Third time is definitely the charm in the Spider-Man series, although charming certainly doesn't end up being the key word here. Just to throw fans off a bit, the film starts out with a rosy-outlook-on-life attitude. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is doing well in college; he's in love with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), as is she with him; she's ecstatic due to landing a part in a Broadway production; and a relaxed Peter, talking to himself, says, "The city is safe and sound -- guess I had something to do with that."
The reference is to his heroics as Spider-Man. But that's exactly what's about to get him in trouble and turn the film -- in the usual Marvel Comics way -- into a breeding ground for darkness.
Does one need to see the first two films before jumping into this one? Well, ummm, yeah, unless you want a mood of confusion to set in. But does this even need to be brought up? The first two films have taken in slightly over $1.5 billion. Do you know anyone who hasn't seen them?
So assuming everyone is caught up on the story, the first of the new film's dark sides is ushered in with the strong hint that Peter's very wealthy former best pal, Harry Osborn (James Franco, showing that he's got some acting chops to go along with his scowl), is still convinced that Peter/Spidey was responsible for the death of his father, the villainous Green Goblin -- so he's ready to bring about Spidey's demise.
But wait! While Peter and Mary Jane are hanging out in a hammock-like web one night, a meteorite falls, bringing to Earth, in Blob-like manner, a black, icky thing inside. Not enough? An escaped prisoner named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) is, as Harry's father was, in the completely wrong place at the absolutely worst time. There's no mistaking that you don't want to be anywhere near a sign that reads "Danger: Particle Physics Facility," especially when lights start to glow and machines start to whirl. More? You want more? Peter's job as a freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle is threatened by the appearance of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace in a terrifically balanced presentation of a very confused man), a jerk of a braggart of a loser with a camera who, late in the film, becomes yet another victim of being somewhere when a certain bad something happens.
None of the above signals any good for Peter or his superhero alter ego, nor does it for Mary Jane. And soon there are villains galore running and flying and swooshing around New York while Peter simply tries to remain his geeky, ever-so-positive self.
And though that kind of behavior is what initially drew Mary Jane to him, the black goo -- one of the very few things that doesn't get enough explanation in the film -- is about to wreak some havoc upon everyone.
Director Sam Raimi, who also made the first two installments, has set a high bar for himself by juggling so much storytelling among so many main characters. The reason it all works is that the action (web-swinging above the streets to a gaggle of brutal battles) and the visual effects (the startling, eye-popping variety) are relentless. The film may calm down for a few moments of advice from the angelic Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) or for an emotion-drubbing pile of angst for almost every person -- hero and villain alike. But then the film's velocity picks up again, hardly missing a beat, seemingly veering out of control, breaking every window in sight.
Within all of this, Raimi and his co-writers have infused healthy doses of horror and humor. The horror comes mostly in the visual appearances of a couple of monstrous villains: Sandman is huge and powerful; Venom has a set of teeth that will set yours rattling. The funny stuff is mostly confined to the editorial offices of the Bugle, where editor in chief J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and his goofy idea man Hoffman (Ted Raimi) have at each other.
Serious fans of the series will have no trouble picking out the standard cameos. For others: Spider-Man creator Stan Lee can be seen telling Peter, "I guess one person can make a difference." And longtime Raimi actor Bruce Campbell plays a snippy and very funny French maitre d' with a bad accent.
Plaudits go to Maguire for pulling off the difficult job of convincingly jumping back and forth between two personas. Blame the black ick for that -- but make it easier on yourself by noting that when Peter's hair is combed back, he's nice, and when he's got bangs, watch out for some John Travolta-style swagger.