'Spider-Man 3'

Discovering your superhero powers is a lot easier than maintaining the public's interest in them, across the life of a franchise. Peter Parker, the self-described "nerdy kid from Queens," knows this by now, as do producer Laura Ziskin and director Sam Raimi, keepers of the $1.6 billion "Spider-Man" series.

So, three films in, how is New York's premier webmaster holding up? Not badly; not spectacularly. Compared with the streamlined narrative, memorably tentacled villain and plentiful satisfactions of "Spider-Man 2," this one's more conventional -- a notch below the first "Spider-Man," even, though Raimi's enough of a scamp to ensure that the franchise machinery doesn't entirely flatten the latest installment.

From the first voice-over narration, in which Tobey Maguire refers to himself as "your friendly neighborhood … you know," screenwriters Alvin Sargent and Sam and Ivan Raimi acknowledge the global audience's familiarity with this iconic crimefighter. At one point Spidey even says, "I guess I've become something of an icon."

Like last summer's "Superman Returns," "Spider-Man 3" is dominated by its tri-cornered love story. By now even Maguire's and Kirsten Dunst's parents probably have had enough of the romantic entanglements involving Peter/Spidey, aspiring actress and singer Mary Jane, and trust-fund dreamboat Harry (James Franco), son of the Green Goblin and now a part-time Goblin himself, out for Peter's blood owing to the mysterious death of Goblin the First.

The new entry in the series doubles up on the villains. Spidey's chief adversary is "Sandman," a shape-shifting victim of particle physics gone wrong, resembling the offspring of the Hulk and the sandstorm from one of the recent "Mummy" pictures. He's played, with a wee bit of help from the computer-generated effects folks, by an earnest and effective Thomas Haden Church. The auxiliary nemesis is Parker's rival tabloid photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who transforms into the snakelike "Venom" when he runs afoul of the black spidery gunk left behind by a meteor. The same slime afflicts Peter/Spidey, causing a fearsome personality change. Once he turns to the dark side, our hero starts thugging around in a Hitler haircut and generally acting like a punk on a rageaholic bender. It's the same personality split Superman went through in "Superman III."

Raimi has never been one to strike a consistent tone with any project; his heart and talent lie in extreme pulp contrasts. There are times when "Spider-Man 3" is a really exciting comic book movie. An early aerial battle between Spider-Man (Maguire, he of the arachnidian gaze and sleepy comic timing) and his "frenemy" Harry moves like lightning, and while a scene involving an errant construction crane and a Manhattan skyscraper feels a little off post-9/11 (what doesn't?), that, too, is a grabber.

Backed by a budget estimated by some at $300 million, the new picture doesn't really look like a huge special effects bash. This is a mixed blessing. You want big wows with this sort of entertainment, and the wows here are medium. While they've gotten the computer-generated web-zapping aerial business to look more supple than it did in the first two films, when "3" is over, just after its fourth protracted epilogue, you mainly recall Spider-Man getting flung against girders over and over, in progressively less inventive fight scenes .

Raimi and company like their comic-book brutalities fairly brutal, and always have. All the same, the bits that stick with you are the most overtly comic, namely the exquisite turns of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, newspaper editor who has no time for anything or anyone, and Bruce Campbell, longtime Raimi crony from the "Evil Dead" days, serving up unctuous shtick as a French headwaiter, or more accurately the punchline to a French waiter joke. If it were up to me "Spider-Man 4" would star Simmons and Campbell. The rest of the gang can do their thing in flashbacks.