sounds like a job for Al Sharpton.

Really, though, the new Black Spider-Man is just an exaggerated version of the old Red and Blue, with heightened powers that raise new questions about what it really means to be strong. The movie opens with midnight screenings tonight.

As "Spider-Man 3" begins, Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) is the apple of the Big Apple's eye, the most popular guy in New York City. By modern standards, that means money, girls, stuff - all that stuff you see in "Entourage."

But Spider-Man is the super-hero most hung-up on the moral hazards of absolute power. He knows he's obliged to win, but never celebrate. He must defeat opponents, but not taunt them. Others may profit from his fame, but never Peter Parker.

And so while Batman chills at Wayne Manor, Parker lives in a dump and drives a scooter, as though he'd taken a vow of poverty. Kudos to Sam Raimi and company for finding a way to build a billion-dollar franchise around that ethos in today's culture.

Is there also a vow of chastity? Peter and Mary Jane are in a PG relationship, all cuddles and kisses - Spider-Man knits her a webby hammock so they can watch a meteor shower. The fun begins when one meteor actually reaches the ground nearby, hatching a black ooze that latches onto Peter's scooter and follows him home.

There, it bonds to Spidey's suit, turning the red and blue to black, and while it makes Spidey more powerful, it also makes him less able to resist the temptations that come with being able to kick anyone's ass.

Peter was on shaky ground anyway. In an early scene, he gets a key to the city, and you can feel the movie admonish poor Peter for the sin of enjoying his popularity - he swings over the adoring crowd, high-fiving the children, landing on the podium where he plants a kiss on the police chief's daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) watches and is not pleased. Her Broadway career is in a shambles, starry-eyed Peter has failed to notice, and the two have grown apart just as Peter musters the courage to propose.

Peter grows bitter, and when he puts on his new black suit, his willingness to be spiteful, even hateful, grows apace with his strength - when he turns on Mary Jane, it's like the Baldwin-Basinger breakup (and the weakest aspect of the film. Maguire and Dunst look like they're tired of the whole thing).

Peter becomes an aggressive skirt-chasing poser, and Raimi turns him into a send-up of the paranoid super celeb - in his black suit, he's even stalked by a paparazzi photog (Topher Grace).

Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean a guy made out of sand isn't trying to kill you. An escaped convict (Thomas Haden Church) wanders into a superconductor and becomes the shape-shifting Sand-Man, robbing banks and terrorizing the city.

Raimi likes to put offbeat actors instead of big stars in key roles, and it pays dividends again. Sandman turns out to be a big lug trying to raise money for his sickly daughter, and Church adds pathos to the role. Grace underplays as a sneaky aggressor, until he gets some of the ooze on him and becomes Venom (and if that sounds like five subplots too many, it is.)

In Raimi's hands, the "Spider-Man" franchise is less about power than the limits of it, and that's true of "3." Spidey can't defeat Sandman, but understanding may lead to a truce. He can't duel Venom alone, so he begs a romantic rival (James Franco, as Goblin II) to be an ally. Poor Peter. He probably can't even make up with Mary Jane without Dr. Phil.

To paraphrase Uncle Ben, with great power comes great, big headaches. *

Produced by Laura Ziskin, Avid Arad, Grant Curtis, directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, music by Christopher Young; distributed by Sony Pictures.