If nothing else, Peter Parker is a resilient lad. In the beginning of Sam Raimi’s massive, merrily entertaining “Spider-Man 3,” we find the Daily Bugle photographer (Tobey Maguire) in the same state of boyish, cynicism-free grace that preceded his crime-fighting days.
He’s still tickled when little kids happily call out the name of his web-slinging alter ego, he still sheepishly takes grief from his hothead editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), and he still studies hard at school. And he’s genuinely dazzled when his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), makes her debut as a Broadway songbird.
That Peter can still be so humble and focused after all that’s happened to him — eight-limbed psychopaths and the like — is astounding. Or, perhaps, slightly unrealistic, like a Marine coming home from three tours in Iraq and being the same kid he ever was. (Witness the scene in which Peter spins a hammock in Central Park for a little midnight star-gazing with Mary Jane — every iota as romantic as their upside-down kiss in “Spider-Man.”)
Of course, Parker’s happy days will be short-lived. First, a blob of black, ambulatory goo from outer space lands in Central Park and starts stalking Peter like an obsessed paparazzo.
Then small-time felon Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) escapes from prison and wanders — wouldn’t you know it? — into a particle physics experiment that transforms him into a shape-shifting monstrosity dubbed the Sandman. (Raimi’s subsequent depiction of a sandstorm sweeping through New York City is remarkable.)
Then there’s the unresolved matter of Harry Osborn (James Franco), the revenge-twisted Green Goblin heir and former best friend who finds some of his father’s old toys and uses them — in one riotous sequence — to kick around Spider-Man like a human Hacky Sack.
From a storytelling perspective, “Spider-Man 3” is a marvel of compression. There are multiple love interests (Bryce Dallas Howard plays a fair damsel who takes a liking to both Peter and Spider-Man), multiple villains (Topher Grace plays a rival shutterbug who evolves into a fanged anti-Spidey called Venom) and multiple revenge arcs (when Peter learns that Marko may have killed his beloved Uncle Ben, he quite literally develops a dark streak).
All of it culminates, comically, with Peter embracing the goo and going all Buddy Love on us, complete with “hey, baby” winks and cheesy one-liners.
This sort of broad humor is arguably the first sign of a faltering franchise, but even if that’s true, it gives the audiences a necessary respite from what — until now — have been the character’s only definable qualities: inexperience and boyish, uncorrupted wonder.
Even superheroes need to go Hollywood once in a while.
>> PG-13 (sequences of intense action violence), 140 min. Grade: B