Spider-Man 3

In theaters.

No one should ever cast Tobey Maguire in a supposedly sympathetic role that tilts toward whiny. He can’t pull it off. His doughy face oozes petulance, and his protestations sound like the mewlings of a four-year-old deprived dessert. Spider-Man 3 has lots of problems—a slack, rambling plot; an overabundance of villains; special effects that (with one major exception) aren’t that special—but the worst is that Maguire’s Peter Parker is a pathetic figure—pompous, self-absorbed, and extremely whiny—and that Spider-Man 3 matches him all too well.

At the movie’s outset, Peter is happy. He’s thinking of proposing to Mary Jane, he’s doing well in school, and he’s still scraping by as a newspaper photographer. But hard times are ahead. Mary Jane’s career is on the skids, and she’s jealous of Peter’s lab partner, who has a crush on Spider-Man. As for Peter, he has a new rival at the Daily Bugle, and he’s soon to learn that this uncle’s real killer (heretofore unheard of) has escaped from prison. Meanwhile, Harry, his former best friend, seethes in the mistaken belief that Peter murdered his father, and—unrelated to any of this—a mysterious black goo has bonded onto one of Peter’s spidey suits.

If this sounds like a disjointed, overstuffed mess, that’s because it is. The direction isn’t much better, which is a shame because I’m fond of Sam Raimi, but compared to his energetic and imaginative previous work, Spider-Man 3 feels flat and uninspired. Watching it, you know in your bones that the filmmakers were just in it for the money. It has none of the carefree joy of the first Spider-Man movie and none of the surprising poignancy of the second.

Even the special effects feel lackluster. In the second movie, the scenes in which Spider-Man swung from building to building were thrilling, but here in number three, they lack any kind of focal point and thus any sense of gravity, and (as my husband, Sean, pointed out) without gravity, flying through the air just doesn’t seem that remarkable. The CG shininess amounts to nothing.

The one exception is the scene of the supervillain Sandman’s origin. The escaped convict stumbles on some sort of experimental particle accelerator thing (the explanation feels even more like bullshit than usual) and becomes an animate sand monster. Gradually, the pile of sand where the man once stood takes human form, like a demonic counterpart to Adam, and the effect is remarkably convincing. A friend of mine told me the FX artists spent months studying the properties of sand to create the character, and I believe it.

Less convincing is the obviously computer-generated alien muck glomming onto Peter and unleashing his id, and Peter’s id is even less convincing than that. The costumers and makeup artists decided to differentiate nice-guy Peter from bad-boy Peter by giving bad Peter eye liner, wannabe lothario garb, and greasy, downswept hair that makes him look freakishly like a wussy adolescent Hitler. (Honest to god, give him the mustache and Peter could play the Führer in a high school production of Springtime for Hitler.) And as if bad Peter weren’t pathetically nonthreatening enough, Raimi insists on filming the increasingly weak-chinned Maguire from unflattering low angles. Bad-boy Peter might have been funny if the movie weren’t so embarrassingly deluded about his charm and sex appeal. Nobody should be swooning over little emo Adolf.

Making Maguire look even more pitiful is James Franco, who plays Harry. After a blow to the head, Harry experiences amnesia, forgets all about Peter supposedly killing his father, and happily revives their friendship, giving Franco the opportunity for a good guy/bad guy switch of his own. Even with a weak screenplay, Franco manages to portray both endearingly sweet innocence and duplicitous menace with verve. His scenes—absorbing and funny—make you wonder: Why did the filmmakers felt the need to add not one, not two, but three other villains? Why didn’t they dig deeper into a subplot that might have yielded real emotional resonance. And could this stupid movie have been saved had such an actor, with charisma and full commitment to the part, played Spider-Man himself?