Dir: Sam Raimi. 2007.US. 140mins.
The financial reasons for making Spider-Man 3 require no explanation; the artistic reasons are a little harder to discern. Taking some inspiration from Superman 3, director Sam Raimi has chosen to explore the dark side of his superhero. Burdening Peter Parker/Spider-Man with endless personal issues and adding two new villains to the mix fatally over-eggs the pudding. The cluttered narrative is obliged to rush from climax to climax as it tries to resolve countless loose ends and repair various fractured relationships.

The result is a hectic, vaguely underwhelming conclusion to the trilogy which is released worldwide next week (including France, Germany and Japan on May 1; Argentina, Australia and Russia on May 3; and UK, US and Spain on May 4) as the first salvo in this summer's blockbuster season.

Critical reservations will do little to dent the commercial appeal of a surefire franchise hit that should deliver figures close to the theatrical grosses recorded by the previous two Spidey adventures, the first of which opened in the same May week in 2002 and went on to take $821m worldwide (51% of which was from overseas); the second of which was released in late June in 2004 and grossed $783.8m worldwide (52% of which was from international).

While the combination of blockbuster spectacle, vicious villains and very human emotions still makes Spider-Man 3 a superior comic-book adaptation, it disappoints by its own high standards and leaves little immediate appetite or necessity for a Spider-Man 4.

Spider-Man 3 has been conceived as a journey from vengeance to forgiveness. The tale begins with Peter Parker (Maguire) relishing his alter ego's celebrity status as New York's saviour and about to propose marriage to his beloved Mary Jane (Dunst).

Even Harry Osborn (Franco) is his old pal again after a vicious skirmish leaves him with a convenient bout of short term memory loss and no idea that Parker may have been responsible for his father's death.

Just when everything seems perfect, Parker/Spider-Man suffers a fall from grace. Unscrupulous photographer Eddie Brock (Grace) becomes his professional rival. Mary Jane's Broadway appearance is a humiliating flop and she struggles to accept that there is only room for one star in their relationship. Her jealousy is fuelled by Peter's attractive lab partner Gwen (Dallas Howard).

Meanwhile, Flint Marko (Haden Church) escapes from prison and is transformed into human sandstorm Sandman.

As if that weren't enough, Parker is also attacked by an extra-terrestrial parasite that turns his Spidey costume black and starts to warp his personality, replacing heartfelt compassion with a vengeful callousness that is further exacerbated by the discovery of Marko's part in the murder of his uncle Ben (Robertson).

The abundance of plot and sub-plot in Spider-Man 3 tends to distract from the central triangle of Parker, Mary Jane and Harry and diminish what should be the emotional core of the film. Misunderstood miscreant Flint Marko plays a key figure in the bigger picture but the Sandman is a less twisted, less menacing villain than the Green Goblin or Doc Ock while Eddie Brock's transformation into Venom is really a villain too far.

The film's special-effects are rarely less than astonishing as Spider-Man swings through Manhattan, the Sandman crumbles to dust or Parker and Mary Jane admire the stars from their lofty perch in a giant web.

Maybe familiarity has bred a certain amount of indifference but for all the seamlessly artistry involved in the high-speed chases and brutal battles that pulverise buildings, the technical perfection is not matched with emotional resonance.

The range and skill of actor Tobey Maguire has always lent an extra edge to the Spider-Man franchise and here he is allowed to have some fun with his characters. Parker doesn't exactly embrace the dark side but he does enjoy a mild flirtation with bad boy behaviour that briefly manifests itself in tousled hair, a newfound callousness and a predatory sexual aggressiveness that finds him strutting the streets of New York in homage to Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero.

The film also brings out the best in James Franco, allowing him a character arc that displays his ability to play across the spectrum from thwarted villain to heroic good guy. Kirsten Dunst' s Mary Jane is constricted by the conventions of a plot that obliges her to suffer on the sidelines or play the screaming damsel in distress.

Thomas Haden Church secures a modicum of sympathy for Sandman but Topher Grace simply doesn't have the screen time to make Venom a more memorable creation. Raimi's old buddy Bruce Campbell contributes an entertaining cameo as a French head waiter and series regulars like Rosemary Harris and JK Simmons provide solid support.

Production companies/backers
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Marvel Studios

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International distribution
Sony Pictures Releasing International

Laura Ziskin
Avi Arad
Grant Curtis

Executive producers
Stan Lee
Kevin Feige
Joseph M Caracciolo

Alvin Sargent

Screen story
Sam Raimi
Ivan Raimi
based on the Marvel Comic Book By
Stan Lee
Steve Ditko

Bill Pope

Bob Murawski

Production design
J Michael Riva
Neil Spisak

Christopher Young

Main cast
Tobey Maguire
Kirsten Dunst
James Franco
Thomas Haden Church
Topher Grace
Rosemary Harris
Bryce Dallas Howard
James Cromwell
Theresa Russell
Dylan Baker
Bill Nunn
Bruce Campbell
Elizabeth Banks
Ted Raimi
Perla Haney-Jardine
Willem Dafoe
Cliff Robertson