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Review: 'Spider-Man 3' mixes highs and lows

Story Highlights

• Review: "Spider-Man 3" delivers -- sometimes too much
• Film has spectacular bits, though flawed in storytelling
• Worthy conclusion to trilogy (assuming there's no "4")
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- New York's most famous webslinger finally pulls body and soul together in "Spider-Man 3," an extravagant three-ring circus of a movie from director Sam Raimi, but it's not without a struggle.

This is the first blockbuster of the season and in keeping with that perennial comic book motif -- the duality of good and evil -- "Spider-Man 3" represents the best and worst of the series, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of Hollywood's high-stakes franchise fixation.

The blockbuster ethos always demands, "More! More! MORE!" Raimi (who also cowrote the screenplay with his brother Ivan) is happy to oblige, stacking the movie with no less than three villains: first Peter Parker's old friend and rival Harry Osborn (James Franco), aka the New Goblin; then escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), aka Sandman; and finally ambitious news photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), aka Venom.

For one of life's good guys, Parker sure has a way of picking up enemies.

He even manages to alienate girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who suffers a career setback just as Parker is being handed the keys of the city by Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard). Seems like Peter's head is getting too big for his mask these days.

And his ego goes a little power-crazy when Spidey is exposed to a mysterious black substance from outer space -- which Parker foolishly spins into a shiny new suit.

There's enough material here for three movies, at least, and while Raimi devotes some time to the elements that give this series some bounce (including the formidable J.K. Simmons as newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson and the traditional scene-stealing cameo from Bruce Campbell) the storytelling often borders on perfunctory.

That cosmic rubber, for instance, is delivered by comet, then sits on the side until Raimi can squeeze it into Peter's busy schedule. Meanwhile, a promising flirtation between the amnesiac Harry and MJ is abruptly abandoned for a far cruder, but less time-consuming, strategy.

Still, it's equally clear that Raimi has been quietly thinking of the bigger picture from the very beginning, exploiting the franchise to construct the kind of six-hour story arc we've become used to seeing in series television. The twin pillars here have been the Peter-MJ romance and the Peter-Harry friendship.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it's the latter that carries more weight at the end. Harry gets not one but three big fight scenes, and comes to embody the films' solidly redemptive moral convictions. On the other hand, poor Kirsten Dunst has been left hanging yet again.

The "Spider-Man" series has maintained a high level of consistency throughout. At a cost reportedly near the $300 million mark, this third installment goes for broke, particularly in the special effects. Even if, sometimes, more-more-more feels suspiciously like more-of-the-same with flashier clothes, the difference between "1" and "3" is astonishing.

Doc Ock may be the most engaging of the series' villains, but the amorphous Sandman is a triumph of CGI wizardry, a fully-fledged flesh-and-blood character who doesn't actually have flesh or blood.

Enjoyable as "3" is, and sure as you can already hear box-office records breaking, this feels like the natural parting of the ways. It may not be the end of the road for Peter Parker -- is Sony willing to waive a billion-dollar franchise? -- but this surely marks the end of the beginning, given comments by some of the principals. That's OK; they've woven quite a worthy web.

"Spider-Man 3" is rated PG-13 and runs 140 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click hereexternal link.


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Among Spider-Man's antagonists: Sandman, played by Thomas Haden Church.

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