Global warming continues. The magnolias are blooming obscenely early. The sky is an unseasonable blue. The burning sunshine seeds tiny flowers of skin cancer on our puckered flesh. And the long, hot summer of pointless film sequels is underway. In the coming months, it seems as if every film will have a digit after the title - a worryingly high digit, mostly, like the first half of a catastrophic scoreline in which the second half should read: Entertainment Factor Nil.

Tobey Maguire is back for the third and probably not last time in the role that he almost deserted mid-series over money wrangles - an act that might have snapped the delicate webbing connecting him to an A-list career. Like Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings films, Maguire has grown older in the series that made his name, and now, at 31, is pretty long in the arachnid fang to be living in a single bedsit, doing an undergraduate degree and popping round to his Aunt May for some home-cooking before climbing into the old Spidey suit for the evening. As he gets older, in fact, his obvious eligibility for a villain role becomes more obvious. The weird, sleepy-lidded gaze and unnerving grin is on show as Peter Parker saunters around the Manhattan streets, beaming at the world. This odd look does not get any more reassuring as Maguire gets older.

All superheroes have to be "dark" now of course, to demonstrate their seriousness and non-geekiness, and Spider-Man is no exception. This, evidently, is the film in which he goes over to the dark side, with a new dark cozzy, kept in a separate trunk under the bed and worn - sans mask - under his shirt, when he wants to feel super-bad.

SM3 has its moments, but it's over-long and messy with a number of disjointed storylines. There's no clear villain to boo and, by the end, no clear hero to cheer. Instead of one obvious, compelling enemy, there are two. Or three if you count another who pops up right at the end.

Spidey's new chief opponent is the Sandman, a handle with unfortunate associations with getting small kids off to sleep. He is played by square-jawed Thomas Haden Church (known from Alexander Payne's bittersweet male-menopause comedy, Sideways). As escaped convict Flint Marko, he blunders into a nuclear particle test facility with a perimeter fence about as secure as the Blue Peter garden. There, in time-honoured fashion, he finds himself zapped with nuclear rays while trapped in a kind of sandy-bottomed crucible, and his body's molecules absorb sand, which makes his limbs all crumbly and sandy, but gives him the power to reform as a huge, sandy giant.

Meanwhile, Peter Parker gets bitten by a sort of sticky, spider-webby stuff that has peeled off a meteor recently crash-landed in Central Park - and, er, that's it. A meteor. That's the only explanation. A plot development that must have caused writer-director Sam Raimi a good 20 seconds of Biro-chewing.

So Spidey becomes all lean'n'mean'n' horrible. In his civvies, Peter Parker starts wearing his hair in a kind of floppy fringe and he appears also to be sporting eyeliner, as if he has been bitten by a radioactive Simon le Bon. When it comes to fighting the Sandman, dark-clad Spider-Man realises that, like the Wicked Witch in Oz, his opponent is fatally susceptible to water. He sprays him with acrid liquid and instantly the Sandman is turned into the equivalent of a sludgy skipful of builder's rendering. But, for some reason, Spider-Man forgets about this childishly simple "liquid" method for fighting Sandman during their final confrontation; there's lots of pointless squad-car throwing and roaring, when all he needed to do was chuck a large bucket of water.

And then there's Goblin Jr, played by James Franco, the son of Willem Dafoe's sinister Goblin - and Goblin Jr is, as always, fantastically dull, both as a villain and, in his alter-ego mode, as Parker's tense rival for the affections of Mary-Jane Parker, played by Kirsten Dunst. Oh, and there's another villain who shows up late in the day. And with a film this long (two hours and 20 minutes), that's very late.

Despite its attempts to be dark, SM3 pretty well abandons the complexity and real-world pain that made the first two movies interesting. And Peter Parker's journey into psychological cruelty is more camp than anything else - which Raimi appears to concede by sending the whole thing up, and turning Parker into a black-clad finger-snapping hipster, a one-man rat-pack of spite. The series is now beginning to resemble the Christopher Reeve Superman movies at their later sequel stage: a fair bit of zip, and some terrific-looking Manhattan streetscape battle scenes, but no satisfyingly unified story, and muddied by the fact that the love interest now knows the hero's secret identity.

Worst of all, it's crippled by an inflation of villain-value. Where once a single baddie would do, now you need two or three. As he scampers around the bathtub of popular culture, Spidey is beginning to exhaust everyone's patience. The time has come for someone to produce a rolled-up newspaper the size of a subway train and bring it down with an almighty crash.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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