Take a crawl on the dark side

Spider-Man's breezy charm has been replaced by standard superhero moping

<strong>Spider-Man 3 (12

Anyone still harbouring the illusion that the superhero lifestyle is a gas should check out Spider-Man 3. The Spider-Man series has got by so far without equalling the angst levels of Hulk, Batman Begins or Superman Returns, films that bring to the excitable blockbuster format the sobriety of an AA meeting. With this third instalment, however, the breeziness that was so refreshing in the other episodes has been largely replaced by the kind of misery and moping that we can get from any old superhero.

The nerdy photographer Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) may finally be dating Mary Jane Watson (played by Kirsten Dunst, whose recent confession to a fondness for marijuana has, rather wonderfully, turned her character's name into an in-joke). And his crime-fighting alter ego, Spider-Man, is worshipped throughout New York City. But the acclaim has turned Peter into a conceited bore and an intergalactic parasite has latched on to him, feeding off his negativity and persuading him to do terrible things such as applying eyeliner and wearing his fringe down. On the plus side, it also turns his superhero costume a stylish shade of silvery black, so at least he looks good while he's being bad.

Meanwhile, Peter's former best friend Harry (James Franco) - son of the psychotic Green Goblin, but otherwise a splendid chap - has sworn to avenge the murder of his father by Spider-Man. Harry knows Spider-Man's real identity, and has taken to bombarding Peter with what appear to be Christmas-tree baubles. Those things really hurt, as you'll know if you've ever trodden on one.

What's more, Spider-Man is being harassed by Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), who was just your average escaped convict until he strayed into a particle physics test facility during a demolecularisation experiment, which is, like, a really bad idea. Now he can shape-shift into a colossal sand monster whenever the mood takes him. Life's a beach, basically. The police open fire, not realising that what they need to defeat Sandman is the world's biggest dustpan and brush.

I have to say, there's something inherently unsatisfying about a villain made of sand. He's more irritating than terrifying - he could get in the creases of your skin and give you a nasty chafing, and he'd be impossible to vacuum out of the shag pile. The film acknowledges as much in the sweet shot of Spider-Man removing his boots to shake out a little pile of sand. Much scarier is Venom (Topher Grace), though I had to scan the end credits to find out that he was actually called Venom, because everyone he meets takes one look at his snarling mouth full of razor-sharp incisors and runs off without bothering with the introductions. At one point, Venom imprisons Mary Jane in a taxi cab suspended 80 storeys above the city, and leaves the meter running. Talk about evil.

The director Sam Raimi, who also masterminded the sick slapstick of the Evil Dead trilogy, is incapable of making a film devoid of fun. And you can see that he and his adorably bug-eyed leading man are having a ball in the scenes where Peter sashays through Manhattan, coming on strong to passing women as though possessed by the spirit of Barry White. But while Peter's goofy energy gave the earlier outings some bounce, the new film comes over all down in the dumps. The decision to explore his dark side seems misguided; even when he's parading his new squeeze in front of Mary Jane, or taunting Harry about his dead father, he seems surly rather than dark, like a teenager who's had his Xbox confiscated.

On the rare occasions that I could make out what was going on through the breakneck editing, the action sequences looked up to par, but personally, I found Peter's dance routine at a jazz club to be shot with more aplomb and ingenuity than any of the countless airborne fight scenes. And it remains disappointing that, with all the advances in special-effects technology, the film-makers couldn't come up with much for Mary Jane to do other than scream a lot. How about she gets her shot at web-slinging in Spider-Man 4?

Pick of the week

Mutual Appreciation (15)
dir: Andrew Bujalski
Another sparkling comedy from US cinema's brightest young director.
McCabe and Mrs Miller (15)
dir: Robert Altman
This melancholic 1971 western is my all-time favourite film.
Fast Food Nation (15)
dir: Richard Linklater
Brave stab at turning Eric Schlosser's influential exposé into an ensemble drama.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning