In his return to the role of Peter Parker, Tobey Maguire spends much of "Spider-Man 3" paying for mistakes whose consequences go way beyond what his transgressions deserve. Members of the audience will be able to relate. All they did was buy a ticket, but sitting through the ill-starred third installment of writer-director Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" franchise is a punishing, almost purgatorial experience. It's like what many soldiers have reported war to be: long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of meaningless chaos.
All begins innocently enough. Both New York and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) are in love with a rather complacent Spidey. Even the grudge nurtured by hunky Green Goblin spawn Harry Osborn (James Franco) seems to abate. But in short order, a meteorite bearing parasitic sludge falls from the heavens, an escaped convict (Thomas Haden Church) gets accidentally "demolecularized" and turns into a villain made of sand, and Goblinesque rages stir. And Mary Jane gets axed from her Broadway show. And Peter crosses swords with an unscrupulous photographer (Topher Grace) who wants his job.
That's a lot of balls to keep in the air, but Raimi is content to deal with them one by one, discarding and returning to them like a distracted youth at his homework. You've almost forgotten about the extraterrestrial goop when it attaches itself to Peter and transforms him into the Black Spidey featured in the movie's ad campaign. Those expecting a thorough plumbing of Peter Parker's dark side are in for a disappointment. In sinister mode, he's barely capable of more than sporting the long bangs favored by mopey teens and barking at the landlord.
Although no end of trouble has been taken with the frenetic action sequences, the best special effect is a crane gone out of control, swinging a humble girder about and wreaking havoc upon a skyscraper. But as the Goblin and Sandman and whatnot multiply and start whizzing about, the proceedings in this grand hodgepodge are so disordered that it would be no surprise were a Nazgûl to wing into the scene, perhaps ridden by Dr. Zaius. (PG-13) 140 min. * S