Spider-Man movie action sequences have come a long way from the first installment, when one of the big moments had Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man dashing into a burning building like some pulp serial hero from the '30s. In Spider-Man 3, the webslinger tumbles and twirls in mid-air, bouncing off walls and fragments of debris as he fights off a trio of villains. There's New Goblin (played by James Franco), the bomb-throwing son of Spider-Man's dead nemesis The Green Goblin; Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), a dense ex-con whose molecules can shift and solidify like grains of sand; and Venom (embodied by Maguire and Topher Grace), an alien symbiote that bonds to an organic host and amplifies its strengths and weaknesses. A decade ago, the Batman series ran aground while trying to stuff too many bad guys into too little plot, but Spider-Man 3 works the villains into its story well, giving each at least one boffo fight scene before bringing everyone together for a final battle royale.
There's a point to the expanded rogue's gallery too. Just as Spider-Man 2 contemplated the perpetual tug between duty and desire, part three ponders what it means to be a hero. As the movie opens, Spider-Man is wildly popular, and Maguire is happily contemplating getting engaged to his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who's about to make her Broadway debut. Then the troubles start, each tied to—or reflective of—problems Maguire and Dunst have been ignoring. In various ways, they're confronted with fractured relationships, pressing family obligations, and a crippling addiction to danger. Characters that are just like them, only a degree or two different, force them to confront whether they can be the kind of people who deserve to be cheered.
So Spider-Man 3's action is superb and its theme fairly weighty. Then why does it feel a letdown from its predecessor? Nearly all the blame rests with director Sam Raimi, who's taken the success of some light slapstick moments in Spider-Man 2 as a cue to get even sillier. The result is a handful of sequences—most notably a "Dark Tobey" routine—that send the movie into a tailspin right in the middle. Even worse are any scenes in which Maguire's friends and relations try to have An Important Conversation, and immediately stop the movie cold. Throughout this whole series, Raimi has never handled quiet human moments as well as comic book punch-ups, and in Spider-Man 3—where the subtle distinctions between characters are the whole point of the movie—Raimi can't deliver. On the ground, Spider-Man 3 is dreary. But in the air, it swings.