MOVIE REVIEW- Webbage a trois: Spider-Man 3 reverts to type

The first three Star Wars movies set a precedent for trilogies to peak in the middle. That changed with The Lord of the Rings and the second Star Wars trilogy, both of which saved the best for last.

In keeping with its retro-rific style, the Spider-Man series reverts to the "second best" formula (although don't bet on Sony stopping with a trilogy when the grosses are in). Spider-Man 3 is a lot of things, disappointing not among them, but it's not as great as Spider-Man 2.

It has enough plot and effects sequences for two movies, but it seems to be trying a little too hard in all departments to top its predecessors. There are a few too many "money shots" and a few too many emotional hooks. It's not Grindhouse excessive, but it's pretty relentless.

Tobey Maguire, who's owned the role from the beginning, is back and as good as ever as Peter Parker and his crimefighting alter ego, Spider-Man. Peter's on the verge of popping the question to longtime love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, refuting recent evidence that she's overrated), who's just made her Broadway debut. He has crime under control and everything is good, but Peter ignores the advice of his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris): "A man has to be understanding and put his wife before himself." Sure, but can he put her before a whole city that's depending on him?

Harry Osborn (James Franco) is still crushing on M.J. and still hating Spidey/Peter for killing his father, the Green Goblin. Harry is a potential villain– a scene in which he attacks Spider-Man is so out of left field (but necessary after a couple of slow scenes) it seems like a dream sequence until we see the repercussions– but he's not the only one.

Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who killed Peter's Uncle Ben, has escaped from prison and is still trying to raise money to cure his sick daughter. "I'm not a bad person," he insists. "I've just had bad luck." He has more bad luck when a police chase lands him in the middle of a particle physics test that leaves him "demolecularized." But surprise! He remolecularizes as the Sandman, a fearsome Hulk/Thing type who terrorizes the city in the course of robbing a few banks and armored cars.

Then there's Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who vies with Peter for a job as staff photographer on the Daily Bugle. Editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) says the gig will go to whoever catches Spider-Man "with his hand in the cookie jar." Things go from ugly to uglier when Eddie becomes Venom, thanks to some goop– think "The Blob" with legs- that comes out of a meteorite.

That stuff attaches to Peter first, making him his own worst enemy (and a chick magnet). To match his dark side, he gets a black Spider-Man suit (I hope there are no racial implications here), kicks ass with a heretofore unseen viciousness, and comes up with a sexy new hairstyle. He gets so denerdifed you expect a Bee Gees song to play when he struts down the street.

Instead, there's a surprise revival of a pre-disco dance craze in a scene between M.J. and Harry. In a perfect world, the triangular love story would have ended in a ménage-a-trois, but that would have called for an R rating, so things have been resolved less satisfyingly. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Gwen Stacy, who briefly becomes a fourth point on that triangle.

Eventually there's a showdown, with M.J.'s life literally hanging in the balance, Spider-Man facing Eddie's sharp teeth and Flint's sandy claws, and some suspense about which side Harry will come down on, once he puts on the Gobling.

Will M.J. end up washing Spidey-didies, or will we have to wait at least until Spider-Man 4 to see that?

Director and co-writer Sam Raimi gives us the old razzle-dazzle. If there are a few dull moments, there are more than enough lively ones to make up for them. He also works in cameos for Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell, which cause a stir among the cognoscenti in the crowd. (If you don't know them, just murmur along when it starts and you'll look hip.)

There's nothing majorly wrong with Spider-Man 3, and there's enough right to get the "summer" blockbuster season off to a flying start and set the bar impossibly high for the upcoming Fantastic Four sequel.